When can I go home?
Relief efforts under way for those stranded by storm
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(CNN) -- Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Hurricane Katrina holed up with friends and family across the South probably have one question foremost on their minds: When can I go home?
Not for a while, disaster officials said Monday, and for some, not for a long time.
In the meantime, the American Red Cross, a number of businesses and the federal government said they were launching relief efforts. ( See the video of boats rescuing the hobbled and stranded -- 2:47)
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is preparing to house "at least tens of thousands of victims ... for literally months on end," said the agency's director, Michael Brown.
Lakes and rivers were still spilling over levees late Monday, and "it's going to get worse before it gets better," Brown said. (See video explaining where water flowed when the levee gave way -- 2:11 )
Veteran FEMA staff members who have surveyed the destruction report some of the worst damage they have ever seen, he said.
"This is truly a catastrophic event," Brown said on CNN's "Larry King Live."
Louisiana and Mississippi officials urged evacuees as well as those stranded by flooding from the storm to stay put.
"It's too dangerous to come home," said Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who ordered state police to block re-entry routes to all but emergency workers. (Full story)
A Louisiana public health expert described conditions in New Orleans that are probably typical in all the stricken areas:
"No sewage, no drinking water, contamination, threat of rapid increase in mosquitoes, roads are impassible, downed power lines everywhere, trees, debris from houses in the roads, no way to go shopping, no gas," said Ivor van Heerden, director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes in Baton Rouge.
The American Red Cross' relief operation would be the largest in its history, the organization's president, Marty Evans, said on CNN's "Paula Zahn Now" -- larger than for all four of last year's Florida hurricanes combined. (See video of Red Cross preparations for the devastation -- 3:25)
More than 75,000 people were being housed in nearly 240 shelters across the region, and "we expect that to grow" as people who can't return home seek somewhere to stay, Evans said.
Baby formula, communications equipment, generators, water and ice are being rushed into hard-hit areas by the federal government, along with doctors, nurses and first-aid supplies, The Associated Press reported.
Experts to help with search-and-rescue efforts have been dispatched by the Pentagon, the AP said.
Wal-Mart said it has donated $1 million to the Salvation Army for disaster relief and that more than 80 stores in the Gulf Coast states would help distribute relief goods.
The home improvement chain Lowe's said it would match customer donations up to $1 million.
T-Mobile said it was offering Wi-Fi Internet service free of charge at its HotSpot locations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
The HotSpot service is offered at Borders Books and Music, FedEx Kinko's, Starbucks, Hyatt Hotels, Red Roof Inn Motels, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and US Airways clubs and lounges.
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