Md., volunteers improvise evacuees' welcome at BWI

July 24, 2006|By CHRIS YAKAITIS | CHRIS YAKAITIS,SUN REPORTER

When she returned to the U.S. yesterday morning, Jessica Balkis had no money and no credit cards. Her two young children were tired, hungry and antsy. She had barely slept in four days.

Within an hour, Balkis, 25, had catered meals for her family, diapers for her 2-year-old son and airline tickets to her home in Albany, N.Y.

For the thousands of Americans making their way home from Lebanon, there have been individual challenges over the last five days. For the hundreds of state workers and volunteers greeting them at the airport, the greatest challenge came yesterday.

About 7 a.m., two flights of evacuees touched down on the tarmac at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport within a span of 20 minutes. But in just over an hour, all 406 of the new arrivals were put in touch with family members, given breakfast, and booked at local hotels or sent on the final leg of their journeys home.

"It's been going as smoothly as we, the state of Maryland, could have possibly hoped," said state Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe, who has boarded the incoming flights to welcome evacuees. "This is an example of government at its best, working across departments, federal, state and local governments, everybody collaborating because they recognize the need."

As of yesterday evening, eight flights carrying 1,712 evacuees had landed at BWI. More are expected to arrive throughout the week.

The federal government contacted Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last Monday night and asked if the state could assist in the mass evacuation of American citizens. By early Thursday morning, the William Donald Schaefer International Pier at BWI was converted into a makeshift repatriation village.

Since then, human resources personnel, National Guardsmen and dozens of volunteers from the American Red Cross and other nonprofit groups across the state have worked around the clock in 10- or 12-hour shifts to accommodate flights that could arrive at any moment.

"The efficiency has been pretty extraordinary," said Jim Hicks, an Ellicott City volunteer with the Central Maryland chapter of the Red Cross. "You come back after 45 minutes with a family, to look and see if there's anyone else you can help, and everybody's pretty well on their way."

While parents call relatives or book flights at more than a dozen computers set up in the arrival terminal, their children color in a temporary day care center or play Simon Says with uniformed soldiers.

"It feels great seeing them come off the plane," said Cliff Black, 25, a Maryland Air National Guardsman based at Martin State Airport in Middle River. "They're happy, they're exhausted, and you give them a hand and they say, `Thank you so much.' It's nice to see that they appreciate it."

The collaboration among airport staff, state workers and volunteers has led to improvisation, all dedicated to getting people home as quickly as possible.

Jonathan Dean, an airport spokesman, said one woman was traveling yesterday morning alone with infant twins. Her connecting airline required that one of her children ride in a car seat.

Dean said airport staff found one in the lost-and-found office. "We handed it over to the woman and said, `Have a nice flight,'" he said.

chris.yakaitis@baltsun.com

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