Americans are responding to Hurricane Katrina with a massive outpouring of giving, at times overwhelming call centers and computer servers set up by charities to field donations.
Total donations passed the $200 million mark by Friday, four days after the storm slammed into the Gulf Coast. The bulk of those funds were collected by the American Red Cross, which said it has raised $196.9 million from individuals and corporations.
But with needs still impossible to estimate and likely to stretch on for months, relief groups say they don't know how much will be enough. And they caution that, for all the desperation to help the victims, they are facing numerous complications, including being barred by government officials from distributing aid in New Orleans.
The scope of the devastation is also making it difficult to zero in on precisely where their help is most needed, and the challenge of getting it there safely and securely is changing almost hourly, according to the relief agencies.
Donations to the Red Cross so far fall short of the $550 million the agency raised after last December's tsunami, or the $1 billion in total donations it took in after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But the volume of calls -- about 100,000 a day this week -- has vastly outpaced the response after previous disasters, suggesting the donation total could rise substantially.
"It's greater than any response we've had in memory," Ryland Dodge, a spokesman for the Red Cross said.
Internet portal Yahoo.com, which is handling overflow donation traffic from the Red Cross' own site, said it already accepted $32 million in donations, topping the $30 million it took in after Sept. 11, a figure that took two weeks to reach.
In a tally including the Red Cross figure, the Chronicle of Philanthropy said Friday that total aid for Katrina has reached $219 million. By way of comparison, the publication noted that Americans donated $239 million in the 10 days following the terrorist attacks and $30 million in the three days following the tsunami.
"After you see the pictures on the television I think that just motivated so many people to give," said Stacy Palmer, the publication's editor. "They just saw they had a responsibility to do something."
The wave of giving is also reaching lesser-known relief groups.
America's Second Harvest, a Chicago-based network of food banks nationwide, called the response "overwhelming."
"We are absolutely getting more money than in previous hurricanes," said Maura Daly, a spokeswoman for the group, which has raised $1.5 million since Sunday.
The surge in giving comes despite cautiousness on the part of some large corporations, usually among the most generous givers after natural disasters.
While a number of big companies have made generous gifts, there have been relatively few to match the donations of $10 million or more that followed both the terrorist attacks and the tsunami, said Curt Weeden, president of the Association of Corporate Contributions Professionals, a trade group.
More large corporate gifts will come, but that may take time, Weeden predicted. "With the companies we're talking to there's definitely a wait-and-see attitude to the longer-term requirements that are going to have to go into rebuilding," he said.
Meanwhile, as relief groups gather donations, they are working to put it to use.
By Friday, the Red Cross had opened more than 280 emergency shelters in schools, churches and community centers in nine states, and estimated it was housing about 94,000 people. A running total of its spending so far was not available.
Second Harvest had shipped 1.1 million pounds of food -- the equivalent of 859,000 meals -- to seven states hit by the hurricane.
Still another group, MAP International, said it had dispatched a truck full of medical supplies and other goods Wednesday from its Brunswick, Ga. offices and was readying another shipment. The goods were headed for a staging site in northern Florida, for eventual movement into the storm-stricken area.
But all the groups said their efforts were limited in important ways.
"We are not in New Orleans," the Red Cross' Dodge said. The federal Department of "Homeland Security has basically told us they don't want us, our Red Cross folks, in New Orleans because our presence would keep people from evacuating."