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Community has opened arms to Katrina evacuees

Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, creating a bleak landscape not unlike a war zone, wiping some communities off the map.

Hundreds of those who fled the storm have come to the Greenville area and the majority seem to feel welcome here.

Some have already found jobs, while others are looking for employment, hoping to permanently settle here.

Some simply need a safe place to stay until they can return home, or move on to rebuild their lives elsewhere.

Whatever their situation, there are countless tales both desperate and hopeful rising from the catastrophe known as Katrina.

'A lot of sad stories'

Many such stories have been heard by those who work and volunteer at the Butler County Department of Human Resources.

"We had a couple come into town this week. They had almost nothing with them and they were so tired and hungry. We had a few food items left over from items dropped off at DHR. They gladly tore into bags of potato chips," Joyce Till, a volunteer at DHR, said.

"The woman said, 'Well, I didn't get to celebrate my birthday last year and it doesn't look like I will this year, either.' That got to me. I wanted to do something, you know?"

Till spoke to the husband and found out his wife's birthday was Saturday. She and a fellow volunteer planned to surprise the "birthday girl" with a cake and some gifts at her room at the Comfort Inn.

"There are a lot of sad stories out there, so you just do what you can to make it better for people," Till said.

Volunteers at the hurricane distribution relief center in the former Wickes warehouse have also seen many of the displaced and hurting come through their doors.

"People are really appreciative, but you can tell some are almost overwhelmed by the whole thing. Some people are used to always doing the giving, instead of taking," volunteer Karen Jones said last week as she sorted through bags of donations.

"It's almost like they're ashamed or feel guilty to have to ask us for help. They've never been in this kind of situation before, and you can relate to that," Jones said.

Dealing with Katrina’s aftermath has been a true learning experience for everyone, relief effort organizers say.

'Learning as we go along'

&uot;We have never faced something of this magnitude before, so we are learning as we go along,&uot; Capt. Mike Phillips of the Greenville Fire Department said. Phillips and Lt. Anthony Barganier of the Greenville Police Department were largely responsible for the city’s new emergency response plan, which Phillips said is going &uot;pretty smoothly."

&uot;It’s been amazing to see the number of people who want to help. It's getting everybody on the same page that's been the challenge," the fire chief added.

According to Barganier, channeling evacuee assistance through the Butler County Department of Human Resources is helping make the &uot;most of what we have to give.&uot;

&uot;This is a long-term situation and we have to prepare for that as best we can,&uot; Barganier said.

Virginia Perdue, assistant to DHR director Frieda Stevens, admits things have been &uot;very hectic.&uot;

&uot;The national TV exposure has brought offers of help from all over the country, even from Canada. It's been amazing and it's kept us busy," Perdue said.

Plenty of aid was already being offered by the community, she said.

&uot;We have had so many things donated by our locals, along with some very generous cash donations. It’s been great.&uot;

Missions of mercy

Local volunteers are also reaching directly out to those areas hard hit by Katrina.

Large boxes filled with non-perishable food and other much-needed items are stacked on one side of the Wickes warehouse, destined for places like Kiln, Mississippi, a small town near Bay Saint Louis. Another truckload of supplies from Greenville headed to Kiln last Thursday.

"The trucks are packed with items donated to the collection center, as well as items purchased through cash contributions to DHR. These shipments reflect giving on the part of our entire community," volunteer Linda Horn said.

Items are still needed at the warehouse, including new socks and underwear in all sizes, batteries, baby needs, adult/baby diapers, large garbage bags, tarps, non-perishable foods, instant coffee, pet foods, can openers and linens. Additional items needed include cleaning items, such as mops, brooms, dustpans and dust masks, first aid items such as peroxide, band aids, rubbing alcohol and mosquito repellent and tools, including yard and hard rakes, shovels, work gloves and hammers. No additional used clothing is requested at this time.

Students helping survivors

Local schools have been doing their part to help Katrina survivors.

Fort

Dale Academy currently has a &uot;Coins for Katrina&uot; drive underway, sponsored by the school’s SGA. The drive continues through Sept. 24. Monies raised will go to the American Red Cross’s hurricane relief efforts.

&uot;People have been really generous. I believe it will add up to a substantial gift we can give to a worthy cause,&uot; FDA Headmaster David Brantley said.

Greenville

High School, which held a spaghetti supper for about two dozen local evacuees Thursday night, also presented a $1,500 donation to the Red Cross, GHS Principal Dr. Kathy Murphy said.

&uot;We actually raised just under $2,000, but we are leaving some in place to assist evacuees with uniforms and school supplies. We will also have some funds in place in the event of any future emergency,&uot; Murphy said.

The school also has a number of goody bags with Tiger t-shirts, toiletry and snack items, and evacuees are welcome to stop in and pick one up.

Evacuees have also been offered free admission to Tiger home games and free snacks during halftime. At Fort

Dale home games, donations for survivors have been taken at the gate.

"This is a terrible, terrible thing that has happened. We want to do our part to ease some of that pain," Brantley said.

A degree of normalcy

Even after a major blow like Katrina, life goes on.

Hurricane relief volunteer Nancy Idland, who is also director of Greenville Main Street, said she had questioned whether the organization should continue with plans for October's Sweet Gum Bottom Blues Fest.

"This has been such a tough thing for everyone to go through. I wasn't sure if a celebration was appropriate," Idland said. "However, people told me they felt we should go on with our lives and make the best of things."

Fellow volunteer Karen Jones concurs.

"I think everyone wants to try to move on, to have a degree of normalcy in their lives," Jones said.

A place to call home will bring some of that much-desired normalcy to evacuees' lives.

Sara Jean Atkins is now working with DHR to coordinate housing for the local survivors.

"Some evacuees will need housing within the next two weeks. People have been wonderful about offering for people to stay in their homes, in trailers, campers and so forth. But we still need help," Atkins said.

Furnishings, appliances and other household items are also needed. Anyone who can help out with housing or furnishing needs is asked to contact Atkins at 382-4400.

Meanwhile, in a city that prides itself on southern hospitality, no evacuees are going hungry.

"One of the evacuees at the spaghetti supper told me that since they had been in town, they had bought only one meal, and that's when they first arrived. Someone's either brought food to their motel or invited them to eat for every meal since," Kathy Murphy said with a smile.