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Katrina victims find new homes – in RVs

A Bainbridge organization puts shelter on the road for evacuees

As government relief agencies deliberated on how to house thousands of Hurricane Katrina’s victims, one Bainbridge resident already had homes hitting the highways bound for the Gulf Coast.

“Like many people, I felt a bit overwhelmed when I saw what happened in Louisiana,” said Eric Thompson, founder of RVs for Humanity, which has accepted about 15 donated recreational vehicles and helped dozens of families struck by last summer’s hurricanes. “Everything seemed to be running at 100 miles per hour down there and they were just trying to cover the bare minimum for people’s needs.

“I was driven to do more than just write a check and watch it all go by. I kind of just ran with the idea for RVs for Humanity and didn’t wait for a lot of affirmation. “

While not an RV owner himself, Thompson saw the potential relief that wheeled homes could provide for people suddenly left homeless after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“You park an RV on a property and you’ve got a self-contained ability to sleep, cook and live,” he said. “It makes rebuilding a more practical undertaking. It allows people to stay on their property and rebuild their homes or stay in their community and begin to clean up the mess and reconstruct their lives.”

Thompson, the president of a Seattle-based satellite communications company, and his co-worker Steve Purcell crafted a quick website within days after Katrina hit and began posting donation requests on RV chatrooms and online bulletin boards.

“FEMA was still talking and in meetings, but we felt there was no time for that,” he said. “We never knew what results we’d get. We didn’t know if people would just laugh.”

The Bainbridge-based organization soon had RVs and trailers rolling down to Louisiana from Indiana, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, Minnesota and California. Some came loaded with blankets, water and other supplies. One Pennsylvania woman sent along a 38-foot top-of-the-line RV.

“She had lost her husband in February and they had planned to travel around the country in that RV,” Thompson said. “But she ended up sending it to us. It had a kitchen and could sleep six, so we were able to house a family in it.”

Most donated trailers and RVs were sent to the parking lot of a Baptist church in Baton Rouge, La., an inland city that nearly tripled in size after New Orleans residents fled the coast.

“It was phenomenally inspiring to have people calling up to donate their RVs,” Thompson said. “It was a very positive experience, and we were able to realize what we could do without a lot of bureaucracy.

“We took an entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy and got things done with less resources.”

Donor fatigue

But as the damage Katrina caused faded from headlines and news broadcasts, RVs for Humanity has struggled to maintain the organization’s early momentum.

“There does seem to be a little bit of donor fatigue,” Thompson said. “We need to find new ways to reach people.”

Finding volunteers willing to drive the RVs and trailers south has bogged down the delivery of donated vehicles. A handful of vehicles await drivers in Southern California.

“There’s been a bit of ebb and flow, but the urgency for housing is still there,” he said.

Nationwide, FEMA rents about 40,000 hotel and motel rooms for Gulf Coast resident who lost their homes after Katrina.

As a condition of a recent court order, FEMA extended the stay of all evacuees living in rooms paid for by the federal emergency response agency at least through Jan. 7, 2006. FEMA’s apartment and house rental assistance program is expected to end in early February.

“A lot of people think the (housing) problem is solved,” Thompson said. “But the hotel money has almost run out. We need more of a push to get RVs down there.”

FEMA is also sending RVs and trailers, but about half of the 125,000 ordered after the storm sit in staging areas in several states, awaiting delivery.

Thompson believes non-government relief organizations have, in many cases, been more efficient and flexible in connecting evacuees with temporary housing. That’s why he’s teamed with World Vision, a Christian relief organization with a global reach.

The two organizations share logistical information and work together to connect willing churches with donated vehicles.

“The RVs (the organization) is sending provides anchors in towns for people to begin to pull themselves back up by their bootstraps,” said Dave Nims, World Vision’s donated vehicle manager. “The trailers allow people to come back to their town and stay a while, working on their houses.”

Nims is particularly impressed that RVs for Humanity, which is largely the work of just two people, has accomplished goals even established nonprofits are struggling to reach.

“They’re really unique,” said Nims. “It’s just a couple individuals who decided to use their own resources to help out down there.

“It’s my job to do things like this. But they volunteered and, by their own initiative, have taken this on and helped a lot of people.”

* * * * *

Rolling relief

For more information or

to contact RVs for Humanity, see www.rvsforhumanity.org.

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