PenMar board to ponder opening former fort to evacuees

September 08, 2005|by TARA REILLY


The largely vacant former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base could become home to Gulf Coast residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina, pending a review of what's available and how much it would cost to make the buildings livable.

Rich Rook, executive director of PenMar Development Corp., which leases the base from the Army, said by phone Wednesday that the PenMar board planned to discuss the review Monday and decide whether to make parts of the base available to evacuees.

"Certainly, we'd like to do something," Rook said.

Rook said he hasn't received any phone calls from Gulf Coast authorities about making space available, but local churches, veterans and other groups have asked whether the base could be used for evacuees.


PenMar board Chairman George G. B. Griffin said such a task would take a lot of planning.

Griffin estimated that there were "very few" buildings at the approximately 630-acre base that are suitable to live in. Parts of the base are run down, he said.

"There's bugs. There's dirt. It's kind of a mess," Griffin said.

He said he still hopes PenMar can offer some assistance to evacuees.

"I thought that it's something we ought to do," he said. "We ought to, at least, think about it."

Rook said many of the buildings at the base have been vacant since the Army shut it down in 1998, and some aren't connected to water and sewer.

Griffin said the former barracks built during World War II are in too poor of a condition to be used as housing.

"I'm not even thinking about those," he said. "They're full of asbestos, full of mold ... they have to be torn down."

He said it wouldn't make sense to put evacuees in the gym or former private exchange, nor should PenMar rush into a decision.

He doesn't want evacuees to face the foul conditions that occurred at the Superdome in New Orleans, where they went without basic necessities, such as food and working toilets, he said.

While there are 120 vacant apartments in one section of the base, they need to be cleaned for unexploded ordnance. Those apartments probably wouldn't be available until the beginning of next year, Rook said.

There are just nine, two-bedroom apartments ready to be lived in, Rook said.

A guest house sits on the property, but that will require about $40,000 to make it habitable, he said.

Griffin said PenMar also would have to discuss other issues, such as how the evacuees would get to Fort Ritchie from the Gulf Coast, how they would travel to and from the base once they arrived and how long they'd stay.

PenMar would need help from the community should any evacuees be brought to the base, he said.

"We don't have any food. We don't have any clothing," Griffin said. "We don't have any medicine."

Washington County Commissioner Doris J. Nipps said the federal government first must decide whether the base could be used as a home for evacuees. If so, then the County Commissioners can discuss what type of help the county can offer and if that support would be backed by the community.

"We certainly hope that we can help in any way," Nipps said.

But if the federal government won't allow the evacuees, "it's kind of a dead issue," she said.

Griffin said he didn't think PenMar would need permission from the federal government to open the base to displaced Gulf Coast residents, since it holds a master lease on the property with the Army. PenMar's lawyers would look into the matter, he said.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said Cascade Elementary School is one of the few public schools in the county that has the space to handle an enrollment increase, should evacuees head to the base.

He said he thought financial help might be available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, should PenMar open the base.

Kercheval said he's willing to assist possible PenMar efforts and that the county would probably provide whatever services it could.

"I certainly wouldn't turn my back to a lot of people in need like that," Kercheval said.

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