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Getting ready to help

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Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead and St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly announced details of how their cities will help with resettling evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. (MPR photo/Elizabeth Stawicki)
Minnesota's National Guard in Camp Ripley could be accepting Katrina disaster victims as early as this week. Over the weekend, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA asked the Guard to accept 3,000 to 5,000 survivors on an interim basis until the state can find them more permanent housing. The action, called "Operation Northern Comfort," is a statewide effort to help hurricane victims with food, shelter, and clothing.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Minnesota National Guard will help the relief effort on several fronts, even as it prepares to send 2,600 soldiers to Iraq this year and next.

Several C-130 airplanes are already hauling specialized equipment like generators and pumps. The Guard has sent various specialists to the disaster area, including chaplains and coordinators for the massive airlifts.

But its major job will be at Camp Ripley in Little Falls, serving as an initial intake center for the hurricane survivors. There, the Guard will house and feed at least 3,000 survivors for what could be a month.

Col. Denny Shields says details are still sketchy as to how many survivors will arrive, when, and in what medical condition. He says Camp Ripley is hoping for the best but planning for the worst.

"Although we're assuming they've gone through some kind of medical triage, we're planning -- along with the Minnesota Department of Health -- to plan for that just in case there is a problem," Shields says. "The Department of Human Services is making beds available in state hospitals just in case."

Shields say the Guard will host men, women, children and families in sparse barracks with single bunks and communal bathrooms. He says, however, the Guard's intent is to make the survivors as comfortable as possible for their interim stay at Camp Ripley.

"We're planning for room dividers for families, to try to give them some of their own space," Shields says. "We're trying to adjust our food menu to make it more Southern cuisine. We also have a lot of volunteer organizations to help us put together recreational opportunities for these people." The survivors' time at Camp Ripley is meant to be temporary. The state intends to move them as soon as possible to apartments and houses.

St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, along with other mayors from Bloomington and Sunfish Lake, issued a call to all Minnesota mayors to inventory available housing options in their areas.

"Options like open apartment buildings with vacancies, vacant hotel or motel rooms, or open shelters, turning to our faith community to find transitional housing options," says Kelly. "So what we're asking is that people step forward to help the families that are coming to Minnesota in this upcoming week."

The Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches is working with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and faith-based partners to address the need for resettling the victims in the long term. They say more information on those plans is forthcoming.

Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead says it's important for mayors around the state to remember that assisting survivors won't be short term.

"Many of the people coming to our community will probably resettle here, and we're all going to need to do that," Winstead says. "So that's going to be permanent housing, long-term decisions need to be made."

The lurking question is how will the state pay for all of the services the survivors will need. Mayor Kelly says funding will likely come from a variety of sources. He says when FEMA officials asked the governor Friday for Minnesota to take up to 5,000 people, federal officials were unclear how the effort will be funded.

"They said we will attempt to reimburse communities for these costs, but we're not giving any assurances," says Kelly.

Former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton established a new fund to assist the hundreds of thousands of people left homeless. Friday, the current President Bush signed a $10.5 billion disaster aid package passed by Congress.

Meanwhile, state officials are asking for donations of food and water; medical supplies; blankets and clothing, including fall and winter coats. The state fairgrounds in St. Paul will serve as a donation intake center.

In St. Paul, donations can be dropped off at any public library or recreation center. A team from the Department of Natural Resources will manage the donations at the fairgrounds, and coordinate transportation of those goods to Camp Ripley.