As rescue efforts continued yesterday in the flood-ravaged Southeast, drinking water, rescue vehicles and personnel, and communications channels were in shortest supply, aid organizations and evacuees said. As Red Cross workers prepared to move about 23,000 refugees from the damaged Superdome to the Astrodome in Houston, transportation was also a problem.
"Right now, shelter, meals, water and mental health counseling are things people are in need of," said Red Cross spokeswoman Devorah Goldburg. "But we're not always hearing exactly what the needs are, because we've had spotty communication with our people on the ground."
Americans have pledged at least $27 million to help the victims, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which is tracking charitable contributions after the disaster. It said the pace of donations parallels the early response to the South Asian tsunami in December.
Across the country, local and regional Web sites bulged with pleas and offers for help. Residents of flooded parishes pleaded for more attention from rescue and relief workers. A man with a specially equipped plane offered help with rooftop rescues. Web sites normally devoted to garage sales and zoning questions solicited donations.
"The driving issue right now is the evacuation of New Orleans and where we're going to house all those people. We've got 23,000 people being bused to Houston today," said Maj. George Hood, national community relations secretary for the Salvation Army. Hood said the organization is operating feeding stations in the Mississippi towns of Biloxi, Gulfport and Hattiesburg, in Mobile, Ala., and on the perimeter of New Orleans, all of which had problems with water supplies.
Beyond requests for sustenance, "We are getting many, many calls trying to find lost family members and asking for rescue efforts," Hood said.
The Salvation Army yesterday beefed up its Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network, or SATERN, a nationwide network of 2,800 amateur radio operators working to link stranded victims with search-and-rescue workers and to help family and friends get information about their loved ones through its Web site, www.satern.org. The network has handled 1,200 contacts since the storm hit, nearly overwhelming its computer servers.
About 11:15 a.m. Tuesday, SATERN volunteer Russ Fillinger was running the network when he got an emergency call from an operator near Tulsa. One member of a group of more than 15 people trapped on the roof of a building in downtown New Orleans had used a dying cell phone to call a family member in Tulsa, who relayed the S.O.S. to the local Red Cross. The charity contacted a ham operator in the area, who contacted Fillinger.
"I was just a relay kind of station. The message got transmitted on into the Coast Guard, who handled the rescue," said Fillinger, 78, whose ham radio unit is based in his hilltop home in Portland, Ore. "By the evening, we got confirmation that the group had been rescued," including an 81-year-old woman that Fillinger knows only as Helen.
"She needed some kind of medical attention, and I think that's what put the priorities on," Fillinger said. "I've been doing this since 1948. It's a good feeling. You bet."
On the telephone from a motel room in Dallas packed with family and pets, eating cold cuts from Wal-Mart to conserve their last hundred dollars, Erin Caimi, 25, of Kenner, La., said her family would soon have to find other shelter.
"This hotel is full of evacuees, totally full," she said. "This is the closest place we could get, and had to find someplace that took our animals," a 125-pound mastiff, a cat and two birds.
But what troubled the family most, Caimi said, was the lack of news about her father, Chita Caimi, 53, a firefighter whom the family last heard from in a cell phone call Monday night, when he was stranded on the third floor of the St. Bernard Cultural Center. In postings on NOLA.com, the Web site of the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, Caimi and others from St. Bernard Parish issued pleas for information about lost loved ones and more search-and-rescue operations.
"I don't care if my house is not there. I don't care if I don't have anything to come home to," Caimi said, weeping into the telephone. "I just want to know about my dad."
John Robinson of the Presbyterian Church's disaster assistance program said member churches from as far away as Florida and Idaho were preparing to offer congregants' homes and church halls to shelter people who could no longer afford to stay in motels.
"We have to set up a process for helping churches know what they're doing and what they're getting into, because this is going to be a long-term process," he said. Despite the need, he said, he foresaw few takers for the farthest-flung options. "People want to stay in the area close to where their home is because they need to go back and see for themselves what they've lost, what remains, and come to terms with that.
"They're not going to be ready to think about moving further away."