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Local shelters still open for time being

As two-year college Chancellor Bradley Byrne closes shelters around Alabama, schools in the Black Belt won’t be among those shutting their doors.

As of Thursday afternoon, Wallace Community College Selma and Marion Military Institute remained open, housing hundreds of evacuees from coastal Louisiana.

Col. Jim Benson, president of MMI, said the greatest amount of concerned questions he received came from people displaced from regions other than New Orleans.

“I had my staff scour the Internet and get all the information available on every town and parish in Louisiana and post it on the wall,” Benson said. “I had a conference call at about 3 today, and I tell them everything I know. I’m very candid with them, and they’re appreciative. I think everything’s going smooth right now, but they’re antsy, and it could go south in a heartbeat if somebody says the wrong thing.”

By order of Gov. Bob Riley, seven community colleges from as far south as Bay Minette and as far north as Athens closed their shelters and began transporting people back home. That reduced the estimated 6,500 evacuees in community colleges around the state to about 5,600. Twenty community colleges still provided shelter to people seeking refuge from Hurricane Gustav as of Thursday afternoon.

On Wednesday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced the opening of the city for individuals living in the metropolitan area and a number of parishes around the State of Louisiana.

“Individuals housed in our shelters are ready to go home, and we want them to get back to their homes in order to resume their normal routines and functions,” stated Byrne.

The Ireland Center of MMI continues to house 223 people, and the WCCS gym holds 90.

Wallace State Community College Hanceville, less than an hour north of Birmingham, holds the largest amount of evacuees among two-year colleges in the state with 1,171.

“Volunteers from the local community have been coming in to entertain the children with books and games. Nothing has been damaged to our knowledge,” said MMI public information coordinator Marietta Holmes. “There was an incident in one of the ladies’ restrooms where the door jammed, trapping several women inside. Our staff could not get the restroom door open, and so our own security guard kicked in the door to allow the women to get out.”

Benson also said some petty theft occurred, but nothing more than they would “experience from a visiting team using the locker room.”

Benson, a 26-year Marine Corps veteran, dealt with disaster relief while an active serviceman. Several members of his staff also have similar experience.

“We’ve tried to treat them with dignity and respect, and so far they’ve returned it,” Benson said. “I’ve never run a shelter before, but disaster relief is disaster relief.”