Group's work continues after Hurricane Katrina

As I write this article, it is almost four months to the day since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast, most notably New Orleans. As with most of our sister agencies and organizations, Katrina hit St. Vincent de Paul Society full force. Having never experienced a disaster of this magnitude, we had no idea how the aftermath would change our operational lives. I venture to say we couldn't conceive that a hurricane that far from us could so profoundly affect our work in metro Atlanta.

How has St. Vincent de Paul Society changed? The Society has focused on those in need after disasters occurred. In other words, the Society has not been a first responder ... until Katrina. My staff and volunteers in Gwinnett and other counties got hit swiftly by the thousands of evacuees who fled to Atlanta with nothing but the clothes on their backs. We went into crisis mode, unaware of the long-term effects on our organization.

Very quickly we pulled together, becoming a partner with six other agencies under United Way to provide basic needs, housing and restarter housewares kits. Through that initial phase of our partnership, we were able to place more than 400 evacuees in housing, serving thousands more through other allied services. The range of services includes transportation to and from New Orleans, MARTA cards, medical and pharmaceutical help, clothing and food, sending medical supplies via Angel Flight directly to the affected areas, and not the least of these was simply listening to the saga of broken lives and confusion.

We've moved to a new level in service to our new neighbors. With the push from FEMA to move people out of hotels and motels into housing, our partnership has had to stretch once again. Under the auspices of United Way, we've added more agencies to our partnership to reach and serve more evacuees than we ever dreamed of. Not only is the Society serving evacuees through case workers and placing them in housing, but it is the driver in providing household kits to more than 2,000 homes. It is a staggering operation to design, supply, fulfill and deliver sets of furniture and household items to furnish their new homes.

Along the way, we've been the recipient of generous donations. The Society has received more than $420,000 worth of furniture and household items through the people of Saudi Arabia. The United Way partnership received $150,000 to purchase goods for the restarter kits. Georgia Pacific, Accuity Brands, ZEP and others have stepped up to help our efforts. We will, undoubtedly, need more partners before this is over.

St. Vincent de Paul Society has grown from the 20,000 square feet we have here at the Council office to 91,000 square feet of space in four locations to house donated toiletries and clothing and to assemble the household packages for our resettlement efforts. All of the additional industrial facilities have been donated - again, a testimony to the generosity of our community partners.

Nina Harrison is the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Society.