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Erin Neff

Vegas Opens Doors to Evacuees

6 September 2005

LAS VEGAS - Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas.

The city of second chances, sunny skies and low unemployment is bracing for Katrina's evacuees.

Local governments, businesses and agencies scrambled Friday to coordinate services for those fleeing the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast in search of shelter for the short term or the long haul.

"We're preparing for both, and we're asking the local companies to be willing to consider the evacuees for new employment," said Penney Towers, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross in Las Vegas. "The chapter's received request for assistance even today. We know the influx is happening already."

Privacy issues from the national agency prevented her from disclosing information about the evacuees.

Meanwhile, the National Conference of Mayors and the National Association of Counties have asked local governments to provide an inventory of available housing for the next six to 12 months.

"We know that just by the fact that we already get so many new residents every month, that we're going to get folks coming to Las Vegas looking to start again," said David Riggleman, a city of Las Vegas spokesman.

Clark County Manager Thom Reilly said county social and emergency services representatives have been meeting with the Red Cross and Salvation Army to plan.

"We've been asked to provide an inventory of what we can offer," he said.

Reilly said he expected Harrah's to begin relocating to Southern Nevada employees from the company's damaged or destroyed casinos in New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss.

"They're committed to their employees, but obviously they're going to have mental health needs and require services," he added.

A Harrah's spokesman said there were no immediate plans to bring displaced employees to Las Vegas.

Reilly said the region's shortage of affordable housing will be exacerbated in coming months with the expected closing of 14 mobile home parks.

"I'm not sure where we're going to put people," he said.

Yellow-Checker Star Transportation, the largest cab company in Las Vegas, is sending representatives to meet with evacuees staying at the Houston Astrodome. The company, in coordination with the local chapter of the Salvation Army, is offering to relocate people.

"There are a lot of cab drivers from New Orleans out of work," said Major William Raihl of the Salvation Army. "We're going to provide them places to stay, give them meals and transition them into housing."

Raihl said the applications will be accepted in Houston at a Holiday Inn near the Astrodome beginning Wednesday. Up to 20 drivers will be hired and moved here, the number Raihl said could be accommodated given the region's shortage of affordable housing.

"There's really nothing for them to go back to," Raihl said. "This is a real opportunity for them to get a fresh start."

Raihl said the local Salvation Army has received calls from Las Vegans who said they were willing to house families evacuated from the Gulf Coast.

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas has offered temporary placement to college students displaced from institutions in the devastated areas.

Raymond Alden, UNLV's executive vice president and provost, said it's the higher-education community's responsibility to help victims of the hurricane.

"When you have these kind of tragedies, you have to react as quickly as you can," Alden said. "We have to try and get them (students) into class as soon as possible so they don't lose a semester."

Officials from the University of New Orleans and Tulane University have contacted UNLV officials in hopes their students could temporarily receive an education here.

Alden said that Tulane's law program is very similar to that of UNLV's Boyd School of Law, and that the University of New Orleans has a program like that of UNLV's Harrah College of Hotel Administration.

Jaime Lea, a spokeswoman for the Clark County School district, said top administrators will meet next week to plan for displaced teachers and an expected influx of students.

The district is filling 287 teaching vacancies with substitutes and might be able to hire teachers from the hurricane region.

"We'll do everything that we can to accommodate these students and their families and aid them in their transition," Lea said.

Several local political leaders are organizing a meeting, perhaps for early next week, so local residents can reach out to loved ones who have lost jobs, homes or even family members.

"I would not be surprised to see increasing numbers of people coming here to resettle," Clark County Commissioner Lynette Boggs McDonald said.

Boggs McDonald, Las Vegas City Councilman Lawrence Weekly and state Sen. Steven Horsford are working to establish some type of program for local residents trying to help evacuees.

"Most black people in America have ties to the Southern region and many of our African-American residents have one degree of separation to Louisiana and Mississippi," Boggs McDonald said. "As African-American officials, we need to get support mobilized."

Boggs McDonald, Weekly and Horsford all are black.

Boggs McDonald said she expected Las Vegas will have to be ready immediately.

"The evacuees are already in San Antonio. Before long you're in El Paso and then Phoenix, and all of sudden it's Las Vegas," she said. "I would not be surprised if some people make it as far as Texas and rooms are all booked and they keep coming here."

Gov. Kenny Guinn's spokesman Greg Bortolin said the state stands ready to help:

"I'm sure if we're approached with any of that, the governor will move to accommodate it."

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