Evacuees from Lebanon greeted by helping hands

As BWI volunteers support travelers, Congress OKs aid bill

July 27, 2006|By CHRIS YAKAITIS | CHRIS YAKAITIS,SUN REPORTER

"Boogie," says Pat Ash, a Red Cross volunteer, as she points down the terminal for two new arrivals. "[To] the way other end of the airport."

Moments later, Hussein Taleb, 32, and his 70-year-old mother Nazmie Taleb, fresh from the Lebanon evacuation, hustled from the international arrival terminal at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to a hoped-for connecting flight.

Accompanied by an interpreter and another Red Cross volunteer, Sal Culotta, who pushed Nazmie Taleb in a wheelchair, they raced to the Southwest Airlines ticketing counter at the opposite end of the airport.

They were trying to make a 9:50 flight to Hartford, Conn., but the flight departed as they got to the counter.

"Well, we tried," Culotta of Catonsville said. "At least we can walk back."

It was one more example of the efforts of state officials and volunteers to get evacuees from Lebanon back to their homes as quickly as possible.

As the tide of evacuees from Lebanon continued arriving yesterday at airports in Baltimore and Philadelphia, Congress passed a bill ensuring funding for the huge repatriation effort. It raises the $1 million cap on federal repatriation program funding to $6 million for the current year.

"Congress has done its business," said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, yesterday evening. "We are very, very appreciative of the Congress taking up this issue."

The measure was introduced Monday by Rep. William M. Thomas, a California Republican, and by late yesterday afternoon had been approved on voice votes by the House and Senate and sent on to the White House.

Repatriation centers were set up last week at BWI and Philadelphia International Airport to ease the journey homeward for evacuated Americans.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. visited the repatriation center set up in the international terminal before last night's flight arrived, and praised the job being done by the state workers and volunteers. "It's the way the country's supposed to work ... it's seamless," he said.

Another 190 arrived at BWI at 8:45 last night - the Talebs among them - and were greeted by case workers, interpreters and volunteers from as far as Centerville, Va.

"Everyone's owning the process, the repatriation," said Michelle T. Stallings, director of the office of field resources for the Maryland Department of Human Resources. "It's been phenomenal."

Before that flight, about 3,750 people had returned through BWI and more than 4,000 others had landed in Philadelphia since last Thursday, with still more flights scheduled at both airports later this week.

Maryland state officials estimate the total cost of the repatriation process will be $600,000.

John Droneburg, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said the money will be reimbursed by the federal government.

"That's very modest for what you see here because most of it's volunteer," Droneburg said.

The state has reserved hotel rooms for incoming evacuees, provided emergency cash and staffed the international terminal since last Thursday.

In addition, the Central Maryland chapter of the American Red Cross has provided food for the arrivals, and care packages for children.

The biggest single group at BWI was 458 people who arrived aboard a Boeing 747 at 1:20 a.m. yesterday.

"The 747 surprised people, although we knew there was one out there," said Jeff Welsh, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, noting that most flights have had between 200 and 300 passengers.

"It's amazing there have been zero complaints that I've been aware of," Welsh said.

"And once we get it really nailed, they'll stop bringing people," he joked.

Horn said the cost of the evacuation to date cannot be determined, but estimated the eventual total will be "somewhere between three and four million dollars."

"It's a little unknowable at the moment from our standpoint, since most of the expenses that are being incurred are being incurred by the states, and, to some degree, the airports," he said.

"When they start to send us their bills," Horn said, the federal government will begin to assess costs.

By this morning, 16 flights were to have landed in Baltimore and 14 in Philadelphia. A few flights had also arrived at McGuire Air Force Base in Wrightstown, N.J., said Janelle Hironimus, a State Department spokeswoman.

Nine more planes are scheduled to land at BWI through Saturday, she said, with two others destined for Philadelphia. Additional flights could be headed to Atlanta, Hironimus said.

chris.yakaitis@baltsun.com

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