On August 29, Hurricane Katrina blew into two of the six New Orleans AIDS Task Force (NO/AIDS) offices. The city’s oldest AIDS service organization (ASO)—which supports 1,200 positive clients—was buried beneath two- to six-foot floodwaters.“I had no clue where my 64 staff members were for two weeks,” says executive director Noel Twilbeck. “We never counted on an entire area code being wiped out.”

Along with many of the 7,500 people with HIV in New Orleans, Twilbeck evacuated to Houston, where he stayed with relatives and called Houston ASOs to offer his services. Houston’s Montrose Clinic set Twilbeck up with a desk and computer, and he wasted no time connecting displaced HIVers with care. While New Orleans had been the 12th poorest city in the country, it boasted four treatment clinics and almost 20 ASOs. “Anyone who wanted services could get services,” Twilbeck says. But stranded in the Superdome or an alien city, positive evacuees’ attention turned from T cells to finding family and long-term shelter.

Thankfully, HIV docs, ASO leaders and AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) providers were thinking about treatment continuity. “One of few successes [in the government’s immediate response to Katrina] is the Ryan White ADAP system,” says Howard Grossman, MD, of the American Association of HIV Medicine, who posted an emergency-health-worker blog with HIV triage guidelines (upon which the National Institutes of Health soon expanded). With no reimbursement from the Health Resources and Service Administration, clinics from Baton Rouge to Atlanta sent outreach workers to shelters, searching for positive evacuees and leading them to treatment.

New Orleanian Michael Chase Creasy was one of the first to access HIV care at Montrose, which offered all Katrina survivors temporary services. A week after escaping the Big Easy, Creasy had a new doctor, updated blood work and a three-month med supply. “It’s quite an amazing story,” says Creasy. “What a strong reaction by a specific community to help others.” He’s considering relocating to Houston.

Still, weeks after the storm, clinics weren’t seeing the numbers they’d hoped for. For some, they feel, disclosure could still be an obstacle to accessing care. “They’re not going to speak up at a shelter and say, ‘Hey, I’m a person with HIV. I need access to medications,’” Twilbeck says.

Others might be holding out for their old doctors, thinking they’ll be able to go back home soon. “What concerns me is, one, they’re not taking their medications,” Twilbeck says. “Two, I’m not sure what services are going to be up and running for them to come back to.”

Goodwill Hunting
Resources for Katrina survivors and friends

Still stranded? Call the Federal Emergency Management Agency (800.621.FEMA) and explain that you have “special needs” due to HIV. You’ll be connected to a caseworker and medical facilities. www.fema.gov

MoveOn.org created the Hurricane Housing rooming clearinghouse for evacuees who had washed up on a cousin’s couch. If you have a spare room or still need a place to crash, drop by www.hurricanehousing.org.

The American Academy of HIV Medicine has posted a Katrina blog on its website for doctors, nurses and ASO workers looking to volunteer their medical and AIDS service expertise. www.aahivm.org

San Francisco’s quirky Under One Roof gift shop, whose proceeds have fueled AIDS relief for 15 years, has set up the Above and Beyond Fund to assist Louisiana and Mississippi ASOs. www.underoneroof.org