On the Internet, offers of assistance

Reaching out: People across the country open their homes and hearts to hurricane victims.

Katrina's Wake

September 02, 2005|By Dan Thanh Dang and Joe Burris | Dan Thanh Dang and Joe Burris,SUN STAFF

The posting on Craigslist.org was simple, yet touching.

"Our church here in Maryland would like to take in a family. Any size, ages. Doesn't matter. Let us know. We'll come get them, bring them back, buy clothes & food & house them, & help with jobs."

Jim Dewar knew that was exactly the response needed when his congregants at Grace Community Christian Church in Frederick began asking their preacher how they could help the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

So he posted his proposal on the popular online classifieds site at 10 a.m. yesterday and waited. He is hoping that at least one family will call. There's plenty of room, all free.

"I don't know where I'd get the money to go pick these people up, maybe put it on a credit card," Dewar said. "Or maybe I'd make a few phone calls. But we have extra room in our house. I know some of our congregants have extra room in their homes. If we took anyone in, I figure it would be for half a year at least. They'd get a roof over their head, food, clothing. Whatever it takes."

Hundreds of messages of comfort have poured onto various Internet message boards and other online sites from people across the continent - from Carlsbad, Calif., to Baltimore and up to Ontario - extending a hand to those left bereft by Katrina.

A bed. An empty room. A basement. A job. Office space for displaced businesses. Long distance calls. All free.

Under normal circumstances, it would be hard to imagine such an outpouring of generosity and faith, to the point of inviting strangers into a family home. After Sept. 11 and the tsunami in Asia last December, strangers similarly opened their hearts - but mostly to give money rather than offer direct aid - and used the Internet to reach out to those in need.

Age of the Internet

"I think people have a sense that the Internet is a tremendously powerful and useful tool for them to provide human aid and comfort," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life project in Washington. "You can do it from anywhere on the planet where there's a modem. You don't have to be living in the vicinity in order to make a difference or show your concern.

"Even more than in the television age, which brought disaster into everyone's living room, we're now living in the global village of the Internet," Rainie said. "The Internet has added to that sense of intimacy [television began] because you can be talking to others and reacting to others at the same moment as you're watching it unfold. It's that very human need to communicate and respond and try to be of help, and it can be exercised a lot more dramatically now because we have these tools."

Organizations like MoveOn.org announced their own emergency mobilization efforts yesterday. The group, better known for its progressive activism, e-mailed members asking them to post their own offers of free lodging on www.hurricanehousing.org.

But hundreds of lone voices, like Dewar's, had already turned to Internet sites like Craigslist, BlackAmericaWeb.com, KatrinaCentral.com and nola.com, a New Orleans Web site, with messages of hope for those in need.

Perhaps it was the pictures of homes submerged in muddy waters, their residents stranded on rooftops with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Or maybe the images of thousands of refugees, wandering around the increasingly deteriorating Superdome in New Orleans, faces numb with shock.

As residents of Louisiana and Mississippi faced ever more desperate straits, the postings offering to help similarly grew.

On nola: "1 bdroom in houston texas - stay long as need - no expenses - call collect will come get you."

"FREE! A new start in boston," read one post on Craigslist.

And yet another on KatrinaCentral: "We are willing to share our home with refugees. We live in Indianapolis."

Feeling empathy

Amanda Hazel knows all too well what it's like to start all over from nothing.

When Hurricane Charley blew into Punta Gorda, Fla., in August last year, all she managed to save were photo albums from her duplex. Everything else was obliterated. Since then, Hazel, her husband and 2-year-old son have been living in a three-bedroom mobile home in nearby Arcadia, provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"We don't have much money," Hazel's posting said on nola, "but we have enough room & food to share."

As she waited for a family, any family, to respond, Hazel said yesterday, "It seems incomprehensible. ... I feel so bad for them. We have so much that they don't have. We have a third bedroom, and they can stay as long as need be. We can give any clothes that they need. We can't give anything monetary, but we're happy to help out as much as we can."

Tracie Hartigan woke up from a restless night of sleep to post her "1 bdroom in houston" message on nola at 5 a.m.

Her husband of six months, Michael, was still groggy when she woke him to get his commitment to her plan. He laughed and said, "Well, you better clean the house and go grocery shopping. And change the bedsheets!"

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