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Red Cross offers drive-through service in Louisiana city

SLIDELL, La.—More than a month after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the Gulf Coast, waiting in line for disaster relief has become a daily ritual for thousands of victims of the deadly storm.

But here in Slidell, one of the region's hardest-hit cities, local government leaders and the American Red Cross are using a very American concept for getting much-needed financial aid to storm victims: the drive-through.

People frustrated by busy signals when they dial the overwhelmed toll-free number established to accept applications for cash assistance, or those who don't want to roast in 90-degree-plus temperatures while standing in line, have been flocking to the drive-through, where they can wait with their friends and family in their cars with the air-conditioning blasting.

"For many of these people, (their cars) these are their only remaining possession," said Brad Petsche, American Red Cross site manager. "It's about keeping them within their comfort zone."

For the past week, an average of 2,200 cars, engines idling, have lined up each day, stretching a mile or more from the outlet mall where applications are being processed. Assistance—here in the form of debit cards issued on the spot—ranges from $360 to $1,556, depending on a family's size, and is available to help pay for food, clothing, utilities and other bills.

Red Cross workers estimated the average wait is about 5 { hours, which they say is on par with the walk-up centers.

However, several people waiting in line Tuesday said they'd been waiting since 10 the night before for the center's 8 a.m. opening. It wasn't until 3 p.m. Tuesday that they were able to get assistance. They complained that there was no information about how the system worked.

"We've been driving in circles on the highway all day," said Christina Nero of Baton Rouge, La.

The drive-through is a pilot project that was proposed by the Slidell mayor's office to the Red Cross, which opened it a week ago, Petsche said. The Red Cross opened a drive-through based on the Slidell model in an employee parking lot at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Kenner, La., a Red Cross official said.

Sgt. Emery Tumulty of the Mississippi State Police, which is keeping traffic moving on roads to the outlet mall, said they haven't had any major problems.

"I'm satisfied. It's straight," said Juduia Robinson of Homer, La., who had to wait in a car without air-conditioning. "But it's just so hot, and I'm just so frustrated. And hot."

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(Hamilton reports for the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-STORMS-REDCROSS

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