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Thousands offer shelter to Katrina’s victims

It is a housing problem of monumental proportions, but Americans around the country are stepping forward, opening their homes to  Katrina's victims.   By Kari Huus.
Fallen trees litter the area outside New
Images of submerged houses like these in New Orleans on Aug. 31 and the heartrending stories of hurricane victims stuck in the now uninhabitable city prompted many Americans to open their homes to people displaced by Katrina. Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images
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Even if you're following the news, the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina is more staggering than meets the eye. After meeting the life-and-death needs of those awaiting rescue, there will be an even bigger job — finding shelter for about 400,000 people left homeless by the storm.

It is a housing problem of monumental proportions, but Americans are stepping forward, opening their homes, vacation getaways and other properties to  Katrina's victims. And the Internet is playing a key role.

Patrick McLaughlin is one of thousands of people using the Internet to get the word out. He used a Houston Chronicle forum for matching housing with people in need, then registered on a site called Operation Housing, where he listed a room in his home in Phoenix for a small family.

"It's just basic human nature," he said in an interview Friday. "We don't have a big bank account or anything, and if something like that happened here, we'd need some kind of help like that, too."

Offers by the thousands Civic Action, which set on Thursday, said its Web site listed offers for 50,950 beds on Friday afternoon, and the number was climbing by more than 1,000 per hour.

"Hurricane victims or relief agencies can submit requests to people who post housing offers," the site says. "They decide if it's a good match and then reply to make the necessary arrangements." To protect the privacy of the hosts, their contact information is hidden from view until they decide to accept a request.

People in need are getting matches, but the organization is looking for ways to accelerate the process. MoveOn says it's preparing to roll out broadcast public service announcements featuring Tim Robbins, Moby and John Cusack to spread the word.

Modest expectations
Serena Howard's family in Fayetteville, Ark., set up a Web site called on Wednesday with modest expectations.

"We just put a Web site together so we could find a few families here in the Arkansas area" to provide homes, just as they have done in the past for foreign exchange students.

They have been deluged with offers — including 1,300 families offering housing, churches offering their entire buildings, and many other people offering transportation for victims to their temporary housing all over the country.

The response has been so large that Howard has incorporated the organization, and its operation will move to offices in Roger, Ark., on Saturday. They are now working to place 67 people but need final approval of their organization in order to conduct necessary background checks on both hosts and hurricane survivors. In order to reach more homeless people, they have faxed information on their organization to every hotel and hospital they could find in Mississippi and Texas.

While some sites stress the need for housing within a few hundred miles of the hurricane-stricken area, others cast a wider net. Craig's list, the wildly successful online classified service, has hundreds of postings from people offering housing to people displaced by Katrina in locations as far afield as Oakland, Calif., and Ottawa, Canada.

"I know Wisconsin (the Milwaukee area) may seem like a long way away, but we have a room in our home for a small family, couple of children or whatever," says one posting on the Houston Chronicle's online forum. Many also offer to cover transportation costs and or help victims find jobs.

"We will help all that we can and have a great community who will welcome you with open arms," says a posting from Mustang, Okla.

McLaughlin has had no responses to his offer yet, but as he points out, it's early.

"I suppose after getting out of (the flood zone), getting to a computer isn't the first thing on people's minds," he said.