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Minnesota relief effort running into its own snags

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Crates loaded with cereal bars, water and diapers wait in a Maple Grove warehouse to be shipped to Katrina victims. Second Harvest Heartland has had trouble finding semis and drivers to haul the items. (Photo Courtesy of Second Harvest Heartland)
The region's largest food bank has set aside thousands of pounds of food and grocery products for victims of Hurricane Katrina. But donations are stuck in a Maple Grove warehouse while the organization searches for semis and drivers to transport the items to southern states.

St. Paul, Minn. — Second Harvest Heartland has pulled 116,000 pounds of food, water and paper products from its inventory and put the items on neatly organized shipping pallets. Some pallets contain diapers. Others are filled with cereal bars and soy milk. But so far, the organization isn't sure how it's going to get the items to hurricane victims.

"The problem that the network is facing nationwide is transportation," says Dawn Marie Nelmark, who's based in St. Paul. Nelmark says her group's parent organization, America's Second Harvest, just doesn't have enough trucks. So Nelmark is appealing to local truckers to see if they can help. "We are in need of licensed, insured trucking firms with 48- to 53-foot semi-trailers."

Nelmark's organization needs three semis to move this shipment. Second Harvest Heartland has several semis of its own, but it can only spare one of those vehicles and a driver for a few days. Any longer than that and Nelmark says local food banks would start noticing far fewer items on their shelves. "We could get by for several days without one of the trucks. But it would be a little thin," says Nelmark.

This is probably the first of many shipments to hurricane victims from Second Harvest Heartland. The organization is counting on the local community to help replenish the depleted food stores quickly. Food Shelf director John Livingston has fielded many calls from people who want to put together a Katrina-specific food drive. Livingston discourages that kind of effort because he says unless the food is sorted and clearly marked it won't be easy to distribute.

Livingston suggests that instead volunteers collect food and send it directly to their local food shelves. "We tell them if they give to us, they are indirectly helping Katrina victims," says Livingston. But like many other relief organizations, Second Harvest Heartland says cash is the most useful donation.

TRYING TO ORGANIZE BUS CONVOYS

But some Minnesotans prefer to take a more active role in the aid effort. An Inver Grove Heights man says he is trying to organize bus convoys to and from the Astrodome to bring Katrina survivors to the state.

Don Ball says he's spent a lot of time on the Internet this week following the hurricane aftermath. That's where he noticed that a lot of Minnesotans were offering free rooms to storm victims. "I saw a lot of people offering and no sign of anybody taking them up on their offers and so it seemed like there was an awful lot of good intentions going to waste," says Ball. "And so I thought well if there's a way to arrange transportation perhaps that would be the key."

Ball says lining up transportation has been difficult. But he says some churches seem willing to share their buses. In the meantime, Ball is working with two other volunteers in Houston who have gotten permission to go into the Astrodome to let people know about free housing offers in Minnesota.

I have no home. I have no car. I have nothing to go back to. Everything is gone.
- Lonette Prichett

MEDICAL VOLUNTEERS?

Meanwhile, state health officials are looking for medical volunteers to set up field hospitals in the South.

The request is part of the federal government's call for 4,000 health care workers to help disaster victims. John Manning of the Minnesota Hospital Association says the state is seeking all kinds of health care workers to volunteer. "Nurses, physicians, counselors but there are probably needs for others. And at the moment the work that's going on is work identifying potential volunteers who would be available to go at very short notice potentially as early as this weekend."

Manning says the state would like to send a team of 100 volunteers in the next few days if needed. About 400 additional volunteers would be needed to rotate a team for at least the next 10 weeks.

THE VICTIMS ARRIVE

Some of the victims of the hurricane have made their way to Minnesota. The Minneapolis Area Red Cross was providing food, clothing vouchers and mental health services to four families made homeless by Katrina, spokeswoman Carrie Nolan said. She said they came to Minnesota because they have relatives here, but couldn't provide more details.

"Obviously they've been through a pretty traumatic experience," she said.

NOWHERE TO GO

The trauma is equally intense for 51-year-old Lonette Prichett even though she missed the storm that hit her city. Pritchett has been in St. Peter for the past two weeks to help move her daughter into a new apartment. She had planned on returning to New Orleans this week. But now Pritchett has no idea when she'll be able to leave Minnesota. "I have no home. I have no car. I have nothing to go back to. Everything is gone."

But Pritchett says none of that matters compared to the safety of her loved ones in New Orleans. The last she heard, her 29-year-old daughter and 80-year-old mother were going to ride out the storm in Pritchett's home. She says not knowing what happened to them has been so stressful that today she sought out a counselor. "I'm not mentally deranged. I just needed someone to talk to about my city. She came over to sit with me and counsel me. She has empathy and she was able to let me know that she has not spoken to her loved ones and it was reassuring for me to know that I'm not the only one experiencing this."

MPR reporter Tom Scheck and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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