By Justin Boron
Hurricane Katrina evacuees continued to seek refuge in the area on Tuesday as the state tried to coordinate better the relief efforts between human service agencies and local churches. Meanwhile, state legislators, who arrived in Atlanta for a special session to suspend the state gas tax, were also being urged to contribute to the relief effort during their stay.
The extensive task of providing food, shelter, education, and medical supplies to thousands of Katrina victims appeared to be hitting some snags, with clergy in the area criticizing the Red Cross for being unresponsive.
Flanked by a large group of supporters at press conference, Dallas C. Wilson, pastor of Center of Hope Ministries in Riverdale, said the Red Cross was remiss in not setting up shelters in Clayton County.
But he said while the support would help, he and his coalition were not going to wait on a government agency
"What the Red Cross isn't here to do now, the old rugged cross will accomplish," he said.
Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam D-Riverdale, also speaking at the press conference, said it is unfortunate that Clayton County's need has gone unnoticed.
"It's not to bash them," she said. "It is to recognize that there is a need."
County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said he has learned of an intention to set up a shelter in Clayton County that involved the Red Cross.
Responding to other pastors on Monday, metro Atlanta Red Cross representative Stephanie Wright defended her agency's efforts, but admitted it simply did not have the grassroots contacts established with many faith-based organizations.
"We've never come together, for whatever reason," Wright said. "We're not perfect, but we're doing the best we can with what we have."
To help mend the rift, Gov. Sonny Perdue asked faith-based organizations to assign a point-of-contact to organize resources with relief agencies.
"Faith-based partners will help us channel goodwill to where it can benefit the most. I encourage every local congregation to designate your point-of-contact and join this effort," Perdue said.
Legislature ratifying gas price relief
As churches and relief agencies try to assist evacuees coming into the area, the Legislature will be ratifying a move to alleviate drivers' struggle to afford high prices at the pump.
The main bill ratifies Perdue's executive order Friday suspending gas tax collections until the end of September.
The other bill increases the reimbursement rate for state employees who use their own cars for government business from the present 28.5 cents per mile to 40.5 cents, same as the federal rate.
Since the bills are expected to pass without much debate, most legislators will likely have a lot of free time before the session ends on Saturday.
Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, leader of the Republican majority in the Senate, said, "We're just encouraging our members, while they have a couple of days that are not really busy, to take that downtime and spend volunteering at one of these centers," he said in a briefing Tuesday morning.
Even with expectation of smooth session, some partisan wrangling broke out in the House as lawmakers were gaveled to order. Rep. DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, the Democratic leader, argued that Perdue could have waited until lawmakers met again as scheduled in January rather than spending an estimated $33,000 a day for the special meeting.
"This is one of the largest taxpayer-funded publicity stunts in history," he declared.
House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, ordered Porter's microphone turned off, and other Republicans argued the special session was necessary to assure retailers the state's political leadership was in accord on waiving the taxes.
Clayton County relief efforts continue
The Red Cross held a blood drive at Allan Vigil Ford in Morrow Tuesday, garnering more offers for donations than it could handle. Only one hour into the drive, Dawn Vigil, who helped organize the event, said she was having to turn people away.
While waiting in line at the drive, John Mitchell of Hampton said he didn't do it often but felt compelled.
"There's going to be a real shortage in not only the southeast but the nation when all's said and done," he said. "I think we need to pitch in."
On behalf of Southern Regional Medica Center, the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce is soliciting help for Katrina victims as well, asking for shelter, food, transportation.
Tracye Bryant, a spokeswoman for Southern Regional, said it has seen 69 patients from the disaster area. The bulk of them, she said, were driven to the Riverdale hospital from Marietta after arriving on emergency flights at Dobbins Air Force Base.
Bryant said any evacuees needing medical assistance can show any type of documentation or some form of identification to be admitted at the hospital. If they came without insurance cards, any vital information like a Social Security number or date of birth will do.
"We can always put it into our system and it will verify whether they have insurance or not," Bryant said. "If we're unable to validate, we're not going to turn anybody away."
For prescriptions, the more information patients have the better. But she said the hospital will try to locate with as little as a name.
The Department of Family and Children Services is in need of ready-to-eat food, bottled water, new clothing including underwear and socks, and personal hygiene items.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.