August 31, 2005

Charities Say Katrina Effort is Biggest Ever in U.S.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. charities struggled to bring food, shelter and comfort to the victims of Hurricane Katrina on Wednesday, in what aid groups called the biggest relief operation for a natural disaster in American history.

As millions of dollars in private donations poured in, relief agencies like the Red Cross and Salvation Army said the impact of the disaster was unprecedented and probably worse than the devastation caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 -- until now the costliest U.S. storm on record.

"We prepared for the worst, and sadly we are facing it," said American Red Cross spokeswoman Stephanie Millian, who said her agency had received $21 million in private donations so far. "This is an historically unprecedented relief effort."

The Salvation Army, another major aid group, has raised $4 million in disaster relief.

The killer storm wiped out neighborhoods, contaminated the water supply, and cut off power and major roads in some areas as it slammed into Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and western Florida on Monday with winds of up to 140 mph (224 kph).

Katrina killed at least 110 people in Mississippi alone, and the death toll across the region was expected to climb much higher. Hundreds of thousands were made homeless after their houses were hit by flood waters and hurricane-force winds.

"Our relief is not going to be a matter of weeks and months, but probably much longer than that," said Phil Zepeda, spokesman for hunger relief group America's Second Harvest.

Water, food and shelter top the aid agencies' list of priorities as they fan out across the storm-hit areas.

The American Red Cross was preparing 500,000 hot meals a day and providing shelter for more than 52,000 people. The Convoy of Hope, a smaller relief agency, distributed some 160,000 pounds (72,000 kg) of ice and water at one site in Mississippi on Wednesday alone.


The city of New Orleans was ravaged, as the raging waters of Lake Pontchartrain tore holes in the levees that protect the low-lying city, then slowly filled it up.

Aid agencies such as Catholic Charities said they were still assessing the full extent of the damage, and were struggling to reach some of the affected areas.

"Our food bank in New Orleans is completely inaccessible, so the staff that works there isn't even able to do some damage assessment to find out what's there," said Zepeda of America's Second Harvest.

"New Orleans has been a disaster waiting to happen forever," said Jim Burton, disaster relief spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention. "This is a city that basically lived in a fishbowl, and the sides came crashing down."

Relief groups appealed to citizens and corporations to donate money, rather than food or other goods, so they could provide the most urgent supplies to the neediest people as quickly as possible.

"Right now we're in Picayune, Mississippi, which is about 60 miles north of the coast, and even this far inland the devastation is just unbelievable," said Jeff Nene, a spokesman for the Convoy of Hope.

"I was in southeast Asia after the tsunami hit, and it still amazes me that this far from the coast we'd have this kind of an impact," he said by satellite phone, since the storm knocked out all power and telecommunications in the area.

The Southern Baptist Convention's Burton said it had taken four hurricanes last year to come close to the destruction caused by Katrina.

"Our commitment is to be there for the long haul," he said. This is looking like America's largest disaster response ever."