Aiding victims of storm has proved a tough task

Thousands want to help but fail to make contact

Hurricane Rita

September 25, 2005|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun Reporter

They have big houses with extra bedrooms. They're offering cars, day care, jobs. Desperate to help, thousands of people from Maryland and around the country have volunteered to take in strangers displaced by Hurricane Katrina or evacuated ahead of Hurricane Rita - and have sweetened the deal with every imaginable perk.

Now all they need is someone in need.

In the weeks since Katrina hit, hundreds of thousands of good Samaritans have registered at hurriedly minted online databases that link those with space to those searching for temporary housing - only to be left waiting impatiently for their phones to ring.

While thousands of families have been placed, many others haven't been able to tap into this cyber-well of generosity, Web site managers say.

They blame the inability of many hurricane survivors to access the Internet and the unwillingness of some national agencies, including the Red Cross, to endorse their do-it-yourself services because of security and liability concerns.

"We have extra girls' clothes, we have cribs, we have bottles, we have baby toys for every age up to preschooler," said Alexa Corcoran of Baltimore, owner of the food business, Let's Dish. "We have space, rooms, jobs. We could give someone employment immediately. It's frustrating, then, to not be able to help someone."

About a dozen unofficial Web sites, mostly created by existing nonprofits and do-gooders with technological know-how, list housing offers from Hawaii to Maine for anyone left homeless by Katrina or running from Rita.

As of Friday, volunteers were offering 265,365 beds on hurricanehousing.org, a project of the political organization Moveon.org Civic Action; another site, katrinahousing.org, listed 168,063 beds available.

Some sites reported a spike in interest as news of Rita spread.

The choices for evacuees are dizzying.

In Maryland, prospective hosts are promising everything from Jewish kosher to gay, pet-friendly and child-ready homes. There are host families looking for single parents, pregnant women, orphaned children and families of six or eight people.

Some didn't bother to play down how desperately they wanted a call: "Pick us, Pick Us!" someone wrote on the cyber bulletin board, Craigslist.

But the outsize generosity from around the country is translating into real-life matches at an excruciatingly slow pace.

Corcoran and her husband, who live with their two daughters in an old Colonial five-bedroom house, posted ads on three Web sites offering space, a private bathroom, jobs that pay at least $8 an hour, cribs, toys and help with transportation. They called the Red Cross in Washington and Maryland and enlisted the help of a cousin from Baton Rouge, La.

At one point, a match with a family of nine looked imminent, but the group didn't want to be split up, so the arrangement fell through.

"If it doesn't work out, I understand too, but we thought we'd try," Corcoran said.

After Karen Blue of Columbia posted her particulars on hurricanehousing.org, the calls from neighbors began streaming in. Three people offered jobs; others were ready with day-care services, bedding, clothing and food.

"It's been a huge, wonderful experience - the outpouring of support," said Blue, the owner of Blue Cow Cafe in Columbia. "We're here to love them and help them."

When Blue and her husband didn't get a response immediately, they went back and spruced up their posting, adding that several jobs, including one at their cafe, were available and within walking distance. They also ratcheted up the amount of time the couple would be willing to house a family, to 720 days from 120.

They are still waiting.

Getting the word out to survivors is proving to be a major hurdle, said Paul Wilson, the executive director of katrinahousing.org, a nonprofit created by a technology company in Utah.

Many of those in shelters don't have computer access and don't know about the blooming network of donors.

In addition, several major emergency organizations won't offer official endorsements of the family matching services or distribute phone and Web site information.

"We have to focus on our emergency needs first," said Michelle Hudgins, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross. "It would be inappropriate for us to endorse or begin to endorse an organization of that nature because that's not our area of expertise."

Contacting strangers who haven't been screened is a risky enterprise for all parties involved, said Jill Schumann, president and the chief executive officer of Lutheran Services in America in Baltimore.

"We know in any situation there are people who take advantage of people in extreme circumstances," she said.

Wilson said he hopes to add a service to his Web site that will let users do background checks for $10 or - in the case of those seeking shelter - for free. Registered users have access to discounted background checks.

"We see the need outweighed the liability," he said.

For Barb Valier of Germantown, volunteering her home has raised a somewhat more philosophical concern. She hasn't heard a peep from any hurricane survivors.

But soon after she and her partner, Mel, posted a message that began, "We are a lesbian couple who have a small second bedroom," they received a note from a teenager in New York.

The writer said that she was not a hurricane survivor but a pregnant 17-year-old lesbian in need of a home. Would Valier and her partner help?

"It's a hard situation, because when a natural disaster happens, of course, everyone wants to reach out," Valier said. "But when people are in crisis on an everyday basis, maybe people aren't as willing."

Eventually, Valier decided that if her young correspondent was legitimately in need, she would be willing to lend a hand. She wrote the teenager a long e-mail filled with questions and sent it off.

She never heard back.

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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