Muslims to Provide Food on Sept. 11

With the U.S. Capitol as a backdrop, Muslim groups made a $1 million donation yesterday to hurricane relief efforts and said a portion of the money would be used to provide hot meals to all the survivors in the Houston convention center on Sept. 11.

Mahdi Bray, head of the Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation, said the choice of Sept. 11 was not made by the Muslim donors, but rather was assigned to them by relief coordinators in Houston.

"Believe it or not, they pulled the date out of a hat," Bray said, adding that "some members of our community at first felt queasy about it." Because of the backlash against U.S. Muslims that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he said, there was some concern that perhaps the date had been chosen "to humiliate us." But Bray said he argued against such "paranoia."

"I think there's not a better way to honor the memory of those who lost their lives through the dastardly terrorist attack that took place on Sept. 11 than to take care of those who are here, suffering now as a result of Hurricane Katrina," he said.

In a ceremony yesterday on a terrace of the Cannon House Office Building, Bray and Ahmad El-Bendary, president of Islamic Relief USA, hoisted a giant check for $1 million. It was made out to the Healing Hands Project, an interfaith group that is caring for evacuees in Houston.

El-Bendary, who flew in from the charity's headquarters in Burbank, Calif., said the money had been collected before the disaster. "Emergencies don't wait" for fundraising, he said. Since Katrina struck, however, a broad array of U.S. Muslim groups, including the Islamic Society of North America, have collectively pledged to raise at least $10 million.

"A million dollars is a drop in the bucket compared to what is going to be needed, but we're glad to do it, and we hope to raise more," Bray said.

-- Alan Cooperman and Mary Beth Sheridan

Miss. Schools Aim to Open in October

With the majority of the public schools in southern Mississippi either torn apart, waterlogged or being used as a shelter, the first day of school was postponed yesterday until at least mid-October.

"We initially thought much longer," said Mississippi School Superintendent Hank M. Bounds, speaking on the radio. "We're in the process of drying the buildings and seeing when we can reopen them."

He said students from storm-ravaged Harrison and other counties can enroll in any school in the state. "If students knock on our door, we're going to take care of them," Bounds said.

At Nichols Elementary, a few blocks from the coastline here, contractor Raymond St. Amant and a crew were assessing the damage.

It was flooded with water and mud. The furniture, electrical equipment and wood are ruined.

"There's 10 feet of water inside," St. Amant said. "They're not going to be able to reopen this school for at least a year."

The worst part about it was the walk-in refrigerators.

"We're not even going near that," he said. "It's toxic in there. "

The school system is likely to open temporary classrooms to teach children who attended schools such as Nichols Elementary.

"The best thing we can do for our kids is return them to school and give them a sense of normalcy," Bounds said.

-- Allison Klein

Calif. Hamlet Offers to Take in 1,000

For hurricane evacuees who might want to give the California lifestyle a whirl -- Jon Zellhoefer has an offer for you.

The former gubernatorial candidate (he was one of 135 people who ran in the recall election that swept Gray Davis out and Arnold Schwarzenegger in) wants people come to his town, Tecopa, Calif., population 150.

It's a former mining community that Zellhoefer says boasts all the amenities a good citizen needs to get a fresh start. School crowding? Not an issue: There are only 20 kids at an elementary school that holds 120. At the post office, only 70 of the 470 P.O. boxes are taken. There's a health clinic, a library and a small airport not far away.

And get this, it's only 65 miles west of Las Vegas, where he says the jobs practically grow on cactuses.

"Here's a chance to build a community and a sense of camaraderie," he said.

The plan goes this way: Tecopa has four RV communities where evacuees can live. He figures they can accommodate 300 to 500 families or 1,000 people. No RV? Don't worry, Zellhoefer is trying to negotiate with local dealers in hopes of getting some at a discount.

One last thing: Slackers need not apply. "We want people who want to work, who want to get a job, who want to open businesses and be entrepreneurs," he said.

Interested? Give Zellhoefer a call at 760-852-4222.

-- Lori Aratani