Welcome deluge: Help floods Katrina relief efforts

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast, so much money has flowed into the Central Virginia chapter of the American Red Cross that they've brought in volunteer accountants to help handle it.

"We're at a half million and counting," says local spokesperson Lonnie Kirby on Monday, September 12. In addition, over 50 Red Cross volunteers from the Charlottesville area have been dispatched to the Gulf Coast.

Fundraising at last week's Fridays After 5 brought in over $20,000, says Kirby, and Tom Powell/Gail Weakley's September 6 fundraiser at Colonial Auto put $38,000 into Red Cross Katrina coffers.

Powell sent a 48-foot truck full of food and supplies collected at Wolfie's restaurant down to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, September 9. That's where Wolfie's owner Allen Powell (no relation to Tom) hails from. He's been there since September 3, when he drove into town with his Pyramid Construction equipment and crew to start cleaning up.

Another Hattiesburg-bound truck will be accepting donations September 15-17 at Colonial Auto. Tom Powell suggests food ("anything you can eat without cooking"), drinks, personal hygiene items, and cleaning supplies– the mops you wring out rather than foam mops that will disintegrate on the especially tough, dirty floors. Powell could use volunteers to help pack the truck, and he requests that donations be in cases "because they're easier to pack."

The Charlottesville Hurricane Relief Initiative was such a victim of its own success that the Robert Tobey-led volunteers teamed up with the United Way last week to help manage the outpouring of donations that filled a warehouse with furniture– good furniture– and household goods.

"We've settled five families with housing," says Tobey, "and served another nine." The relief initiative offers free housing for up to a year, furniture, $100 per person in food and clothing certificates, medical services, as well as job-finding assistance.

"We've raised about 18,000 bucks and could use more," says Tobey.

And the referrals keep coming in. "Today we got two from the Salvation Army," he says, including one family from the Houston Astrodome. "I always felt this would be the busiest week. Now it's settling in to folks that they have to move out of the area."

Oliver Kuttner and David New drove the supply-stuffed Starlight Express– normally a luxury motorcoach to New York City– into the heart of Mississippi's destruction, hoping to provide transportation back to new lives in Virginia. One family accepted a ride to Chesapeake, and two cats are looking at new homes in Charlottesville.

But once the bus pulled out of hard-hit Pearlington, Mississippi, the calls started coming in from folks ready to relocate to Charlottesville.

"An estimated eight families are on the way," says Kim Kuttner, who was in charge of securing housing before the Starlight Express left. "We are so grateful to the people of Charlottesville," she says. She has over 300 volunteers ready to mobilize to help with Katrina evacuees, and she urges anyone who would like to sponsor a family to contact her at kmm7c@aol.com or 434-409-6532.

Back from their journey, New and Oliver Kuttner stopped by the Hook office to describe conditions in Pearlington, where they arrived on Day 10 following Katrina– but before the Red Cross.

"We decided we weren't going to drop everything at a shelter where we'd be trailer number 57," says Kuttner. "It took time to find them."

Pearlington, a town about the size of Scottsville that's poorer than Diamondhead, the convoy's original destination, got nailed by the eye of Katrina with a 20- to 30-foot wall of water.

"Every car in town is dead," says Kuttner. "They sat in salt water, and those are a total loss." Not that there are any working gas stations in the area anyway.

He describes how people parked extra cars on an Interstate 10 bridge to keep them safe on high ground– only to see them all blow off into the woods. "They had a plan; it didn't work," he says.

Post-Katrina is a world where money doesn't go far, says Kuttner, who repeatedly reached for his wallet but found only a few takers, since there's little in the area to buy. Locally, Martha Jefferson Hospital donated $4,200 in medicine and supplies when Kuttner tried to buy them. "They gave us whatever we asked for," he says of the hospital. And in Mississippi, when he tried to pay for $3,000 worth of tetanus vaccines, those, too, were donated. "People really wanted to help," he says.

In addition to stores with nothing to sell, Kuttner saw just one open bank on the entire Gulf Coast. Once cash works again, that will be another problem for people who escaped with their lives but lost IDs and credit and bank cards along with other important financial papers. Try withdrawing money from your bank without one of those.

New hopes to join other locals interested in adopting a community and make a Habitat for Humanity-type effort in Pearlington. "The scale of it is such that we could see the change and affect more people," he believes.

"What we did was a Band Aid– a very welcome Band Aid" says New.


Starlight Express owners David New and Oliver Kuttner tell of "damage beyond what you can imagine"– and what they plan to do next.

PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER


A relatively intact piano lies amid ripped-to-shreds houses.

PHOTO COURTESY DAVID NEW