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America's generosity matches the scale of disaster

BILOXI, Miss.—A Fort Belvoir, Va., man is offering his 28-foot RV free to a Katrina evacuee who'll pick it up. A single mother in Lexington, Ky., offers her spare room with the caution: "I'm a messy housekeeper, but clean enough." A Mechanicsburg, Pa., blues lover offers a bed—and a free guitar, mike and amplifier for a homeless musician.

Americans' generosity in Katrina's wake is on the scale of the disaster. And not just in dollar terms. In the disaster zone, especially, where grace and good humor are sometimes all there is to share, the destitute are among the generous. Some stories:

To those who stayed or retreated to what's left of the Summerfield Apartments in Gulfport, Miss., Amber Parks' gift is her pluck. When fallen trees penned everyone in, Parks walked to the main drag and waved and yelled to every truck driver that passed, "Have you got a chain saw?"

She got one.

Parks broke into the exercise room for bottled water. She organized the regular bucket brigade from the pool to toilets that need flushing. She collected the perishables—mainly semi-frozen chicken wings and two cases of pineapples—for a barbecue for the 30 current residents.

"If somebody has something, everybody has something," said Jim Davis, who's one of them. He called Parks "the backbone here."

Parks, a dental technician, turned 24 on Aug. 29, the day Katrina struck.

For Katrina's survivors, last weekend proved a big one for barbecues, as freezers along much of the Gulf Coast lost their cool after a week without power.

"We saved the best for last," said Beth Dean as steaks sizzled for a block party on Regnault Street in Gulfport on Sunday.

A neighbor, Sunshine Tyler, explained what she'd learned about living without running water.

Long after the plumbing's gasped, she said, there's still up to 30 gallons of potable water in the hot water heater.

Also: When taking what passes for a bath, do it standing in a small basin.

"That way you can wash your feet and catch the water to flush the toilet," she said.

Bernice Tribble and her son left Biloxi after Katrina in search of power, fresh water and gas.

"I went to Alabama with $3 and a credit card and ended up at this Waffle House where they said they would take cash but no credit card," Tribble said.

"We didn't have enough money, but as I was walking out this waitress came running after me and said, `There's a couple who want to buy your meal.'

"They gave me $50 and wouldn't even let me write a check for them."

Lanny Freeman and Fernando Villarreal didn't have to be swatting horseflies in a Waveland, Miss., motel parking lot they christened "The Katrina Inn."

"I was sitting down in Florida, looking at this on the television," Freeman explained. "I figured, I had the time, I had the money. I might as well come up here.

"We bought $200 worth of junk—all the hurricane essentials—at the Wal-Mart over in the (Florida) Panhandle," said Freeman, who, like Villarreal, is from Tarpon Springs.

"It took 15 minutes to get rid of it all."

After chatting a while with Howard and Cathy O'Gwin and sons Howard and Ben, whose home is now a tent in the motel's lot, the two Floridians headed home.

First Mary Gracianette emptied the freezer at the Deckbar, her Jefferson Parish bar and restaurant, to feed workers from the hospital across the street and evacuees, who slept on the pool tables. Then people who heard of her one-woman rescue mission started dropping off supplies.

Everything she's needed has been provided somehow, Gracianette said Monday as she cooked a pot of marinara sauce on her gas stove. A few days ago, someone dropped off some 40-pound boxes of chicken.

"Yesterday, I needed bread. Ten minutes later a stranger arrived with a carload."

Deckbar employee Frank Disimone, 48, said news coverage of Hurricane Katrina has focused on the wrong types of people.

"They're showing all the negativity, the shooting and the looting. They don't show the good people like Mary."

A matchmaking Web site that links homeless evacuees to donors with room to spare is the most massive new exercise in beyond-dollars generosity.

The site (www.hurricanehousing.org) claimed Monday afternoon to have 140,618 beds available nationwide.

Some donors offer frequent flier miles or plane tickets. "Will pick up from Miss., La., Ala., Fla. area," writes a woman from Montgomery, Ala.

Some offer jobs, often specific ones. "Short term home for school bus driver willing to relocate," reads an offer from Alexandria, Va. "Work for a dental technician," says another.

Evacuees pick from the online list of offers. Donors, who do not provide their names to potential beneficiaries before they screen them, specify in their free ads what kinds of guests they'll welcome.

Lots nix smokers. Many nix pets, too.

And a Lisman, Ala., women goes one step further: "No small children because I work around children all day. Otherwise, you can stay 'til you get on your feet."

Most charities recommend cash donations, not goods, when it comes to aid for the hurricane's victims.

Here are some additional national charities you might consider:

_American Red Cross (www.redcross.org) 1-800-435-7669 or 1-800-HELP-NOW.

_America's Second Harvest (www.secondharvest.org) for hunger relief. 1-800-344-8070.

_Church World Services (www.churchworldservice.org/) 1-800-297-1516.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Jim Mashek, Kymberli Hagenberg and George Pawlaczyk of the Biloxi Sun Herald and Natalie Pompilio of The Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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