Hundreds of area families are providing shelter for relatives and friends fleeing the flood-ravaged city of New Orleans and the destruction brought to the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina.
Even though metro Atlanta is 470 miles away from New Orleans, hundreds of its 500,000 residents left homeless by flood waters are taking refuge in DeKalb County.
By Thursday, hundreds of evacuees were in hotels across the county and churches and community organizations were preparing for more. And like many counties across the country, DeKalb social service agencies, businesses, volunteer groups, military bases and American Red Cross and Salvation Army shelters raced to help Katrina's victims find jobs, obtain Social Security checks, get their medicines, locate missing relatives and pets and enroll their children in school.
On Friday, Tucker-based Uplifting People Inc. said it was preparing to help house 2,000 people dispossessed by the hurricane and the flood waters.
As relief efforts finally kicked into high gear, federal officials tagged Katrina the nation's most devastating and expensive disaster.
But far from the cameras, many private homeowners were doing their part. South DeKalb residents opened their hearts, pocket books and homes to help the flood-ravished victims who have lost everything they own.
In the Lithonia community of Sandstone Estates, Kenneth and Shirley Saulsberry have his sister Susan Woodfin, her husband, Richard, and their family of six staying with them, and in Decatur, Abraham Walker's family is hosting a party of 12 — his 63-year-old brother and his family. At their monthly meeting on Sept. 1, members of the Decatur chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity voted $2,000 from their budget and then passed the hat to get a total of $4,800 for the Katrina relief efforts.
Woodfin, whose family fled New Orleans ahead of Katrina in two cars on Aug. 26, said they thought they would be back in three days. The seven times before when they left before a threatened hurricane, they were always back home in two to three days. Last week, on the Internet, they saw the roof of their five-bedroom house in the Kenneworth subdivision in East New Orleans that had been swallowed up by the flood. The four cars in the driveway could not be seen.
"I cry," said Woodfin, whose family includes three adult children, their children and her son-in-law. "I cry everyday. I keep hoping it's a dream and I will wake up and find that out it was just a nightmare."
Still, she is grateful for the help of family and strangers. On Sunday, they worshipped at World Changers Church and the pastor called them to the front. Her family was among about 100 people there from New Orleans.
"I thought he was going to pray for us," she said. "Then people rushed up to stuff cash in our hands. We were overwhelmed. My husband just boo-hooed."
At the Super Wal-Mart on Saturday, she was talking with someone and a woman who overheard that she was New Orleans opened her purse and pressed $40 in her hands."
"I didn't want to take money from strangers but we needed underwear," Woodfin said.
"We need nail clippers and all the little things we took for granted. We have to buy everything."
Over on Honey Creek Road in Conyers, Angela Moore-Thorpe is preparing to take in her sister-in-law Ava Lee Moore, an assistant principal and her son, Robert, who had just started at Tulane University Law School. The two were rescued from a shelter in Baton Rouge when a high school friend of Robert spotted them among 16,000 people. They finally got a flight to Atlanta on Wednesday.
"They were not hurt," Moore-Thorpe said, "but they lost everything."
Even when they were out of town, South DeKalb residents sprang into action.
Sumiyyah Rasheed owner of SWH Apparel in Decatur, was on a business trip in Memphis, Tenn. when her hotel got overrun Aug. 29 by residents fleeing the hurricane in New Orleans. She said many were running out of money to pay for the hotel rooms and food.
"Many people had to be turned away because there simply wasn't room," she said. "Many people are living out of their cars at this point and asking for help."
Rasheed met the pastor of Our Father Holy Home Church in Memphis and volunteered to help supply food and basic necessities for the evacuees from the homeowners in her Oakvale Heights subdivision in Decatur.
Last weekend she went door-to-door in the 200-home subdivision off Panthersville Road asking her neighbors to donate water, canned goods, rice, potatoes, oil, clothes, bedding and disposable diapers and money. She hopes to send a shipment this Friday to the church..
"They will need to feed hundreds of people on a daily basis until they are all permanently resettled," Rasheed said.
Similar stories are being duplicated across DeKalb County and on Friday, CEO Vernon Jones, anticipating a large influx of people asked Gov. Sonny Perdue to declare a state of emergency in the county so that DeKalb could become eligible for funding from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Jones said the hurricane may have come ashore in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, but the victims are right here.
"These people can't go home," Jones said. "They have no home anymore. They are crying out for the basic necessities; food, water, a place to stay and a little dignity."
He said DeKalb would immediately galvanize its resources to meet the humanitarian needs of the Gulf Coast evacuees.
Three families, eight adults and 17 kids, all related, fled to the Atlanta area to wait out the hurricane and are now stranded. They attended a Sept. 2 press conference hosted by Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney at her North DeKalb Mall office.
Tangela Allen, the family's matriarch, said they were not well received when they got here after literally "running for their lives." She said they are not looking for sympathy.
"We are looking for empathy," she said,
Despite working two jobs to pay for insurance that was to provide residential assistance for a year, if her home was flooded as it now is, Allen said she is now being told, the policy is no good and she will get no help.
Joanett Lewis, who is battling brain cancer and getting federal assistance before the flood, said that since arriving in Atlanta, she's had trouble getting the assistance.
"We are walking the streets of Atlanta, not knowing where we are going," she said.
Dr. Kent Branch, senior pastor at Pilgrim Cathedral of Atlanta, said they already had 40 families in local hotels and have 52 more waiting on emergency housing.
McKinney said she was pulling together area church and civic leaders to begin developing strategies to help evacuees for the long term.
School officials are already bracing for an influx of new students. Last week more than 100 children from New Orleans registered for school and many more are expected this week.
Edward Davis contributed to this report.