GULFPORT, Miss – If Hurricane Katrina (search) hadn't come ashore, Carlos Drake and Robert Castro might never have gotten together. But they did — and their story is like countless others across America: Ordinary people finding ways to help those who have lost so much.
Castro spent three days at his home in Houston trying to get hold of his relatives in Gulfport. When he finally did, they told him what he already knew from watching TV.
"'Hey, we need some help,'" Castro recalled his brother-in-law saying. "'A lot of people don't have food.'"
So, Castro went to his boss who knew Drake, a truck driver. Soon, Drake and his rig were headed to the Mississippi coast, with diapers, juice and water.
"If you look on the news, the people need it," said Drake, 32, who volunteered his time to haul what Castro and his co-workers collected. "Somebody has to bring it to them."
Michael Jennings, of Thomasville, Ga., doesn't have relatives or even know anybody in southern Mississippi, but he and friends nonetheless collected supplies, loaded them in a small trailer and drove more than 350 miles to a poor neighborhood in north Gulfport. They were the first ones — not a government agency or an organized charity — to bring aid to where Janice Henry lives.
"I think it's so wonderful for them to come," said Henry, 42.
Emergency officials say help from large aid groups and government agencies is getting to people, though they acknowledge they've had a difficult time reaching everyone as quickly as they'd like.
Mike Womack of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said people who want to help should go through established groups such as the Red Cross or the Salvation Army.
While some who are working on their own have "helped out tremendously," Womack fears well-meaning but inexperienced helpers can hinder efforts by clogging roads or getting in the way of rescuers.
"We don't say 'Everybody load up your pickup,'" he said.
Scott Lewis needed only about an hour to raise $1,000 for what he knew from news reports was in woefully short supply: gasoline. Sunday, he showed up in a high school parking lot in Bay St. Louis with 250 gallons to give away.
"I just felt the need to come here," said Lewis, 40. "My wife and I know how fortunate we are."
A woman handed Lewis the only thing she could to express gratitude: a plastic bottle cap good for one free Coke product.
"Thank you for helping us," she said.