Even before hurricane Katrina made landfall Monday, a massive relief brigade - one that officials hoped would be an equal match for a huge Category 4 storm - was being deployed to help residents along Louisiana's low-lying coast.
Among them: The Red Cross called upon some 5,000 volunteers, including some who drove in from Washington State. Members of Fark.com, an online discussion board, offered to host fellow forum participants who were fleeing Katrina. And FEMA, the federal disaster-response agency, moved its search-and-rescue teams - as well as stockpiles of ice, water, and food - as close as safety would permit.
The outpouring of aid, possibly the largest the US has ever seen to cope with a domestic natural disaster, stems from Katrina's imposing size as well as its destination so near the major population center of New Orleans.
Such early deployment of relief is unusual in disaster-aid work. But damage projections had been so severe - and New Orleans deemed so vulnerable in its dependence on a network of levees, canals, and pumps to keep dry - that President Bush on Saturday went ahead and declared an emergency in the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to mobilize ahead of the storm.
Forecasters, scientists, and government officials have long worried that a hurricane could swamp the Big Easy, parts of which are 10 feet below sea level, and cause months of misery. As a result, relief agencies - public and private - moved with urgency once Katrina, which led to nine fatalities when it hit Florida Thursday as a much weaker storm, turned toward Louisiana.
"This storm is so large ... that it's like all the storms from last year rolled together and probably [those were] still not as bad," says Margaret O'Brien-Molina, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in its southwest region. "So our coordinated efforts have to be huge."
Last year, the Red Cross mobilized 7,000 volunteers total to handle the aftermath from four major hurricanes. For Katrina alone, it is working on sending upwards of 5,000. Staging areas set up at both Houston airports allowed arriving volunteers to get off their planes and onto the road as quickly as possible.
Red Cross emergency response vehicles, or ERVs, are crucial in a situation like this, says Ms. O'Brien-Molina, because many skeptical New Orleans residents didn't take the mandatory evacuation seriously enough and then were unable to get far enough away because of jammed evacuation routes. In addition, the Red Cross warehouse in Baton Rouge is filled with key supplies, and 283,000 heater meals are on their way to the state.
Hot meals are also on their way - 80,000 per day - thanks to the Texas Baptist Men, a ministry with a history of disaster response. It plans to have available more than a dozen kitchens in Louisiana that can serve "one-pot meals," such as stew, chili, or chicken and rice. The kitchens are self-sufficient, with generators, water purifiers, and propane. To get to the most devastated areas, the group's members bring their own chain-saw units, along with chaplains and portable showers for those in need.
The Red Cross typically pays for the food, and the Texas Baptist Men prepare it. The Texas chapter alone has 18 mobile units. Seven are on their way, and the rest are on standby, says Gary Smith, disaster relief coordinator for the Texas Baptist Men in Dallas. "Earlier this year we mobilized for hurricane Emily," he says, "but it was nothing like this."
FEMA, meanwhile, had moved generators, ice, water, and food into the region for deployment after the storm. FEMA also brought in urban search and rescue teams from Tennessee, Missouri, and Texas, and set them up in Shreveport, La. Similar teams from Indiana and Ohio were staged in Meridian, Miss.
FEMA also deployed 18 disaster medical assistance teams to staging areas in Texas, Alabama, and Tennessee.
Louisiana deployed 3,500 Army National Guardsmen to help hurricane victims, and another 3,000 were on standby as of Monday morning, according to a Guard spokesman.
Statewide, 48 Red Cross shelters opened to residents in the storm's projected path. Hotels were packed as far away as Houston and Jackson, Miss. For New Orleans residents who couldn't - or didn't - leave, the city opened the Superdome. Katrina's 145-m.p.h. winds ripped away part of its roof Monday but as of press time had not forced an evacuation.
Other private and public aid - as well as volunteers - have been pouring into Louisiana over the past 48 hours. Office Depot says it will donate $1 million to the Red Cross, while Anheuser-Busch shipped 300,000 cans of drinking water to relief agencies in Louisiana and Mississippi. Wayne Elsey, president of Kodiak-Terra, a footwear company that donated thousands of pairs of shoes to South Asia after last year's tsunami, is setting up a "Katrina Relief Effort" fund.
The US Coast Guard shut down and evacuated its Gulf coast facilities, even as it sent more than 40 aircraft from the Eastern seaboard, and at least 30 small vessels, to the surrounding area. The units will be used for search-and-rescue operations and repairs of damaged waterways.
Though New Orleans has not taken a major direct hit from a hurricane since Betsy, a Category 3 in 1965, Katrina is being likened more to hurricane Camille in 1969, says Frank Lepore of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Before making landfall, the storm's winds exceed 200 m.p.h. but weakened to less than 150 by the time it hit just east of New Orleans.
American Red Cross: PO Box 37243, Washington, DC, 20013, or online at www.redcross.org.
Salvation Army: Online at www.salvationarmyusa.org.