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SUSAN MATHAI, a substitute teacher and mother of three living in San Marcos, has been collecting money for an old friend—a Catholic priest in New Orleans who, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, found his two parishes under 8 feet of water.

“He is an amazing man doing incredible things in the poorest parts of New Orleans,” Mathai wrote in an e-mail blast to friends. “But in the e-mail he sent to me it was a different man. He sounds despondent and scared.”

According to Mathai, after the hurricane struck and the levees burst, Father Tony gathered about 45 family members and 100 other people and fled the city. “These are very poor people,” Mathai wrote. “Father Tony is a priest. Enough said. They left the city with a day or two worth of clothes, nothing else. They never expected this to happen.”

Mathai’s one-woman fund-raising campaign is a microcosm of what happened throughout San Diego County after the disastrous hurricane struck land in late August. With memories still fresh of their own disaster—the fall 2003 wildfires that charred much of the back country—San Diegans pitched in to help hurricane victims through efforts large and small, ad hoc and well-organized.

It wasn’t just local chapters of the major relief agencies like the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, either. Carmel Valley oil executive David Perez chartered a jet from Carlsbad to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to deliver relief supplies and bring evacuees back to San Diego. At a luncheon for those storm victims—hosted by Junior Seau—San Diego Magazine gave each family a $100 gift card to Wal-Mart.

Many of the evacuees lost everything and are being given the chance to remain in San Diego. A coalition of local businesses and charitable groups, including the Chargers, the Manchester Grand Hyatt and Coca-Cola, will help the displaced get counseling, find shelter and, ultimately, get jobs.

Other efforts:

• The Padres held an on-line auction of baseball memorabilia, sold T-shirts and threw a rally at Petco Park in which anyone who donated at least $10 to relief efforts got a Jake Peavy bobble-head doll—all benefiting the Red Cross.

• Not to be outdone, the Chargers collected money for hurricane victims during the team’s home opener against the Dallas Cowboys. The Alex Spanos family promised to match the first $150,000 contributed by fans for the Red Cross. Fans kicked in more than $170,000.

• KFMB radio and TV stations held a fund drive for the Salvation Army, with live broadcasts at the ipayOne Center.

• The cities of Carlsbad and Poway each gave $50,000 to the Red Cross; Vista came up with $20,000. San Marcos Mayor Corky Smith told the city to deduct $100 from his paycheck to start a civic fund to raise money for state and local governments affected by the hurricane.

• The Faith Based Resettlement Project, an interdenominational coalition, was formed to help families with long-term aid. Individual churches held dedicated collections to benefit hurricane victims. One Sunday, St. Patrick’s Parish Church in Carlsbad collected more than $17,000.

• A group of Navy SEALs organized a car wash in Kearny Mesa to raise money for fellow SEALs affected by the storm in Mississippi, many of whom had just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

• One group of San Diegans sent more than money—they sent themselves to the disaster front. After pastor Kevin Bucy put out the call, 38 members of his Midtown Church of Religious Science in Hillcrest signed up for a tour of duty in Houston. They spent a week at the Astrodome with refugees from Katrina, supplying them with food, clothes, medical attention and transportation to the Red Cross for registrations and inoculations. The good Samaritans were asked to ante their own airfare, but Reverend Bucy says the church collected enough donations for the effort to cover all costs.

• The Aztec Athletic Foundation held a “tailgate” fundraiser in the parking lot of Qualcomm Stadium before the San Diego State–UCLA football game.
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