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Saturday, September 3, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Medical help, fuel running very low

The Washington Post

Mississippi is running dangerously low on fuel and medical personnel, and faces a looming housing crisis for tens of thousands of people, officials said four days after Hurricane Katrina blasted through the state.

The state's death toll from the hurricane stands at 147, but seems certain to rise as officials widen their focus of attention from larger cities and coastal areas to rural communities farther inland.

"That number is going to go up," said Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who accompanied President Bush yesterday on a tour of Gulf Coast communities ravaged by the hurricane. "If you see the devastation, you wonder why it didn't kill a million people."

Refugees and survivors continued to tell horror stories about looting, terrible sanitation, long lines for gas, a continuing lack of food and water, and a relief operation that has been excruciatingly slow. Government officials, however, painted a very different picture of the relief effort, called for optimism — and even suggested that difficult experiences were good for people's character.

"We're spoiled," said Col. Joe Spraggins, civil-defense director of the hard-hit Harrison County. "All these years we've had everything given to us. God gave us this disaster, and we've got to live with it. It might bring us back to reality."

At a news conference in Jackson yesterday, Barbour and other government officials only mentioned meeting upbeat people during their tour with Bush. Asked whether he had told the president about the financial needs of the state, Barbour said, "he doesn't need anybody to take him to school on that, he understands that cold."

Barbour said fuel shortages were the most immediate issue, and called for people who owned tanker trucks in Mississippi and neighboring states to step forward and help with transporting gasoline. He also put out a call for nurses, health-care workers and physicians, and said he was worried about the risk of disease outbreaks.

Some 9,000 National Guardsmen, mostly from other states, are expected to be in place by this weekend to help maintain security and assist with relief efforts.

Most residents are without electricity, phones and sewage service. Sanitation is a challenge. The Salvation Army is providing 20,000 meals per day for the hungry. By today, the nonprofit will have a total of 20 canteens operating, serving 30,000 meals a day, Spraggins said.

By the end of the weekend, 2,500 portable toilets are expected. A hundred tractor trailers filled with ice and 500 filled with water are on the way, as well.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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