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Thursday, September 22, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Volunteer from Seattle struggles to save supplies

Seattle Times staff reporter

Over the past three days in Houston, Nikki Russell of West Seattle has been scrambling to get a team of volunteers to box up soaps, shampoos and other hygiene products before Hurricane Rita hits.

The Houston Food Bank, near downtown, is providing such supplies to thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

But Russell and hundreds of social workers and volunteers stopped part of their delivery of food and supplies yesterday to relocate 12 miles to northwest Houston.

"We [have] got to move this stuff now. It's very stressful," Russell said via her cellphone, as she watched volunteers unload food from five trucks into a warehouse.

"We have got to protect the supplies," Russell said.

The next challenge likely will be sorting out the hundreds of boxes — in the dark — because Rita may knock out power lines this weekend, Houston Food Bank administrators said.

For Russell, a Food Lifeline employee in Seattle sent to aid the evacuees, the past two weeks have been filled with challenges wrought by nature.

A few days after landing in Houston, Russell, 41, was soaking wet from scrambling around the parking lot to protect pallets of food from a storm.

A week later, she became dizzy from the 100-degree heat and had to take a break.

It's been tough, too, to see the hardships Katrina victims have suffered, and Hurricane Rita now threatens to damage the food and other supplies that volunteers have set up for them.

But the biggest heartbreak, Russell said, comes from listening to voice mail each night from her 11-year-old son, pleading for her to return home.

If her flight is not canceled because of the hurricane, she hopes to reunite with her only child tonight.

Pastor in search of churches

Mike Smith, 53, a pastor from Highlands Community Church in Renton, and four other local residents have been driving around Gulfport, Miss., the past 10 days, trying to assess damages to Baptist churches.

But first they had to find those churches — and that wasn't easy, as most neighborhoods are in rubble, their landmarks destroyed.

"We went to where we thought the churches were, but we could not even find [some of] them," Smith said. "We have a map ... but the rubble just covered everything. We could have been on the wrong" streets.

Smith volunteered to assess the damage to about 20 churches and the homes of church members and to report to the Gulf Coast Baptist Association in Mississippi.

"I have seen enough damage in the last week to last me a lifetime," said Smith, who planned to return home tomorrow. "I don't need to see more."

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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