Anna Rose Williams had never heard of Orange, Tex., when her tired, frightened family stopped here for dinner last week on their harried journey to escape Hurricane Katrina.
"We was seven people in one car, with the babies," the 61-year-old grandmother recalled. "A gentleman come out of the Domino Pizza and said, 'Do y'all need a place to stay?' I said, 'Honey, we don't need no place to stay. We need a place to live.' "
And that's how the Williams family of Burns Street in New Orleans became residents of Orange -- for the time being, at least. Their current home is the former fourth-grade classroom at the Community Church Youth Center in Orange, a bayou town on the Texas-Louisiana border that has seen its population swell from more than 18,000 to about 20,000 in one week as evacuees have moved in. Like the Williams family, the newcomers are wearing clothes, eating meals, taking medicine, reading schoolbooks and sleeping on cots donated by the residents of Orange.
If New Orleans has been a locus of destruction, chaos and crime, the news from Orange and numerous other small-town havens is the old, familiar story of neighbor helping neighbor.
The exodus from Katrina has filled the string of hotels along Interstate 10 at the north end of town. Beyond that, Red Cross officials say five shelters have opened in Orange, plus two more in nearby hamlets.
Local churches have set up a rotation for meal deliveries, with a different parish responsible for each meal at each shelter every day. Merchants who have sponsored 5K runs or Little League teams are digging through their back rooms to find leftover T-shirts and sweat suits for the newcomers. Local kennels are taking in displaced pets. The West Orange-Cove school district has enrolled about 200 new students, including three of Anna Rose Williams's grandchildren.
To some extent, the aid has been coordinated by government or welfare organizations. But much of it has come about spontaneously.
"We knew there were people coming here who needed help," said Jerry Brown, music minister at Community Church, an Assemblies of God affiliate with 1,200 active members. "Well, we had room at our youth center, including a big gym. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
"So we called over to Hermann Memorial [Hospital] and got a bunch of cots and blankets. Our members brought in clothes and diapers and food. The Red Cross put our address out on the interstate for people stopping here. The word got around. Last Thursday, I think it was, the school buses started coming; we've got 67 children going to school from this facility."
People here say their geographic setting -- Orange is the first town in Texas for drivers heading west on I-10 -- made it their duty to provide a welcome. "We're the gateway," said Katherine Frey, a florist in Orange. "So we just started hauling stuff out to the rest stop [officially, it's the Texas Welcome Center] on the interstate.
"These people were getting off the buses wearing garbage bags and no shoes," Frey said. "So we started calling people and saying, 'We need footwear. We need bedding. We need two dozen Porta Potties out here quick.' " Virtually overnight, the state welcome center was transformed into an outdoor warehouse, with mountains of donated clothing, diapers, sleeping bags, food and an eight-foot tower of water bottles.
With few or no job prospects in devastated New Orleans, some of Orange's newest residents have been looking for work -- and finding it. One pastor reopened a defunct carwash to provide employment. A local maker of precision tools, Cloeren Co., sent fliers to motels and shelters looking for machinists. "We're going to hire a bunch of people," said Kenneth Cormier, Cloeren's director of human resources.
A key problem facing the shelters here and elsewhere is that nobody knows how long they will be needed. "We are seeing some people leave already," Brown said. "But we think some are going to be here for weeks or months."
To meet that need, said Aaron Thompson of the Orange County Red Cross, the school board has turned over a closed middle school, which is being cleaned and equipped this week to serve as a long-term home. "We're hoping to consolidate all our current shelters into that one place," Thompson said. "We should be able to house 600 or more people there, if that many stay."
Anna Rose Williams is one of those likely to stay. "We don't know if there's anything to go back to," she said. "And I think it must have been God that steered me to this wonderful community. We might just make this place our home."
Evacuees who have been staying at a Red Cross shelter in Orange, Tex., line up to enroll their children in school.