Red Cross Coordinates Aid Efforts from Houston

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A regional Red Cross center coordinating relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana has been set up in Houston, Texas. Jack Williams of Houston Public Radio reports on the organization's efforts to send volunteers into areas ravaged by the storm.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

They are still trying to get out of their house in New Orleans. A lot of other people are, too; many of them heading for Houston, a major staging area for relief operations. It's home to a regional Red Cross center. Jack Williams of Houston Public Radio reports.

JACK WILLIAMS reporting:

At the Southwest Area Service Center in Houston, the Red Cross's Margaret O'Brien-Molina takes a break to hug a man slumped in a seat in the lobby.

Ms. MARGARET O'BRIEN-MOLINA (Red Cross): Hey, where did you spend the night last night?

Mr. DONALD ROBINSON (Metairie, Louisiana): In the truck in your parking lot.

Ms. O'BRIEN-MOLINA: In the parking lot here at the Red Cross?

Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah. I've been staying in my truck since I left.

WILLIAMS: The man's name is Donald Robinson from Metairie, Louisiana. He's been on the road since Sunday.

Mr. ROBINSON: People help you, like, from Hammond to Baton Rouge, and Baton Rouge to Lafayette, from Lafayette to Lake Charles, from Lake Charles to Beaumont and Beaumont to here. You know, everybody's, you know, doin' what they could do to help you get along.

WILLIAMS: It's a story that's been repeated over and over as refugees show up here looking for assistance. There's no immediate aid for them here, but they are told where they can find shelter and food in other parts of town. What the center does do is coordinate logistics for relief efforts in five states, including much of Louisiana. The staff has been working long hours manning phones and ordering food, supplies and manpower for areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. Again, Margaret O'Brien-Molina.

Ms. O'BRIEN-MOLINA: We want to be able to crank out--and we expect by Friday, we were hoping to be up to half a million meals a day. I don't know that that's going to be possible at this point, and that's because everywhere I'm hearing we're trying to get computers up, we're trying to get set up, there's no power. Or there's no communication to even be able to call out and say, `We don't have any power. We need a generator over here.'

WILLIAMS: Dozens of mobile food kitchen trucks have left the center over the past few days. They're on the way to find victims who are quickly running out of food. Across town, inside a hotel ballroom near Houston's main airport, hundreds of cots and blankets are folded neatly. They stretch into a row of makeshift beds that amount to a hurricane shelter for volunteers. Some are headed out the door on their way to the disaster area.

Unidentified Woman #1: All right. You're on the road.

Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you, love.

WILLIAMS: Mia Krase(ph) is the Red Cross's staff services administrator. She's in charge of the processing center where volunteers check in and get their assignments. They'll head out in teams with their primary mission to distribute food, water, shelter and basic medical care for evacuees who have been left with nothing.

Ms. MIA KRASE (Red Cross): They come in, we in-process them, which means we have a lot of paperwork to do and we make sure that they have their staff cards, which is the way they're financially supported during the event. And we make sure that they're healthy and then we assign them to a place, and they leave here and they will go to their work site where they'll, you know, immediately be put to work.

WILLIAMS: Retired Navy nurse Pat Bull(ph) flew in from San Diego about a day ago and is on her first Red Cross assignment. She's been told to expect a rough time.

Ms. PAT BULL (Red Cross Volunteer): You know, they said this morning in the briefings that you may be three weeks without a shower, you may be three weeks without a hot meal. Suck it up and, you know, you're there to help people, and that's true. That's what we're here for.

WILLIAMS: Bull and hundreds of others won't be in Houston long. Turnaround for most volunteers is less than eight hours. The Red Cross expects this relief effort to cost upwards of $130 million, the largest in the organization's history. For NPR News, I'm Jack Williams in Houston.

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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