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Minnesotans opening hearts and homes in wake of hurricane disaster

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A volunteer loads supplies into a bus in South Minneapolis, which left Saturday night for the Gulf Coast. (Minnesota Coalition to Aid Hurricane Survivors)

St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota is responding to Hurricane Katrina with its publicly-funded resources, as well as with private donations.

On Saturday evening, a bus packed with water, food, diapers and other supplies left South Minneapolis for the Gulf Coast. The bus, dubbed the "Caravan of Hope," was operated by a group of community, activist, religious and political groups, who formed the Minnesota Coalition to Aid Hurricane Katrina Survivors.

The bus will return Monday evening and organizers say it will be filled with 51 evacuees from the Gulf Coast.

One of the group's organizers, Don Ball, says he was motivated to organize the trip after seeing many Minnesotans offer their help online.

"I was seeing on the Internet that a lot of people were indicating that they wanted to help, but there was no way for them to connect and hook up and actually do something," he says. "What I committed to do was to kind of be a catalyst, and hook up people who all had different things that they could offer."

Ball says the 1,200-mile trip will likely be the first of several. He has a running list of more than 300 Minnesotans that have said they would open their homes to those made homeless by Katrina and its aftermath.

He says those willing to take in refugees should take the commitment seriously. "It all sounds really good when you're watching pictures on the news and thinking you want to help," he says. "But you're just going to have to realize that it could lead to some uncomfortable moments when you might doubt what you've gotten yourself into."

WOODBURY FAMILY REACHES OUT

Dan Lyon, his wife and two children have offered to open their four-bedroom Woodbury home to a family of four and their pet. So far, they've gotten no takers to the invitation posted on the Internet.

"This happened on our own soil. The people are so close. there's something you feel you can do. When it's halfway around the world, it's a little harder," Lyon said, adding, "We can't save the world but we can be the world to three or four people."

THE OFFICIAL RESPONSE

Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced this weekend that the state will host up to 5,000 people displaced by the hurricane. The governor says preparations are underway at Camp Ripley, the central Minnesota National Guard base, to provide temporary housing for the evacuees.

Pawlenty says Minnesota is "honored" to accept a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide for some of those being evacuated from the Gulf Coast. The governor says the hurricane is a national disaster that requires a national response.

"The individuals who we have all seen and heard about, through the media and otherwise, who are suffering greatly are our fellow citizens," Pawlenty said. "They need our help. They are us. If any of us or our families were in a situation like this, I know that we would want to depend upon and know that the rest of the nation would rally to help us and be generous in the way that they do that," he said.

Many details of the evacuation are still being arranged. Pawlenty says it's not yet clear just where the evacuees will be coming from or when they will arrive. Although the state has agreed to house up to 5,000, Pawlenty says the actual number of evacuees may well be closer to 3,000. He expects they will arrive by air no earlier than the middle of the week. Preparations are underway to house them at Camp Ripley for 30 to 45 days.

Adjutant General Larry Shellito says the National Guard facility was a logical choice because its 53,000 acres include the housing, kitchens, and showers the new arrivals will need.

"We can house 3,500 on single tiered bedding -- people in winterized facilities complete with bath, water, housing, and so forth," said Shellito. "And if we were to double bunk them, we could go as high as 5,000."

Shellito says many of the supplies necessary for families are already in place, but the Guard is working on acquiring others, such as diapers and infant formula.

Personnel from the state Health Department and the Department of Human Services will be dispatched to Camp Ripley to provide health screenings and counseling. The State Patrol and State Fire Marshall will provide security and fire protection.

Pawlenty says he plans to sign two executive orders. One will declare an emergency, allowing the governor to deploy state resources without legislative approval. The other will waive residency requirements, allowing Minnesota to extend benefits to residents of other states.

One of the uncertainties involves where the evacuees will go when their month-to-six-week stay at Camp Ripley ends. Governor Pawlenty named a task force of Minnesota mayors to help assess longer term possibilities. The group includes St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, Bloomington Mayor Gene Winsted, and Mayor Jeff Pelowski of Roseau, a Red River Valley city familiar with the needs of displaced flood victims.

Pawlenty says those mayors will enlist the help of others around Minnesota in identifying communities where hurricane evacuees might be able to live or attend school.

"We anticipate it won't just be the mayors," Pawlenty said, "but it'll be church leaders and faith leaders and non-profit leaders who will come forward from these communities and will help and assist with the effort. But the contact point and encouragement is initially going to come on a city level and the mayors that we've identified will help coordinate that."

Pawlenty cautioned against assuming that transitional housing for hurricane victims would be in the Twin Cities area. He says officials will consider any locations where housing is available and where schools are not at capacity.

Joining the state and city government officials for a weekend meeting at Pawlenty's office were representatives of several non-profit groups, including the Salvation Army, Hope for the City, Catholic Charities, the United Way, and the Red Cross. Pawlenty reminded Minnesotans that hurricane donations are best made in the form of cash contributions to any of those agencies. The governor says the United Way has established a special three-digit phone number of 211 to help coordinate donations.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak encouraged the public to show sustained -- rather than just short-term -- compassion. "It is clear that everyone in Minneapolis and Minnesota today wants to do something," Rybak said. "And that's a wonderful thing in a time of tragedy. But the real test of whether we're successful or not won't come tomorrow. It'll be next week, next month, next year to make sure that everyone can focus on the issue that we need sustained help in housing, in education, in health care, in the many other issues involved."

Pawlenty says the same group of government and non-profit leaders will meet again on Monday and will provide an update to the public on Tuesday.

HIGHER EDUCATION PITCHES IN

The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in Minnesota are offering temporary enrollment to students displaced because of Hurricane Katrina.

"We will work with and try to help any student who expresses an interest, but we are especially eager to communicate our offer to students who make their permanent homes in the upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota) but who were studying or planning to begin study in the affected area," according to MaryAnn Baenninger, the president of the College of Saint Benedict.

Students who are interested should contact Terri Durbin at tdurbin@csbsju.edu.

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