Need is vast, but so is outpouring

Private donations for hurricane victims may reach a billion dollars.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Chatmans popped the trunk on their aging Oldsmobile and pulled out garbage bags bursting with baby formula, clothes, shoes, sheets, and food.

The Baton Rouge family didn't know anyone affected by hurricane Katrina. But when they heard a local television station was a designated donation drop-off location, they gathered up all they could and headed into town.

"We have very little, but they have nothing," says Dre Chatman, unloading another bag. "It's people helping people."

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The historic storm has left tens of thousands of people in Louisiana and Mississippi without possessions or a place to live.

The entire region - indeed, the nation - has responded in a huge outpouring of support for those affected by Katrina.

The American Red Cross, at press time, has collected $21 million, with nearly $15 million coming from individual donations through its website. Corporate donors have contributed more than 1 million pounds of groceries through food banks. Other corporations are donating everything from trucks to phone cards to bottled water. The US Chamber of Commerce said initial corporate donations to the relief efforts could total more than $100 million. Giving USA in Glenview, Ill., said individual and corporate donations combined could reach $1 billion. Pop stars are already promising to participate in hurricane Katrina telethons.

And every day Americans are showing up at shelters to volunteer and offering their homes to total strangers through Internet postings.

"Everyone has been wanting to help," says Diana Gary, at WAFB Channel 9 in Baton Rouge, where hundreds of people were donating whatever they could spare. "This morning a homeless man brought over a $20 bill he had just been given."

Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana, has become the largest gathering place for hurricane evacuees in the region. Estimates are that the city will double in size before the worst is over. In one Red Cross shelter, the River Center, some 5,000 of the displaced pass the days wondering about their homes while making new friends.

"The people have been so nice," says Elaine Dominio, sitting on a blanket at the shelter. "They have given us everything we need: food, shelter, clothes."

Ms. Dominio only recently showed up at the River Center with her son after being evacuated from her rooftop in Chalmette, La. They made it through the hurricane and thought they were safe. "But then the water just came up," she says.

A "family locator" 1-800 number has been set up to facilitate reunions, says Melissa Wenzel, a Red Cross spokeswoman. "But the sheer number of people [wanting to use the service] is slowing that process considerably."

In fact, the volume of those in need are making everything from providing meals to showers a logistical nightmare. Here at the crowded River Center strained tensions have already lead to incidents of violence such as car jackings.

Many schools and churches that are serving as shelters will soon close so they can return to normal operations.

Beth Heinzen is a teacher at one of those schools. The 7th-grade English teacher says she will continue to come down to the River Center to volunteer each day until classes restart. "I have electricity, power, water. I figure if I am ready to go, I should be out helping," she says.

Her assigned task is to fold thousands of donated boys' pants and tops. All along the brick wall are signs that read "girls' underwear," "men's shirts," "shoes," and volunteers are doing their best to sort through the flood of clothing. A donated blue evening gown hangs, forgotten.

Racquel Guice is camped out in the middle of the convention-center floor, having been provided with bedding and a few clothes. She and her two boys just got here, having slept in their car for two nights.

"It's actually much better than I thought it would be, but I hope it's really not going to be a month like this," says the New Orleanian who already knows that her home is filled with three feet of water.

Several days after the hurricane, President Bush flew over the devastated areas and promised massive governmental support: 5.4 million ready-to-eat meals, 13.4 million liters of water, and 11,000 cots are among the many things on their way.

In addition, this week the Baton Rouge Area Foundation set up two funds to aid the evacuees: the Hurricane Katrina Displaced Residents Fund, which will benefit those who have been evacuated to the capital, and the Hurricane Katrina New Orleans Recovery Fund, which will focus on the rebuilding of infrastructure and providing basic services to residents once they are allowed in. The foundation expects that as many as 500,000 people may be required to remain in the Baton Rouge area for up to six months.

Back at the television parking lot, the donations keep pouring in. Kendrick Price shows up with several bags stuffed with clothes, toiletries, shoes, and underwear. "I've got a sister in New Orleans who is trapped in there, and I needed to do something," he says. "It's just a bad time for everyone right now.

Wire material was used in this report. To view more of Andy Nelson's photos online visit www.csmonitor.com/katrina

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