Roger Guyette knows the frustration and fear of losing everything. Five years ago, fire swept through his Manassas home, leaving him with nothing until the local Red Cross stepped in to help.
Which is why day after day -- drooping with exhaustion and an aching back -- Guyette has stayed at the window of a Red Cross truck, dishing out beef brisket, applesauce and vegetables to worn hurricane victims amid the floodwater and debris of this Katrina-lashed bayou country.
Just 48 hours after the storm struck the Gulf Coast, Guyette began ladling out food. Since then, he has offered sustenance and comforting words to thousands of traumatized, angry survivors. He has lost count of the meals, of the people, of the days. But he knows the devastation they face.
"There's not a whole lot they can do," he said. "They're here. They have to reorganize their whole lives. It's tough on everybody."
Guyette, 46, is a quiet foot soldier in this disaster -- one of tens of thousands from across the country who have descended on the shattered Gulf Coast to help the hundreds of thousands affected by it.
So overwhelming is the need, say the American Red Cross and other volunteer organizations, that the demand far outpaces the supply of volunteers. The Red Cross, for example, has begun the biggest recruitment drive in its history, calling for 40,000 volunteers to help ease the misery of more than 1 million displaced people.
At the state headquarters for the Red Cross in Baton Rouge, 3,000 volunteers a day are attending a brief orientation and being sent into Louisiana -- and that's barely keeping up with demand, said Christee Lesch of the Red Cross.
"There are so many bodies to serve and not enough people to serve them," she said.
Guyette can empathize with those who have lost everything.
Abandoned by his parents, he was raised in a foster home and was on his own by age 18. And five years ago there was the fire, which wiped out the house he had spent four years renovating.
The Manassas Red Cross stepped in to help, and a month later, he had become a regular volunteer for the chapter. He can tick off the disasters he's worked since then -- floods in southwest Virginia, mudslides in West Virginia, the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon and four hurricanes in Florida.
But the devastation in New Orleans and its surrounding parishes dwarfs those events.
Guyette and a fellow volunteer, telephone company retiree Gary Rogers, drove the Manassas chapter's emergency disaster vehicle 1,400 miles to Little Rock -- a Red Cross staging area -- arriving Monday, Aug. 29, just as Katrina was departing. From there, they were ordered to Alexandria, La., 140 miles northwest of New Orleans, where evacuees from the city were headed.
By then the situation was going from bad to hellish. Levees had broken in New Orleans, and by Tuesday night, thousands of people were pouring into Alexandria. The city opened its convention center and other public facilities.
Day after backbreaking day, Guyette and Rogers loaded hot food in insulated chests into their Red Cross vehicle and dished it out at shelters and churches. As evacuees in Alexandria moved on, the volunteers headed south.
By the time they reached this bayou country town early last week, Guyette had lost his cell phone as well as Rogers, who had gone home ill.
Guyette's eyes are red-rimmed with fatigue. He aches from too many days of hefting heavy food chests and too many nights of folding his 6-foot-1 frame onto narrow cots in damp church basements.
Nevertheless, he has extended his stay beyond the usual three-week Red Cross rotation.
As Guyette and another volunteer, Alex de la Cruz, drove out Wednesday from a local Baptist Church, a man pulled up to them in a mud-spattered minivan.
He ran to Guyette, who was driving, and pointed to cuts on his legs. He had been immersed in New Orleans's filthy floodwater as he escaped, he told Guyette, and he wanted to know where he could get shots to ward off disease. Guyette gave him information on clinics.
Such encounters are frequent for relief workers. Worried Katrina survivors seek them out everywhere, and relief groups have stocked trucks with photocopied sheets of telephone numbers and Web sites of many organizations and have even taped the information to the sides of their vehicles.
At the Red Cross headquarters in downtown Hahnville, where the outdoor kitchen, run by a Southern Baptist group from Cape Girardeau, Mo., is set up, cars pull up and worn evacuees emerge with questions and complaints.
"How y'all doing?" Guyette greeted them all last week, pointing to the cases of bottled water piled at his side. "Grab some water."
Sylvia Targo, 53, strode over. She had been washed out of her home in Metairie, west of New Orleans, and she was angry. She had been told to sign up for financial assistance by calling a number available at Red Cross headquarters. But once she'd arrived, she learned that the number was one she already had.
"I came over here, wasting gas, and they told me the same telephone number," she told Guyette.
"I know it's hard," he said. "We're all trying to help all we can." He told her about the free meals at the site twice a day. Targo shook her head.
"It'll cost me more than it's worth to drive all the way over here," she snapped and got back into her car.
After loading up their vehicle with insulated containers of more brisket, applesauce and vegetables, Guyette and de la Cruz, from Beaver, Pa., headed along their assigned route toward Des Allemandes.
A resident of the area, Ken Bopp, guided them through the poverty-stricken community, which sits on the marshland of nearby Bayou Des Allemandes.
Working the beeper and honking the horn, Guyette guided the van down tree-littered roads.
This was bayou country, "south of South," as author Eudora Welty once described it, "a strange land -- amphibious."
Joann Hunter, 42, leaned against the open trunk of her Toyota, fanning herself wearily, her only dry possessions piled in plastic bags behind her.
De la Cruz and Bopp handed out plastic foam containers of food and bottled water to Hunter's grandson and her sister's grandson while Guyette chatted with her.
Hunter had been relying on Red Cross food since she moved from a shelter back into the family's trailer a week earlier. Everything is still soaked and power is still out, she said.
"That food there," Hunter nodded at the containers as the boys handed her one and sat down at the side of the road to eat, "that's the first food they ate this morning."
At another stop along the railroad tracks, a woman stopped her car and ran over to the truck. She lived in St. Bernard Parish, an area east of New Orleans that was largely ruined by the storm. She said she couldn't reach the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross on the telephone and wanted to know if there was anything more she could do. Guyette told her to keep trying and offered her food. She shook her head.
"I'm not starving yet. I still got a few dollars," she said with a laugh.
But Guyette put a container of food in her hands. "Take it," he urged. "You may need it."
He added another, then another, listening as she talked about her situation: Her house probably would be bulldozed. She tried to get into the area to rescue her cat but was turned away at a military checkpoint.
As she trudged back to her car with her containers of food, she started to cry.
Guyette watched her go and then turned back to dishing food.
"I've been right there, too," he had said earlier. "Everything gone -- everything except what's in your car and in your pockets."