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Hurricanes show importance of volunteers

ABBEVILLE, La.—In the first 48 hours after Hurricane Rita roared through the sodden edges of the Gulf Coast, Tracy Savage lived off the handouts of a stranger.

Just before the storm delivered a 10-foot surge, Savage packed up his wife, two children and little else and drove his barely running motor home inland from his home in Mouton Cove, a marshy speck in Vermilion Parish now washed away by the storm.

"Just about everything I own is floating somewhere" said Savage, now parked at the Abbeville First Baptist Church, which sits on a high and dry patch downtown, while he waited for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"Everything I got to survive, I got from that man who kept circling this neighborhood."

With twin historic storms in less than a month, America has become a nation largely dependent on the kindness of others. The country is relying on volunteer efforts, often led by churches, to heal the storm-scarred South.

"We always relied on local volunteers as the first responders, but a disaster of this magnitude simply outdistanced the volunteer response pretty quickly," said Elizabeth Boris, director of the Urban Institute's Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy. "We were woefully unprepared for something on this scale."

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, both catastrophic in scope, aftermath and human toll, have so taxed the national relief system that faith- and civic-based groups and individuals acting on their own are no longer supplements to official efforts. They're essential to feed, cloth and house what has become the country's largest group of storm victims, and they're often making it to victims quicker and more efficiently than the official agencies charged with the task.

This week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said that for the first time it will reimburse churches and other religious organizations for the expenses of helping storm victims.

Hurricane Katrina alone displaced more than 1 million people, a humanitarian crisis not experienced in the United States since the Great Depression.

That number will rise in the aftermath of Rita, which made a sponge of rural communities on the Louisiana and Texas coasts.

In the earliest days of the Katrina, neighbors helping neighbors quickly grew into something bigger and crucial to the recovery.

Individuals from across the nation, moved by the television images, stocked up on goods, packed them into trucks, drove into the disaster region and started helping.

"We couldn't just sit back and watch the stuff. We had to do something," said Tom Schaper, who drove with his brother 650 miles from St. Louis to Biloxi, Miss., in an SUV filled with supplies. They parked in an apartment complex half destroyed by the storm and became a mini-distribution center.

James Proctor headed to New Orleans in a 20-foot boat to help those stranded in the watery island the city had become. Later, he was back in Lafayette, La., as a volunteer at the Cajun Dome, where about 7,000 Katrina evacuees had settled. He's now the day shelter manager there, helping with 350 Rita evacuees.

Countless church groups—bottled water and Bibles in hand—descended on the Gulf Coast. In East Biloxi, Miss., where street upon street was ravaged, the church doors opened the day after the storm passed. Almost every denomination sent in soldiers to start helping the victims. By day three, a makeshift storm headquarters was set up in front of Main Street Baptist Church.

Every day, a group of strangers bound by tragedy served food—smoked sausages, red beans and rice—and handed out bags of ice and water and baby wipes that had been trucked in from all over. They turned the Main Street Baptist Church, which was also wounded by the storm, into a shelter for the newly homeless. And they began compiling a list of victims to hand over to FEMA workers when they arrived.

"As soon as we could, we got here and started trying to help. We have been here ever since," said the Rev. Kenneth Maurice David, pastor of Tabernacle Baptist church in D'Iberville, just outside of Biloxi.

He and others worked outside the official volunteer system.

"Nobody was here yet," he said. "Not FEMA, not Red Cross. We couldn't afford to wait. People were too bad off."

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): krtcane+volunteer

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