Independent Volunteers Join Katrina Aid Effort

As horrific scenes of human suffering unfold on the television, many Americans are heading to the Gulf region to assist with hurricane relief efforts. Some are heading their own independent missions, against advice from established aid organizations such as the Red Cross.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Thousands of volunteers are now pouring into the Katrina disaster zone from across the country. Some are trained medics or heavy equipment operators; others just want to help. These do-it-yourselfers are headed south with chain saws, bottled water and a ton of goodwill. But aid officials are concerned some volunteers may become part of the problem. NPR's Eric Niiler has more.

ERIC NIILER reporting:

After a couple of days of watching disaster footage on CNN, Carlos Gavidia said he had enough. He owns a successful financial services company in Virginia, and says he couldn't wait any longer.

Mr. CARLOS GAVIDIA (Volunteer): I'm more of an action guy. And so I called my partner and I said, `Let's do something. Instead of just giving money to the Red Cross, let's hand-deliver something.'

NIILER: Gavidia and his partner bought $100,000 worth of meals ready to eat from a South Carolina contractor. They got Safeway and Costco to donate bottled water. A buddy from Boston loaned his 18-wheeler, and they're trying to get another one for all the supplies. The convoy leaves in a few days. Destination? Gulfport, Mississippi.

Mr. GAVIDIA: People tried to discourage me, tell me, `Oh, no, let the government handle it. Let them do it.' But this is just too devastating, and I've just been compelled that I've got to done something today, now.

NIILER: Gavidia's can-do attitude is being repeated across the country. Do-it-yourself aid convoys are loading up in many cities, including New York, Chicago, Charlotte and Cleveland. Many are being organized by local radio or TV stations, or on the Internet through community Web sites such as craigslist. Online, it's easy to see all the people who want to help. But Marietta Basil(ph) with the American Red Cross in Washington says all this help may be too much of a good thing.

Ms. MARIETTA BASIL (American Red Cross): Well, the major problem is that often there's no one on that end to receive them. So it creates chaos and disappointment.

NIILER: Basil says many volunteers who show up in a disaster zone don't know what they're doing. This was especially true earlier this year after the tsunami struck Indonesia when hundreds of Westerners arrived days later with little food or water of their own. Without training, a plan and a destination, Basil says they're more like disaster tourists.

Ms. BASIL: They can really tax the resources and kind of be more of a hindrance than a help, actually.

NIILER: Don't tell that to Michael Belobradic(ph), a 22-year-old bartender and college student in Columbus, Georgia. He's looking for a ride to New Orleans.

Mr. MICHAEL BELOBRADIC (Volunteer): I just don't feel like I can sit at home and, you know, drink with my friends and play video games and go to work--which is what I would probably be doing--for the next couple of months and live with myself if I didn't try to do something to help.

NIILER: Belobradic says he's tried calling the Red Cross, but couldn't get through. He says he's a good camper and knows how to work with people, but admits he has no special skills. Red Cross officials say many people underestimate the physical and emotional toll on rescue workers, even trained ones. Melissa Wenzel(ph) is a Red Cross volunteer from Phoenix who arrived in Baton Rouge on Monday.

Ms. MELISSA WENZEL (Red Cross Volunteer): Our main goal is providing immediate relief, such as food, sheltering and emotional support. And we just don't have the bandwidth to warehouse and package and distribute the massive amounts of donated goods that are coming in.

NIILER: Wenzel's best advice is for people to sit tight, wait a week or so. By then, officials will know exactly what is needed. Eric Niiler, NPR News, Washington.

ELLIOTT: You can follow the career of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the latest news on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina at our Web site, npr.org.

This is NPR News.

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