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Snyder man's Web site helps Katrina's displaced find housing

Nobody can accuse Marshall Rhinehart of dragging his feet on the humanitarian crisis Hurricane Katrina left behind.

Ever since the winds died down and floodwaters rose in New Orleans last week, the software writer has been a one-man FEMA, using computers in the recreation room of his Snyder home to find new housing all over the map for displaced families.

So far, about 10 families have found homes away from home in such far-flung places as Kansas, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Texas through, the Web site he put up Aug. 31, Rhinehart said. Dozens more are waiting to connect with homeowners and relief coordinators who have contacted the site.

Tuesday, Edith Love of Brooklyn e-mailed to say relatives from New Orleans were expected soon at a Philadelphia shelter but because of her mother's paralysis would soon need permanent housing.

"If you can tell me a little more about your situation, it will help me match you up better," Rhinehart replied. "How many people all together need housing? Anywhere in Philadelphia or near a particular address?

"In the various databases I see about 10 people willing to host people from Katrina. If your group is willing to break into two groups, that might make it easier to find you something."

He added: "Sorry if I'm not coming across clearly. . . . I need some sleep."

Love answered that her group comprises three sets of families, one including her mother, sister and brother-in-law; another sister, brother-in-law and three children; and an aunt and her two children, grandson and a female friend of the aunt.

By Wednesday, Rhinehart had linked Love to a Philadelphia woman who offered to help resettle the family in the suburb of Media, Pa.

After attempting to verify housing applicants by checking their names against telephone listings, Rhinehart realized it would be much easier to serve as an arms-length broker between evacuees on the one hand and disaster coordinators, real estate professionals and housing databases on the other. "There has to be a buffer," he said.

Since received its first "hit" at 1:30 a.m. Saturday -- from a New Orleans family heading from North Carolina to Washington -- it has been contacted by thousands of people -- those desperate to find housing and those eager to help them.

The outcome has been gratifying, said Rhinehart, whose wife, Mary, a registered nurse who specializes in organ recovery for Upstate New York Transplant Services, suggested creating the Internet housing site.

"Within 72 hours we were helping people," he said. "I've worked on some products for years. A three-day turnaround is unusual."

Rhinehart believes this is the first time the Internet has been used to assist disaster victims on such a massive scale. It is certainly a first for him, and the project has been all-consuming.

"Some people who I write software for probably wonder where I am," he said.


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