Few events can draw a community's collective attention. Yet that happened in Prince George's County after Katrina, the hurricane that devastated New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast, leaving thousands separated from their families and without homes.
Like many others around the country, Prince George's residents and government officials, along with churches and community activists, mobilized after reading about and seeing images of people, many looking dazed and horrified, as they shuffled among the shelters and the destruction.
Many Prince Georgians wanted to be a part of the effort to help the victims, including several hundred displaced families that have landed in the county.
In welcoming the evacuees, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) vowed to offer whatever assistance he could. His office announced this week that resources were distributed at the Prince George's County chapter of the American Red Cross in Hyattsville, which has been established as a "one-stop shop" for services for the approximately 600 men, women and children in the county from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
"The residents of the Gulf Coast have gone through a horrible ordeal, and they are asking us to help them put their lives back together," Johnson said in a statement. "These are American citizens, and they are our brothers and sisters. We have a responsibility to help them."
Hundreds of county employees have been deployed to assist in the effort, including employees of the Department of Social Services who have been helping to register displaced people with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In addition, workers from the county Health Department have asked to help screen evacuees for illnesses they might have contracted from contaminated floodwaters.
With an estimated 139,000 students, the county's school system seemed equipped to handle an influx of evacuees. As of Tuesday, more than 80 from the Gulf Coast were enrolled in county public schools, officials said. "They're at all grade levels and in a host of different schools across the county," interim schools chief Howard A. Burnett said.
He said the school district was treating the evacuees as homeless, giving them speedy enrollment and other assistance to cut through red tape. The students, he said, received book bags and vouchers worth about $50 for supplies at Target stores. Extra guidance counseling and health services, including immunization referrals, have also been made available.
Public safety workers are doing their part, too.
On Labor Day, several Prince George's fire and EMS responders flew to hard-hit Jefferson Parish in Louisiana to set up health clinics.
County Police Chief Melvin C. High sent his officers a memo saying that his department would not deploy officers to the Gulf Coast unless a request was made by emergency officials there. But the Maryland State Fraternal Order of Police made a donation to police lodges in the affected areas, said Percy Alston, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89. Several retired Prince George's officers planned to go to Mississippi to help.
"Our people hurt, and we feel that," Alston said, referring to the thousands of police officers, many of whom lost their homes, who have been working in the area affected by the hurricane. "I've talked with literally hundreds of officers who want to go down and be able to assist. We sent a contingent of officers to New York after [Sept. 11, 2001] and this is the same type of situation. People want to help."
Below is a sample of the many ways Prince Georgians are helping victims of the hurricane:
Merchants are tapping their customers and themselves, and residents are giving new meaning to the words "good neighbor."
Donnell Long, general manager of Stonefish Grill, hired four evacuees after he received referrals from Tommy Thompson, the county's director of housing development, and the Rev. Anthony Maclin of the Sanctuary at Kingdom Square in Capitol Heights. Thompson and Maclin are regular customers.
The men told Long about evacuees who worked in the New Orleans hospitality industry who were looking for jobs. "I always need service staff," Long said. "I let them know that I would try to hire as many as I could."
Long got some basic application information from his new employees but did not have them complete the usual pre-employment procedure. "I made an exception when it came to Social Security cards and things like that. I knew they needed jobs," he said.
At Reggie's Sportz Kafe, a soul food restaurant in Bowie's Duvall Village Center, patrons were asked Friday to support the victims. Wendy Johnson and Michael McCoy, who organized the event, decided to bypass national charities and solicit funds to send directly to storm survivors.
Reggie's planned to kick in a percentage of the day's food sales. Johnson and McCoy said they would drive to Louisiana to distribute the funds.
"We want to put the money in the hands of the people," Johnson said. "Seeing the smiles of the people beats just getting a receipt any day."
And then there was Joe Lasick and his friends, who filled a tractor-trailer with baby formula, water and clothing and drove it to Louisiana. Among the volunteers were Dels. Barbara A. Frush and Brian R. Moe, both Democrats, and Craig A. Moe (D), the mayor of Laurel. "When one American hurts," said Frush, "we all hurt."
Lasick said he could relate to residents of the Gulf Coast. His family's business -- Lasick's Quality Steaks, Seafood and Chops -- was destroyed in a fire last year. "After 64 years my father and I had nothing," he said. "But at least we had a bed to go home to."
Lasick drove to Slidell, La., and delivered the supplies to a church and a Salvation Army facility. Although he had seen footage on television, he said he was not prepared for what he encountered -- dead animals, abandoned cars and miles and miles of debris.
From the Sasscer Administration Building in Upper Marlboro, county school officials posted a notice atop the system's Web site inviting displaced teachers to inquire about openings. This came as the system welcomed students who evacuated after the storm.
The evacuees are slowly but steadily moving into the public schools. Within a few days of the flood, there were six students enrolled in county public schools. Then 25, 38, 47. As of Tuesday, an official said, there were 83.
A ninth-grade girl from New Orleans landed at DuVal High in Lanham. Principal Thomas Anderson said he spoke with her in the hallway and she appeared to be blending right in. He said principals were on the alert for the new students and seeking to give them an "accepting, compassionate, understanding" atmosphere for learning.
Much as they did after December's South Asian tsunami, schools began collecting relief money. Students at Ernest Everett Just Middle School in Mitchellville held a concert and vigil last week. The school board established a Katrina fund to benefit the American Red Cross. At individual schools, students and teachers were also pitching in. Charles H. Flowers High in Springdale, for example, set a goal of raising $50,000 in money and supplies.
At Mary Harris "Mother" Jones Elementary School in Adelphi, a sign posted in the main hallway asked each student to donate $1. Similar efforts were underway at Robert Goddard French Immersion and Montessori School in Seabrook and elsewhere. Hyattsville Middle School has raised more than $6,300. Francis Scott Key Elementary in District Heights is building a "Bridge Over Troubled Water." A $1 donation buys a paper "brick," inscribed with a name and a message of hope, that will be laid in the lobby to form a bridge. The school has raised $2,500.
New Orleans is known for its cuisine, but Battalion Chief Jerome LaMoria and his crew from the Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department were sustaining themselves on food that wasn't likely to delight anybody's palate.
LaMoria, who heads a station in the Suitland area, is part of a four-member contingent from Prince George's that flew to Jefferson Parish to set up health clinics and a kitchen for doctors and other medical professionals.
For days, the fire and EMS workers sustained themselves on beef stew, corned beef hash, rice with stewed prunes and MREs -- meals ready to eat -- as they worked around the clock.
"We're seeing a lot of people who have run low on their medication and are suffering the effects of that," LaMoria said in an interview by cell phone. "There is a lot of dehydration, some general sickness issues and some issues of feet sores from the water. We are also seeing the usual asthma attacks and people who have been cut and need tetanus boosters."
Many of the 100 emergency workers at the clinics are from fire stations in Maryland. They have been assisting with logistics as workers repair Meadowcrest Hospital in Kenner, La., which was evacuated before the storm. The Maryland group is expected to return home next week.
All the help -- the fundraisers, the health screenings, the baby formula -- has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated.
Consider Angela Hebert, who recently arrived in the county with her toddler son after spending a few days at the D.C. Armory, which has been set up as a shelter. She was directed to the Red Cross facility in Hyattsville, where she received a $350 debit card and some kind words.
Red Cross worker Anne Williams, having seen the distress on Hebert's face, offered her a distraction.
"At some point you have to visit the zoo," Williams said. "There's a new baby panda there."
"I promise I will," Hebert responded with a weak smile.
She turned to leave.
"God bless all of you," she said.