The Rev. William Finch had just finished his second fruitless trip to the Astrodome on Wednesday night. He was tired, frustrated and worried that he would return to Rockville with an empty bus.
He'd spent the day on the phone and among the endless rows of cots, hoping that his friendly face and white collar would compel a few people to stop and listen.
Come north, he said. There would be a real house, $500 in cash, unlimited use of a cell phone, paid travel back to New Orleans, help enrolling their children in some of the country's best public schools, maybe even a job. All arranged by his parishioners at St. Raphael's Catholic Church, from whom he'd raised $100,000.
It was too far, some said. Or too cold. Others still hoped to return home. Mostly there was silence.
"I think in the future, I'll just collect the money," Finch said as he drove away.
In the end, like many of Hurricane Katrina's victims, Finch had no choice but to rely on strangers for help. In his case, it was a volunteer at Catholic Charities Houston who made a phone call.
This morning, 17 people, all members of an extended family, boarded Finch's bus. Four more members of that family followed in a car. Five other people -- Vietnamese immigrants -- were being flown to the D.C. area. They are due to arrive in Rockville early Friday evening after an overnight stay in Knoxville.
It was still far short of the 50 he'd hoped to attract, but it was a mass migration compared with the 10-bus caravan that returned to the District on Wednesday with just one evacuee.
"I didn't think they would show up," Finch said as he watched the Norwood family settle into the bus for the 22-hour trip to Rockville.
Finch began Wednesday at the Houston offices of Catholic Charities, where more than 700 evacuees showed up over the weekend. He'd hoped to find, amid a stack of files with cell and hotel phone numbers, at least 50 people who wanted to relocate to Maryland. Like a real estate salesman working his way through a list of cold calls, he started his search.
"Hi, is this Leticia?"
It wasn't Leticia. He left a message.
"This is Father Finch," he said. "Tell her I can get you guys a home up near Washington, D.C."
He pulled another file. No answer.
He dialed a number. Busy. Another. No answer. Then another.
"Hmm," he said, frowning. Stepping out for a cigarette, he ran into Peter and Jolene Schneckenburger. They told him that their home in Jefferson Parish was intact but that they were not allowed to go back.
Finch offered them a place to stay.
"We're too old to move," said Peter Schneckenburger, 65, a retired director of inspections and code enforcement in Jefferson Parish.
Finch added perks as the day went on. If the evacuees had cars they wanted to drive to Maryland, Finch would give them gas money. If they wanted their own apartment instead of staying with a family in Rockville or Potomac, Finch would pay a few months' rent.
He paced the room, despair beginning to consume him. Pat Wiele, an upbeat Catholic Charities volunteer from California who was helping with the calls, tried to reassure him.
"You have to know you're here for a reason," she said. "You were guided here. Maybe the people the Lord wants up in Maryland, maybe we haven't seen them yet."
"Good point," he said. "So we just have to tell the Lord to hurry up."
Finch, a bit reticent by nature, had hoped to avoid the confusion of the Astrodome, but now he had no choice.
He printed fliers advertising a 6 p.m. meeting at Catholic Charities and headed to the Astrodome, along with Jeffrey Dunckel, a parishioner who had accompanied him to Houston.
"We Have Jobs."
"We Have Homes."
"We Have a Nice Place to Stay for Free!" the flier read.
Once they got there, they stood in the middle of the field, surrounded by row after row of cots. They watched as people read the paper, listened to the radio and ate Twinkies and other snacks. Leery of invading people's space, they waited hopefully to be approached. No one came up to them.
Four people came to the 6 p.m. meeting, including a Vietnamese couple unsure they wanted to go to Maryland. What they did want was $1,000 to repair their car. Then they could go back to New Orleans, they told Finch, to search for their 18-year-old son.
Finch and Dunckel asked the couple to leave the room while they talked. Even if it were a scam, Finch said, the couple was in need and would use the money to survive.
He called Cao Dang back into the room and handed him $1,000. "Use this to find your son," he said. Dang's wife, Loan Pham, hugged Finch, tears welling in her eyes.
Then it was back to the Astrodome. The sun was setting, and a couple of the evacuees reeked of alcohol. Finch watched Dunckel talk to a crowd. "He's begging them," Finch said. "I don't really want to beg them."
They left when it got dark, not knowing for sure if anyone would show up in the morning.
It was Pat Wiele, the volunteer from California, who delivered Finch's reason for coming to Houston. That afternoon, she'd reached the cell phone of Kimberly Norwood, 44, a chef and lifelong New Orleans resident.
Norwood was staying at a hotel with her sister, brother, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and aunt. She handed the phone to her sister, Susan Norwood, 47, a records keeper for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
They fled New Orleans before Katrina hit, driving to Houston with a few items of clothing and the assumption that they would be back in a week. They didn't need time to mull over Finch's offer: Their homes were flooded, their possessions destroyed, their jobs in limbo.
"It was a chance for my whole family to stay together and to start over together," said Susan Norwood, a mother of three and grandmother.
Still, they shed tears as they boarded the bus, and the trip started with a prayer. Finch and his assistants took photos of each evacuee and took their clothing sizes. Finch had two other aides fly to Tennessee to shop for clothing.
"It might not be the magical number 50," Finch said of his passengers. "It's still a good thing. They need us, and we're going to take care of them."