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Hurricane Rita turns Katrina aid workers into evacuees

BATON ROUGE, La.—Many disaster relief workers who came to help Hurricane Katrina survivors pulled out themselves on Thursday—or tried to—as Hurricane Rita bore down on the Texas Gulf coast.

Some were carless and many were exhausted more than three weeks into the toughest test that U.S. disaster aid workers ever have faced. U.S. troops and Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel—charging hard this time—are expected to fill in for private aid groups to some degree in Rita's wake, but all will be stretched thinner than ever.

Ben Curran, FEMA's coordinator for volunteer groups, said the groups have faced multiple hurricane disasters before, though of a different scale.

"This is more shocking because the first blow was so devastating," Curran said. "There's a lot of concern among people in the region about staff shortages."

Among Katrina survivors in Louisiana and Mississippi, there was widespread fear that relief groups would desert them in order to cope with new victims in Texas or western Louisiana. At the same time, many Katrina victims already had had it with the Red Cross and FEMA.

"The Red Cross has never dealt with anything like this before," said Sam Hilbun of New Orleans, now volunteering for the Red Cross in Baton Rouge. "The system could be better," he continued, "but it's normally set up to work two or three days. This is the third week."

New Orleans evacuee Rosa Dickerson wasn't mollified. She told Hilbun that she'd gotten only a busy signal from the Red Cross help line for five days straight. "This is America and this is awful," she fumed.

Frustration with relief agencies, especially the Red Cross, was widespread and mutual in Baton Rouge, which received a massive influx of evacuees. Red Cross volunteers complained that they'd been yelled at, spat on and, at least in one case, threatened by evacuees. For their part, evacuees complained of unresponsiveness and misinformation.

"There's so much frustration," Hilbun said. "People are being given misinformation by relatives, loved ones. They come all the way here and find out this isn't the place to be."

To help cope, the Red Cross trained new volunteers in Texas last week and plans to recruit 40,000 more nationwide. It's also rotating in fresh forces.

New recruits must be healthy and have stamina, flexibility and even temperaments. They also must be able to lift 50 pounds, handle workdays of 12 hours or longer, succeed in the Red Cross training program and make a commitment of at least three weeks. Local chapters are doing the recruiting.

In Houston, where more than 36,000 Katrina evacuees have sought aid, the Red Cross shut down its financial assistance center at St. Agnes Baptist Church on Thursday and dismantled its aid tents until the threat of Rita has passed.

Some disaster personnel, including some FEMA employees in east Texas, got the option of evacuating or heading home. Ed Weins, Houston's coordinator for the Mennonite Disaster Service, discovered that was easier said than done.

Weins found himself stuck in dense traffic leaving Houston with his family early Thursday, the fuel gauge falling and all the off-ramp service stations out of gas. Weins, his cell phone dying, hadn't been heard from since, MDS headquarters officials in Akron, Pa., said late Thursday.

Another evacuation challenge arose at the Humane Society's massive shelter for lost Katrina pets in Gonzales, La., off Interstate 10 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Although volunteers haven't been ordered out, scores are carless and the fate of the strays is up in the air. The tentative plan is to bus out workers, if necessary, and take animals out in trucks somehow, according to Humane Society spokeswoman Rachel Querry.

Elsewhere, Katrina aid groups reported that coping with Katrina had depleted their stocks and Rita's threat was hindering their work.

The Church World Service, for example, reported in a conference call to coordinate aid that its warehouse was running out of tropical-weight blankets. AmeriCorps said it was withdrawing its teams from New Iberia, La., which were sent in a day before to distribute blue plastic tarps to protect homes with Katrina roof damage from Rita's rains.

The Salvation Army also pulled three big camp kitchens out of the Katrina damage area, saying they were no longer needed, and drove them to a staging area in San Antonio for Rita relief.

The kitchens—trailer-truck galleys that can turn out 20,000 meals daily—will drive into Rita's disaster zone as soon as the hurricane passes, just behind U.S. troops and FEMA, said Salvation Army spokeswoman Melissa Temme.

Some 1,300 National Guard troops from Texas returned home from Louisiana following Gov. Rick Perry's call-up of 5,000. In addition, FEMA's sending 1,200 medical and rescue personnel in advance of the storm's expected landfall early Saturday.

Salvation Army volunteers will feed Rita's rescuers as well as its victims, said Temme.

Among the workers, fatigue's a factor—"We're all human," said Temme—but she insisted that the standard workload of two straight weeks of 12-hour days wasn't wearing workers down.

"It's a marathon and people all know it's a marathon. We're in this for however long it'll take," she said.

Money's another matter. Although Americans donated more money faster to Katrina's victims than to victims of any past disaster, it's also being spent faster.

The Red Cross, which took in $765 million of the $1.06 billion contributed thus far, has laid out $521 million already, much of it on temporary housing. As of Thursday, the Red Cross had 264,000 people housed in hotels and motels in 46 states and the District of Columbia. It ultimately expects to spend $2 billion on Katrina.

Whether giving to Rita's victims will be as generous is unknowable, but it's worrisome to FEMA's Curran, the volunteer groups coordinator.

"The initial outpouring was so generous," he said. "Now it's going to hit a lot of people that they can't do it twice."

Paul Clolery, editor of NonProfit Times, a charity trade publication, was less anxious.

"We are a philanthropic society," he said, noting that Americans gave $186 billion to charities last year. "It's a wonderful thing to behold."

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(Corcoran, of the San Jose Mercury News, reported from Baton Rouge. Cheves, of the Lexington Herald-Leader, reported from Biloxi, Miss. Greve reported from Washington. Audra D.S. Burch of The Miami Herald contributed to this report from Biloxi.)

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

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