News

Local folks help hurricane's victims

Local volunteers leave for ravaged Gulf Coast

Red Cross workers and local firefighters help feed and shelter victims of Hurricane Katrina

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

Two dozen local American Red Cross volunteers and several Auburn firefighters have set out for the Gulf Coast to help with relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina, a category 4 hurricane that devastated coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia last week.

Last Wednesday, Gov. Christine Gregoire announced she was preparing to mobilize 600 Washington National Guard personnel — though that number might change depending on how many people are needed — to pilot helicopters, cargo or transport aircraft, to help with satellite communications and to provide general support and assistance in the area.

"The scale of this disaster is simply overwhelming," Gregoire said. "The people of Washington state have a generous spirit and will do what we can, individually and collectively, to support the victims of the hurricane."

Meanwhile, people here at home are donating money and time to help with what will be a monumental recovery effort along the Gulf Coast.

Federal Way resident D.J. Kleist said she and about 25 other seniors who are part of a morning mall-walkers group at The Commons at Federal Way raised $183 and bought several cases of bottled water to donate to Katrina victims through a KMPS radio station-organized drive.

King County Executive Ron Sims last Thursday proposed an emergency ordinance that would allow county employees to convert up to 40 hours of their vacation time into cash to be donated to the Red Cross.

Sims noted the county allowed employees to convert vacation time to cash to help the victims of the tsunami last December, and "many King County employees have asked that we do the same for the people of Mississippi and Louisiana."

A category 4 hurricane carries winds between 131 and 155 miles per hour, with storm surges generally 13-18 feet above normal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The high winds and blowing debris can destroy roofs on small houses and businesses, blow over shrubs, trees and signs and destroy doors and windows.

Areas lower than 10 feet above sea level are likely to flood during a category 4 hurricane, requiring massive evacuations of anyone living within six miles inland, according to NOAA.

The force of Hurricane Katrina's winds destroyed homes and cities along the Gulf Coast, but flooding caused massive damage in New Orleans, which sits from five feet below sea level to 17 feet above, and in Biloxi, Miss., where Katrina pushed a storm surge 29 feet high through the city.

Officials predict the death toll could reach the thousands, and rescuers were only beginning to access areas hardest hit by the hurricane last week. Insurance claims are expected to exceed $25 billion.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced. Mike Eagan, communications director for the King and Kitsap counties chapter of the Red Cross, said there are more than 200 shelters operating in the areas surrounding the hardest-hit cities.

Last Wednesday, Auburn firefighter Barry Rickert, Captain Tom Marino and Battalion Chief Parry Boogard joined 26 other members of the Urban Search and Rescue Team, Washington Task Force One, sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to load trucks with supplies and rescue equipment.

The team is driving the truck to Camp Shelby, near Gulfport, Miss., where they'll be deployed to the area that needs them most.

The 24th volunteer from the local Red Cross chapter left for the hurricane-hit region Thursday, Eagan said. The Red Cross volunteers who have gone to the Gulf Coast are "very highly trained, top-level administrators," he said.

Most of the local Red Cross volunteers heading to the Gulf Coast are people trained in feeding and shelter operations. The local chapter also sent two emergency feeding vans to a shelter in Little Rock, Ark.

Volunteers will probably stay for three-week assignments, with a new team ready to deploy when they come home.

Eagan said Red Cross officials expect recovery efforts, with active Red Cross involvement, will take months. "They're telling people not to go home for at least a week. Many won't even have homes to go home to," he said.

The Red Cross also sent two mental health workers. "The strain of this trauma affects people deeply and it's one of the services we provide," Eagan said.

Public safety is a major concern for officials and volunteers helping with rescue efforts. There is no electricity — hundreds of thousands of people are without electric power — and water quality and supply alerts have been issued in many areas.

The bodies of the dead were being pushed out of the way by rescuers trying to save those still trapped, temperatures climbed into the high 80s and raw sewage and iridescent chemical slicks polluted the waters that flooded cities in coastal areas.

Eagan said rescuers were worried about cholera, typhoid and the sheer amount of raw sewage. "There's very little drinking water," he said. "People can wear the same clothes for a couple weeks, but they need water."

He said he suspects until recently, most Americans underestimated the hurricane's devastating impact. In addition to the massive storm surges Hurricane Katrina pushed into coastal areas, the battering winds and waves also fractured and washed away parts of the freeway system. "It'd be the equivalent of I-5 being broken into sections," Eagan said.

In addition, the counterclockwise motion of the hurricane pushed the waters of Lake Pontchartrain up and over the levy holding the lake back until the levy broke, causing massive flooding in New Orleans. At the highest point, flood waters covered 80 percent of the city.

The rapid speed of flooding and the amount of water that is pushed in front of the hurricane can take people by surprise. Eagan said almost 60 percent of people who die in hurricanes die because of flooding.

Many of the relief organizations responding to the gulf region are asking people not to send clothes or food — it's too early and there's no place to sort and store it all, Eagan said. Instead, relief organizations need money, which they can use to buy food, shelter and supplies, and to issue as cash vouchers to displaced families and individuals.

"Our initial estimate is this is a $130 million operation," he said. "It's the largest single natural disaster response in Red Cross history."

While money is the best thing donors can give right now, Secretary of State Sam Reed last week warned against scam artists who already have set up fake charity Web sites to exploit the hurricane relief effort. Reed urged those who would like to give money to give to an established agency, like the United Way, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army or Northwest Medical Teams.

Donors can check on a charity's validity by calling the Secretary of State's charity registration hotline, 1-800-332-4483, or visit the Web site at www.secstate.wa.gov/charities.

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

Ways to help Hurricane Katrina victims

To donate to the American Red Cross, call 1-800-HELP NOW, or 1-800-257-7575 for Spanish. Or visit the Web site at www.redcross.org. Checks may be sent to The American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, P.O. Box 3097, Seattle, WA 98114-3097.

The United Way of King County is assisting in the relief effort by raising funds in conjunction with other United Ways nationwide. Money raised through the United Way will be used for immediate disaster relief as well as long-term recovery.

For more information or to donate to the United Way, visit the Web site at www.unitedwayofkingcounty.org. Checks may be sent to United Way of America, P.O. Box 630568, Baltimore, MD 21263-0568. Reference Hurricane Katrina Fund on the memo line of the check.

In addition, the Humane Society of the United States is accepting donations to provide food, water and shelter for people's pets, who aren't allowed to accompany their owners to human shelters unless they're service animals.

The Humane Society established an animal shelter in Jackson, Miss. last week, where volunteers and trained animal handlers are helping to provide food, water, supplies and veterinary services to displaced animals. The volunteers' expertise includes search and rescue, first aid, and sheltering pets, horses, livestock and wildlife.

Some people dropped off their pets at an animal shelter on their way to shelter of their own, while other pets were deposited by rescue workers who found them wandering around the areas devastated by the hurricane, Humane Society spokeswoman Belinda Mager said. There were 80 animals at the shelter late last week, according to the Humane Society.

In addition, Humane Society volunteers are working with the Houston, Texas chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to arrange shelter for the pets of people arriving at the Astrodome shelter.

The Human Society coordinated its efforts with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross and the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster in preparation for Hurricane Katrina. To donate, visit the Web site at www.hsus.org or send checks to HSUS Disaster Relief Fund, 2100 L St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20037.

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