Hurricane Aid Line Swamped

In its four days of operation, the Red Cross toll-free number for Hurricane Katrina survivors seeking financial help has become, in the term of the recording on the line, "overwhelmed."

When evacuees call the number, 1-800-975-7585, provide their names, pre-storm addresses and home phone numbers and pass a brief identity check, they receive a code number they can take to a local bank to receive some cash. The average payment is $1,000.

A spokeswoman for the Red Cross, Devorah Goldburg, said 13,000 people had qualified for financial help through the call center. But the number has been receiving 25,000 calls an hour, and people in the stricken region tell of waiting days to get through.

The Red Cross plans to add two more call centers within the next 48 hours and triple the number of agents, and is asking people who do not need immediate assistance to wait a few days to call, Goldburg said.

Red Cross volunteers in Louisiana had a different idea. They were advising evacuees to gather everyone they know who needs help in the same room, armed with cell phones. Keep calling, they're saying, and when one person gets through, pass the phone around until everyone has had a chance to apply.

"That's an interesting idea," Goldburg said. "I think everyone's thinking out of the box, aren't they?"

-- Elizabeth Williamson and Jacqueline L. Salmon

Wedding, Interrupted

HOUSTON -- The bride wore white taffeta and a gold tiara and carried a bouquet of gardenias. The groom wore a black tuxedo, pink tie and matching corsage.

The 100 or so guests were, until last week, strangers. Everything -- from the cake with butter frosting to the bridal consultant and minister -- came free. This is how a wedding was carried off Wednesday on the floor of the Astrodome.

Rebecca Warren and Joseph Smothers had planned to be married in New Orleans on Sept. 9. But that day, Warren was waiting for a bus to rescue her from the convention center, where she had survived for eight nights on little water and packaged Army food. She had lost her fiance in a stampede in the Superdome a few days earlier.

Separately, they found their way to Houston, where they told a Red Cross volunteer that Hurricane Katrina had ruined their wedding plans. The volunteer led them to another relief worker who, when she is not helping Louisiana evacuees, works as a bridal consultant. Plans quickly fell into place.

The couple said "I do" at 3:26 p.m., surrounded by Red Cross workers, police officers, doctors and nurses and the temporary residents of the Astrodome, where the first evacuees from the storm began arriving on buses 15 days ago. Warren, 46, and Smothers, 61, met three years ago in the Lafitte projects in New Orleans' Sixth Ward. The newlyweds repaired to the Park Plaza Hotel for one night, courtesy of Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, who attended the ceremony. Then they will return to the shelter to wait for a place to live.

-- Lisa Rein

Congressman Responds

Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) denied that he improperly used National Guard troops to visit his New Orleans home in the hurricane's aftermath.

ABC News reported that on Sept. 2, five days after Katrina swept through the area, Jefferson used National Guard troops to check on his property and retrieve his personal belongings. Meanwhile, New Orleans residents were waiting on their rooftops to be rescued.

Jefferson, who has been the target of an FBI sting investigation for nearly a year, said he stopped at his home, located in the uptown section of the city, after spending the day touring the region with President Bush. The congressman said he had requested "to look around as much as I could from the ground."

He said that as the convoy traveled from the downtown area toward his neighborhood, about eight minutes away, he became curious about the state of his house, which he hadn't seen since he and his family evacuated before the storm.

"It's just human nature," Jefferson said. "You want to know what's going on with your house."

Jefferson said the water was about waist deep on his street and was lapping against his porch. He said he jumped from the truck to his porch and went inside to take a look. He retrieved some personal belongings, mainly clothing and computers for two of his daughters, he said.

But the truck got stuck in his front yard while he was leaving, Jefferson said. Then a helicopter arrived, whereupon his quick trip home became a several hour-long ordeal. "These men were not taken off a rescue mission," he said.

-- Shailagh Murray

Evacuees Rebecca Warren and Joseph Smothers dance after their wedding at the Astrodome.