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Americans open their hearts and wallets to help survivors

Milvertha Hendricks, 84, waits for assistance in the rain with other flood victims outside the convention center in New Orleans Thursday.
Milvertha Hendricks, 84, waits for assistance in the rain with other flood victims outside the convention center in New Orleans Thursday.
Eric Gay, Associated Press

Americans are opening their wallets, homes and hearts to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina in an outpouring expected to rival the response to last winter's Asian tsunami and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with donations and pledges from individuals and businesses already nearing $100 million by midday Thursday.

The American Red Cross, which is leading the relief effort, had received $71 million by the end of Wednesday, more than half the $130 million it has promised to raise, and two-thirds of the $109 million collected for the four hurricanes that hit Florida last year combined. The group's Help Now Web site had 150,000 hits, the most for one day in its history, on Wednesday and has been deluged at its local offices with offers of volunteers, many of whom are being turned away for lack of training.

"It eclipses everything right now," said Ryland Dodge, a Red Cross spokesman.

Television announced plans for several celebrity-studded telethons — Friday night on NBC, Tuesday on all six major broadcast networks simultaneously and Sept. 10 on MTV — while the mother of all telethons, Jerry Lewis' Labor Day extravaganza benefiting muscular dystrophy, has promised $1 million for hurricane victims.

Corporations cracked open their coffers, led by $10 million from UnitedHealth Group's foundation, and many matched money with material: Kellogg sent seven truckloads of NutriGrain bars, crackers and cookies south, U-Haul offered 30 days of free storage to affected families and Nissan said it would lend 50 full-size trucks for a month. The chief executive of Delta Air Lines flew from Atlanta to New Orleans on Wednesday in a 757 stuffed with 20,000 pounds of cots, blankets, food, generators and toilet paper, and returned with 150 stranded employees and passengers.

In Duluth, Minn., the mayor Thursday asked each of the 87,000 residents — and those in surrounding towns — to give $10, in hopes of raising $1 million in a week. In Pasadena, Calif., Red Cross volunteers had collected $155,963 from 1,500 cars by noon in a daylong "drive-by fund-raiser" at the Rose Bowl, where one man brought a water-cooler bottle filled with pennies he had saved over 15 years.

And in Parkland, Fla., students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have ordered 4,000 strands of Mardi Gras beads they plan to sell for $2 each starting today in hopes of igniting a new fad to rival the ubiquitous yellow rubber "Livestrong" bracelets

President Bush, who Thursday appointed his father and former President Bill Clinton to lead fund-raising efforts for the hurricane as they did in the aftermath of the tsunami, in his speech to the nation on Wednesday said: "At this stage in the recovery efforts, it's important for those who want to contribute to contribute cash."

Thousands of families — from millionaires with mansions in Marin County, Calif., to a machine operator willing to have people pitch tents in his back yard in rural North Carolina — have posted messages on the Internet inviting refugees to stay with them or move permanently to their towns. Many have offered to drive toward the disaster zone to pick up refugees. Gaea Walters, 28, a systems engineer in Monroe, La., was headed Thursday night to a shelter at the local civic center in search of a three-person family to fill her extra bedroom and bathroom for the foreseeable future.

"Sometimes all you really need is to offer that one missing piece and then everything else comes together," said Walters, explaining that she was once unemployed, living in public housing and on government assistance. "Now I'm in a position where I can help somebody, and I'm just dying to be able to."

Many people who said they had been turned away by the Red Cross because they lacked medical or construction expertise searched via the Internet for convoys to join: Erica Evans, a server at an Olive Garden in St. Petersburg, Fla., said she had lived through hurricanes and had to help. Sean Hogan of York, Pa., said he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when he worked near the World Trade Center, and that going to New Orleans would be payback for the help he received.

"I can't swim and am terrified of water and I realize I may be the next victim, but I can't just sit at home and watch the suffering on TV," said Chuck Correll, 48, who lives outside of Charlotte, N.C., and said he owes his life to two good Samaritans who rescued him after a shooting in 1992. "I'm not trying to make a martyr out of myself, but I've got to try. If it happened here, God knows I would want somebody to help me."

On www.nola.com, the Web site for The New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, employers offered the newly jobless the next line on their resumes: carpenters and roofers are wanted in Montana, nurses in Virginia, skilled machinists in St. Petersburg, Fla., and a nanny in Staten Island. On craigslist.com, people in Kansas and Texas offered to stable abandoned horses; a certified rescue diver in Florida offered to dive for bodies in the flooded streets of New Orleans; a pilot offered to help with his small plane; and several people offered to donate frequent flier miles.

An Indianapolis-based company that sells equipment to destroy medical and biological waste, WR2, is ready to adopt a family, promising a $50,000-a-year job, an apartment, new clothes, groceries and a car.

"If 1,000 companies in Indiana alone do this, then 4,000 people can regain hope," said Laurie Farris, executive administrator of the company, where three of the 53 employees are New Orleans natives. "If, nationally, 50,000 companies do this, then 200,000 people can begin their life again, and we would then be making a major impact at addressing this problem."

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a newspaper that tracks charitable giving, said contributions had exploded late Wednesday and early Thursday, putting the hurricane on pace to equal or exceed the amounts raised for the tsunami and Sept. 11. It had counted $27 million at the end of Wednesday and $93 million by Thursday afternoon. "It took people awhile to realize the extent of the damage," said the editor, Stacy Palmer.

About a third of that has come from corporations, which gave 26 percent of the $2.7 billion after the terrorist attacks and 37 percent of the $1.5 billion raised for tsunami relief. Already Chevron, which has extensive operations in the gulf region, has pledged $5 million in cash; Dow Chemical $3 million, including $1 million in products and technology; Wal-Mart and Exxon $2 million each. Mattel announced it would send $100,000 to the Red Cross — plus thousands of toys to hurricane refugees in temporary shelters.

"We at Mattel understand the power of 'play' and will be working with organizations to ensure children have access to toys that will provide moments of much needed relief during the difficult months ahead," the company's chief financial officer, Kevin Farr, said in a statement.

At cdbaby.com, an online seller of music by 100,000 independent artists, more than 6,000 of the singers and bands have signed up to donate all their profits from sales on the site to the Red Cross.

"I think it's just being part of something greater than yourself," said Derek Sivers, the company's founder. "What can one musician do? With five CDs sold, not much. But if you get thousands of musicians in one place saying we're going to contribute everything to the Red Cross, it can be pretty powerful."


Contributing: Geraldine Fabrikant, Bill Carter, Denise Grady, Gretchen Ruethling, Drew Digby and Terry Aguayo