Home front: Charlottesville steps up to help Katrina victims

The United States has never seen a disaster like Hurricane Katrina. And Charlottesville has never seen a relief effort like the one that started almost immediately following the August 29 maelstrom. People wanted to do something– anything– to help fellow citizens in distress. Grassroots efforts sprouted like mushrooms in a soggy pasture. From rich-as-Croesus rock stars and best-selling authors to kids baking cookies or collecting pennies, here's how Charlottesville is pitching in.


Cutting through

 "It's worse than you can imagine," says Allen Powell, owner of Pyramid Construction and Wolfie's restaurant. He arrived in his hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 60 miles north of Biloxi, early on September 3 with 20 trucks in tow along with 20 men, 20 generators, and two backhoes– plus 1,000 gallons each of gas and diesel, chainsaws, chippers, and water and ice. In other words, he doesn't mess around.

"My mom and sister are fine," Powell reported from Lamar County September 5. "We're en route to Granny's and having to cut our way through," he said via mobile phone. "Every 100 feet we're running over power lines and telephone lines."

Part of Powell's group is camped out at the local high school and working with the Lamar disaster team. Powell estimates he'll be there eight to 10 days, and he has a message for the folks back in Charlottesville: "Let people know this is a big deal. They say the government is not doing anything– they're doing all they can. It's so widespread, where do you start?"


Grisham's giving

 One Albemarle-based author was appreciated in Biloxi even before his recent announcement of a multimillion-dollar contribution.

"John Grisham called our gumbo famous when he talked about it in the Runaway Jury and The Partner," Mary Mahoney's restaurant owner Bob Mahoney told the Associated Press after the deluge.

Grisham and his wife, Renee, have announced that they're donating $5 million to kickstart their Rebuild the Coast Fund.

"Hopefully, that will inspire other people to write checks," says Grisham. "The plan is to raise money over the next six months, then start giving it away."

Grisham admits that the publicity from the couple's recent philanthropy "makes us squirm," and that asking others for money is all brand new for him. "Usually, I'm on the other end," he notes.

But this time it's personal. A close friend from law school has no electricity, no running water, and dwindling food supplies. "They could get out in their car if they had gas," says Grisham. "That's the biggest problem, they can't get gas."

Another friend lost her 200-year-old home in Biloxi and is now living in the Grishams' house 300 miles away in Oxford.

Explosive growth on the Gulf coast has led to subdivisions in flood plains, explains Grisham. That means homes that are underinsured coupled with poor people who have no insurance whatsoever.

"Growing up down there, hurricane stories are legion," he says. "You survive 'em. People there are not foolhardy. They think they can survive them–" at least up until Katrina.

Rebuild the Coast Fund, P.O. Box 4500, Tupelo, MS 38803.


 Coran's contribution

 News wires lit up September 1 with word that the Charlottesville-based Dave Matthews Band will perform a September 12 concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, about 20 miles west of Denver, with all profits going to the Bama Works Fund to be distributed to charities supporting victims of Hurricane Katrina. The band, which typically grosses around $750,000 million per gig, according to Pollstar magazine, added the benefit to its already sold-out September 9-11 Red Rocks stint. The Aspen Skiing Company and employees pitched in $125,000 worth of lift tickets to create special packages for snow-minded Denverites. And the city of Denver, which owns and operates the amphitheatre, waived rent for the event and will donate revenue from parking, food, and other concessions, according to the mayor's office. Even the concessionaire, Aramark Corp., said it also would donate net proceeds from the September 12 show to relief efforts.


Street theater

 Charlottesville resident Mary Brennan channeled her grief over the catastrophe into protest at the corner of Emmet street and Barracks road Monday, September 5. "I don't have any medical skills, but I wanted to do something," says Brennan, who carried a sign calling George W. Bush a "disaster" along with Hurricane Katrina. She and her husband, Rory, put on Mardi Gras costumes and protested for about four hours before they needed a water and restroom break, a vigil that intensified their sympathy for the refugees trapped in New Orleans. "We were able to drop food over Kosovo and bombs over Iraq," she says, "but we weren't able to drop water over New Orleans."


The Cross

 "This is the largest mobilization of the American Red Cross in its history," says local spokesman Lonnie Kirby. The Central Virginia chapter deployed nine volunteers before Katrina made landfall, and an additional 31 are ready to go. "As of [September 4], we've had 50 people come in to be trained," he says.

Those heading south will fly into Montgomery, Alabama, to be processed and then immediately head out into the field where they're needed. "It's a hardship," says Kirby. "We ask them to take sleeping bags, towels, and their own food. They'll be sleeping on the ground like the people they're helping." And they can expect to be gone three weeks.

The Red Cross volunteers can expect to work in a shelter or to deliver hot meals to those without power in a Red Cross emergency response vehicle. "We have large kitchens that can produce 10,000 to 30,000 meals per day," says Kirby. The mobile kitchens "just need space" to set up.

Kirby stresses the importance of donors. As of September 3, the local chapter had received over $200,000, and by September 6, the Red Cross had taken in $409 million nationally.

"That's one of the strengths of the Red Cross– a local focus with a national reach," says Kirby. "In a catastrophic event, the entire assets of the Red Cross are available."

Central Virginia Red Cross, 979-7143.


 Toy Lift team's back

 Tom Powell and Gail Weakley, the dynamic duo behind the local Christmas Toy Lift, spearheaded Operation Gulf Relief September 6 at Colonial Auto, where they collected cash for the American Red Cross.

Powell, no stranger to disaster relief, has sent loaded tractor trailers to aid victims of Hurricane Andrew and of the 1993 flooding in the Midwest. But he's starting Katrina relief with cash because "you don't want to make things more difficult for them," he says. Powell learned that with Andrew. "The first couple of trucks that went down there created a nightmare," he recalls. "There was nowhere to put it. We don't want to add to their headache."

Powell will be sending a truck, and he's trying to make arrangements to bring critically ill people here. He's also hoping he can coordinate his efforts with Allen "No Relation" Powell, who's already down there.


Motorcoached salvation

 The Starlight Express, an upscale bus service that normally runs between Charlottesville and New York City, has a new route: Owners Oliver Kuttner and David New left in two buses to Diamond Head, Mississippi, loaded with supplies, and they want to come back loaded with storm refugees. On September 5, the day before they headed south, Starlight headquarters on East Market Street was a grassroots groundswell of activity.

"Frank Birckhead started this," said Kuttner on his way to a forklift to load cases of bottled water. Birckhead offered to provide housing for four families. That was enough for Kuttner and New to decide to drive south to pick up folks in need of shelter. "Oliver– he thinks outside the box with no limitations," Birckhead says.


Abrakadabra salon owner Jody Plaisance has an aunt and uncle in Diamond Head. "The American Red Cross hasn't gotten to this town," says Kuttner's wife, Kim, who has become housing coordinator. "Our goal is to find 10 families." She's found housing for them for six months, utililties included, and church groups to support each family who comes.

"It's unbelievable, the outpouring of donations," said New. "It's been nonstop." After the Daily Progress wrote about their plans, people started calling and showing up with contributions. New fanned a handful of $1,000 checks and an envelope addressed "To a sad crying child" that obviously contained cash.

Paula Damgaard is one of those who read about the effort in the paper and showed up to help. "It's been so incredibly amazing," she says. "People bring one bag or a pickup truck full.... Some people said we shouldn't do this, we don't have the skills. And yet, we're doing it. We have two physicians going on the bus."

Claire Thompson, a fundraiser for the University Art Museum, also read about the effort in the paper. The next thing she knew, she was involved in what she calls this "crazy grassroots effort." She's seen everyone from "farm laborers to Farmington ladies" dropping off donations, and points to a list of items needed, provided by the Diamond Head fire deparment.

Why this explosion of generosity? "I think people are looking at themselves and how fortunate they are," says Thompson. "This is an incredibly philanthropic community. My hope is to take advantage of this goodwill and harness it in our own community. There's a lot of need here."


Tobey's task

 "We're trying to give someone a fresh start in life," says Robert Tobey, founder of Charlottesville Hurricane Relief Initiative. The 8 to 10 members of the group are looking for a minimum of 20 residences to provide free housing for up to a year, as well as furniture, clothes, and medical and mental health care.

Tobey was inspired by a woman in Idaho on the National Public Radio program All Things Considered who said she was opening her house to Katrina refugees.

"I said, we can do this too," he recalls. "I flopped around all night Wednesday." By Friday, September 2, he'd gathered friends, held a meeting, and assigned tasks.

"We're seeking people who have a friend or relative in Charlottesville," explains Tobey. Or they could take a group, such as a church. They believe that a group will have a bond that will help lessen the trauma of being uprooted.

"Sharing the grief with someone who's been there will be more positive," he says. "We want to make sure people coming are not going to be a burden or threat to the community."

By September 5, the group had placed its first family. "We have a house, and we'll have it furnished," says Tobey. The wife has a job here, and they're working on finding something for the husband.

Tobey has received one check for $10,000, and the group is set up to accept other monetary donations. "We're taking a longer-term solution approach," he says. "Our goal is to have a really organized response."

Charlottesville Hurricane Relief Initiative, 971-1955, rtobey@rltcpa.com


 Registry of homes

 Gabe and Pam Roffman also decided to focus on housing and set up homeforkatrina.org to link the homeless with homes. "There are over 900 homes offered on our site," says Pam, "and there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, being offered on 50 other sites like this across the country."

Because there are so many similar sites, the Roffmans will be working with a couple of them, and want to work in concert with the Red Cross and FEMA, Pam says.

"My husband is trying to offer some level of safety," she says. They want to make sure that people signing up for free housing are actually Katrina victims, and they want them to have criminal background checks. "We want to make sure it's not some guy in new Jersey who wants free rent," says Roffman.


UVA's offer

 UVA President John Casteen announced early on August 31 that the university would offer students from Tulane, Loyola, Xavier, and other Gulf Coast schools "visiting student" status for the fall semester. Over 100 students– most of them Virginia residents enrolled at Tulane– accepted the offer and began arriving in Charlottesville last week for orientation on Sunday, September 4. Their first day of class was September 5.

Finding housing for 130 surprise students was a trying task, but "there was an outpouring of volunteers in the UVA community," says associate dean of admissions Greg Roberts. "Most visiting students are staying in dorms, but some are off grounds in houses with students or faculty."

Some questions still linger about the tuition costs for the visiting students– as well as their future at UVA. It's unclear whether Gulf Coast schools will be ready to reopen in spring 2006.

"Our main focus was getting them here and settled in for the fall," says Roberts. "We're going to play it by ear for the spring."


Holiday from Houston

 Up to 10 displaced families with kids needing dialysis could soon be heading to Camp Holiday Trails, according to camp director Tina LaRoche. Located off Fontaine Avenue Extended, this camp typically serves chronically ill children during the summer and is rented out for private groups in the fall. But when a board meeting convened a few days after Katrina, an idea was formed. "A light bulb just went off," says LaRoche. "It's a time when we normally generate revenue, so that's a bit of a leap of faith." Avid volunteer Tom Powell is trying to coordinate flights from Houston and has already identified two families at a Children's Hospital there. UVA has already agreed to provide dialysis for 10 patients.


A firefighter's trek

 Battalion Chief Bill Purcell from the Charlottesville Fire Department has been in Mississippi a week now. "Right now he's outside Gulfport supporting law enforcement," says acting Deputy Chief Britt Grimm. Purcell took a Ford Explorer equipped with a satellite receiver that provides Internet and telephone communications linked to a command post set up in Florida, Grimm says. And Purcell has been able to get gasoline to keep the vehicle and its communications equipment powered.

Purcell's report to his colleagues in Charlottesville?

"It's some of the worst damage Billy's seen," he says, "and he's been in emergency services for 30 years." Purcell has been sleeping in a small cargo trailer that he took, but with so many people depending on tents for shelter, the possibility of another storm is a big concern.

Other Charlottesville and Albemarle firefighters are likely to follow Purcell, says Grimm, who's now evaluating requests from FEMA and from the state to decide how to maximize the services of the 20 local firefighters who've expressed interest in going to the stricken areas.


National guardians

 Soldiers from Charlotteville's Monticello Guard joined 225 National Guard members who shipped out early September 6, headed for Camp Shelby, about 70 miles from the Mississippi coast. About 170 members of the 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry, left Staunton Saturday, September 3, for a three-day convoy to Alexandria, Louisiana, to join the more than 20,000 National Guard troops already working the disaster.


Personalized benefits

 * September 14 is free chiropractic exam day at the office of Adjustments for Life in Palmyra. Chiropracter Bob Burger is encouraging free patients to donate to Katrina relief the money they would have spent with him. 589-5433.

* A show by The Nice Jenkins, a band playing Mellow Mushroom September 8, has been turned into a hurricane relief benefit, with proceeds going to the Red Cross.

* Eat a six-course "new Creole cuisine" meal at Hamiltons' September 11, drink Veritas wine, and the entire $100 per person tab goes to the American Red Cross. Call 295-6649 for reservations.

* Henley Middle Schoolers are challenging all fellow County schools to raise money for the Red Cross by pledging a dollar per "link" to make paper chains 968 links long– the distance in miles between Charlottesville and New Orleans.


Family time

 * University of Virginia Professor Emeritus Ruhi Ramazani is hosting his son, Vaheed Ramazani, a French literature professor from Tulane University, until he can return to his New Orleans home.

"He's not allowed to even enter the city now," says the elder Ramazani. "We know nothing about his home or his neighborhood. The only news we have is that his car is completely lost."

Vaheed Ramazani hopes to teach at UVA until he can return to Louisiana, especially since "there's no way of knowing when he can go back."

* Family members of Charlottesville citizens Mark and Thierry Drapanas fled to Thierry's parents and brother because their New Orleans home is unfit for habitation, and neighbors offered their guesthouse until return time. But they can't even venture a guess about when that day will come.

"We really don't know what it's like down there," says Thierry. "We do know that their house is still standing, so we're grateful for that and that everyone's here and safe in Virginia."

–with additional reporting by Hawes Spencer and Susan Anspach


Friends of John Grisham in Biloxi lost their homes. The author will be raising money for the Rebuild the Coast Fund and made the first donation of $5 million.



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The check is in the mail– a $25,000 check arrived September 6, says Red Cross spokesperson Lonnie Kirby. He thinks gifts toward Katrina relief will exceed combined donations from the tsunami and last year's four hurricanes. r>PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO


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Dominique Agbati makes a donation to Tom Powell at Colonial Auto September 6. r>PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO


Kim Kuttner, left, finds homes for displaced Mississippians, while volunteers Kathe Pechtel and Paula Damgaard sort contributions.



Oliver Kuttner's plans to bring Katrina victims here in the Starlight Express exploded into a grassroots effort and busloads of supplies.



Robert Tobey and his staff are working on securing housing and other necessities for refugees relocating to Charlottesville. From left, Anne Foky, Linda Sandridge, Robert Tobey, Gail Thomas, Judith Gumbiner, and Cassi Ferrell


Camp Holiday Trails director Tina LaRoche and development director Amy Evans prepare one of the cabins that may house a refugee family.


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Red Cross volunteer Norma Diehl, who has worked hurricanes before, consults with Bert Blumenfeld, director of emergency services, before she heads south this weekend. r>PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO







David New loads cases of bottled water destined for Mississippi.