Charities Cook Up Holiday Cheer in New Orleans

New Orleans marks its first Thanksgiving after Hurricane Katrina. Charities are cooking 10,000 turkey dinners for residents still trying to put their lives back to together.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

It's Thanksgiving Day, and every year that means a short story from Bailey White. We'll hear that in just a few minutes.

In the news today, one focus is the Gulf Coast, a place where gathering with family is more difficult than usual. Even preparing a meal can be a challenge. Try cooking for 6,000 people, for instance. One church group and Red Cross volunteers prepared that many meals for families in New Orleans. NPR's Audie Cornish followed along and has this report.

Unidentified Woman #1: You ready for turkey?

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Hundreds of volunteers have cooked and packed since 3 AM this morning. The parking lot at the Calvary Baptist Church in Algiers has been buzzing with bright-yellow-shirted volunteers, two dozen Red Cross trucks and a large makeshift kitchen from the Southern Baptist Convention. Warren Combs is helping lead the volunteers, many of whom are students from Christian colleges.

Mr. WARREN COMBS: What you see right here, this is an eight-burner gas stove, and they're cooking the dressing for today. Our menu's going to be turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, yams, pecan pie, gravy and iced brownies.

Group: (Singing) Turkey, turkey and some yam.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Don't forget to spray your pots and pans.

CORNISH: Red insulated containers are filled to the brim with turkey dressing, cooked turkey meat and sweet potatoes. Each container holds 250 servings to be scooped and served through the truck windows by volunteers.

(Soundbite of horn)

CORNISH: One Red Cross truck makes its way through a barren-looking neighborhood in Orleans Parish, where the faded brown watermark rides near the top of the doorways on most homes. One or two people make their way towards the vehicle.

Unidentified Man #1: Come on over!

CORNISH: Iris Johnson is one of them. She's spending Thanksgiving morning salvaging shoes, clothes, family pictures, whatever's left in her house. Johnson says she's grateful to see the truck.

Ms. IRIS JOHNSON: It looks just fine to me, the Thanksgiving dinner, 'cause can't find no stores open or anything. Buying is not the problem; just somewhere to go purchase it.

CORNISH: Across the way a group of men come down off the roof of a badly damaged house on the corner, and they sit down to eat for the only sure meal of the day. Nathaniel James'(ph) work crew consists of his son and three other friends. The dinner's pretty good, they say, but if they had their homes again, it would be different.

Unidentified Man #2: Well, usually my wife have macaroni and cheese, stuffed bellpeppers, baked ham...

Unidentified Man #3: Gumbo.

Unidentified Man #4: Gumbo.

Unidentified Man #2: ...gumbo, melatone(ph).

Unidentified Man #5: Mm-hmm.

CORNISH: Their girlfriends, wives and children are scattered across Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi.

Unidentified Man #2: All your grandchildren--I miss my grandchildren. Yeah, I could play with them after I eat. I could play with them till I fall asleep, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: Bertrand Bernard says it's hard to be away from family but that it's important for him to be back in Louisiana.

Mr. BERTRAND BERNARD: Somebody has to be down here to try to keep things going, you know, 'cause FEMA can't do it all, you know? Red Cross can't do it all. So we got to do something ourselves.

CORNISH: So for now this is Thanksgiving. Nathaniel says they're grateful for their lives and thankful that they have their families. After polishing off the last of the pecan pie, the men gather the plastic plates and paper boxes from their dinner and start back up the roof. Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.

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