Moved by the images of destruction and despair in the Gulf Coast states hit by Hurricane Katrina, Americans are contributing money to relief efforts at a record rate - far surpassing even the outpouring that followed 9/11.
Josh Kittner, a spokesman for the American Red Cross, said yesterday that since Katrina touched shore in Florida nine days before, businesses and individuals have given the relief agency $203.8 million through its Web site and 800 number.
At the same point after the terrorist attacks in 2001, Kittner said, the Red Cross had raised $24.8 million through those channels.
"The outpouring of generosity has just simply been amazing," Kittner said. "I personally have taken the calls of people just pouring their hearts out and realizing what a major disaster this is."
Other relief organizations reported similar generosity.
Even with his organization raising disaster relief funds at a record rate, one gift in particular left Salvation Army Maj. Delton Cunningham feeling "overwhelmed" with emotion.
Cunningham, calling from an aid station in Gulfport, Miss., said a 7-year-old boy whose home had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina came to a Salvation Army worker and offered his collection of pennies.
"That's the spirit of America, and that's why we have $26 million in the bank," said Cunningham, division commander for the hard-hit Gulf Coast.
Before the conversation was over, Cunningham would revise that tally to $28 million - 30 percent more than the Salvation Army had taken at the same point after the Southeast Asian tsunami of last December and more than after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Cunningham said the money flowed in through the group's 800 number and Web site even without TV ads or a mail appeal. He said the organization would soon do a mailing seeking additional funds.
The voluntary contributions to charitable agencies were helping to finance an unprecedented private relief effort that was helping to offset what many have seen as a sluggish response by the federal government to the storm that roared through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama early last week in what could turn out to be the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history.
Kittner said the images of suffering coming out of the Gulf Coast have driven the giving.
"The visuals have just been amazing and heartbreaking, and the generosity has just been increased," he said.
Kittner said the money will pay for a Red Cross relief effort that as of yesterday was operating about 280 shelters with a population of 96,000 and capable of serving 300,000 meals a day.
Cunningham said that the level of destruction will require all of the money the Salvation Army has raised and more.
"It's the largest disaster the Salvation Army has seen in 125 years in America," he said.
Cunningham said the group isn't even bothering with the long-term needs of the people displaced by the storm. It's just doing what it takes to keep body and soul together in a place where many homes have been reduced to rubble.
"We just try to get people food and get them water and get them ice," he said. "As tents roll in, we're certainly handing those out. There's no place for them to get out of the sun. It's 96 degrees."
The Salvation Army was feeding 20,000 people at its Gulfport site yesterday, Cunningham said. He said he had yet to see officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"We're waiting on them," he said. "We're supplying our own supplies at this time."
Other charitable organizations were also gearing up to take a role in the relief effort. Catholic Charities, based in Alexandria, Va., had raised about $3 million but was expecting a surge in gifts today when people go to church.
"Donations have been flowing in since Monday, but a lot of our support comes at the parish level," said spokeswoman Shelley Borysiewicz.
One locally based charitable group that usually helps the foreign-born find homes in the United States was planning to pitch in and do the same for Americans displaced by the hurricane.
Ralston Deffenbaugh, president of Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said his agency has experience in resettling people after disasters.
"We think there's a lot in the model of refugee resettlement that can be applicable," he said.
Also planning a role in the relief effort was the Baltimore-based NAACP, which reported a "moderate" response to its newly initiated fundraising program.
Spokesman John White said the NAACP believes now is not the time for placing the blame or pointing fingers over the slow early pace of the relief effort.
"There will be plenty of time for that when it's over," he said.
But at least one charitable fundraising effort geared to disaster relief has created a flap on the Internet.