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Monday, September 19, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"Fending for ourselves": Making do in Mississippi

The Washington Post

GULFPORT, Miss. — Hurricane Katrina has transformed Mississippi's mayors into car thieves and its senators into blockade runners.

Isolated by the initial hit of the storm and failed by the slow federal response, citizens have fended for themselves in some original and not entirely legal ways. Brent Warr, the Republican mayor of Gulfport, even ordered his police chief to hot-wire a truck.

"When you send your law enforcement out to steal things, that's when you know you're in a different situation," Warr said.

In Gulfport, Warr did everything by the book, right up until he started stealing. His force of 225 police officers and 190 firefighters stayed on the job in 24-hour shifts. Fire Chief Pat Sullivan went into the storm to cut away felled trees from the roads leading to the hospitals. In the city's sea-blue antebellum City Hall, Warr worked without power.

But three days after the storm, Gulfport was still without help, and Warr's control over the situation was slipping. Looting broke out downtown. When Warr drove a utility vehicle down Highway 90, he watched as his own longtime family business, Warr's Men's Clothing, was ransacked.

Worst of all, the city was running out of fuel. Generators were about to fail, and rescue vehicles were running out of gas. One local hospital radioed that it was on backup power and had no water, and looters were circling.

Warr turned to Police Chief Stephen Barnes. There was a private fuel-transport vehicle parked in a lot behind a chain-link fence. Warr had the lock cut. "Can we hot-wire it?" he asked.

Barnes said, "I wasn't cut out to be a crook; that's why I went into law enforcement."

"Well, can we get someone from the jail to do it?" Warr asked.

Thirty minutes later, the truck was sitting in the City Hall parking lot. That was just one episode in Warr's life of petty crime over the past three weeks.

When the mayor needed to feed the 500 or so exhausted first responders, he stole a stove. The nearby Blowfly Inn, a restaurant and catering company, had a portable kitchen parked in a storage lot. Warr ordered the locks cut and installed the kitchen next to City Hall, where it has been in service ever since; the owner has since given permission.

"We were literally fending for ourselves," Warr said. "Sitting in a well complaining because no one will throw you a rope is not going to get you anywhere. Instead, you climb out. You hope someone gives you a hand and pulls you. But either way, we're getting out of the well."

"Going around" FEMA

In the three weeks since the storm, Mississippians have in some ways felt as cut off as they did on the day it struck. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., says people in his state are "disenchanted" with the federal response.

Storm detritus remains everywhere: houses blown into matchsticks, clothes wrapped around treetops, pine needles impaled in broken glass panes. The region now has enough food (mostly meals-ready-to-eat) and water, thanks in part to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But people are struggling to acquire and distribute other basic supplies: baby food, diapers, paper products, cleaning supplies, shovels, rakes, bleach. Most importantly, they need temporary housing, which has been slow in coming.

"And if help doesn't come soon, we're going to have a major health issue," said Marsha Barbour, wife of Republican Gov. Haley Barbour.

Mississippi's first lady, along with her two children, Reeves, 26, and Jackye, 24, has been running supplies into storm-devastated communities by pickup truck. After sitting out the storm in Hattiesburg, she was in an initial convoy into Gulfport, with transportation workers and National Guard members cutting trees ahead of her. That night, she went out on a looting patrol with Gulfport police.

"I take my hat off to her," said Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran. "She's not sitting around sipping tea and serving tomato aspic."

But the effectiveness of the response to Katrina appears to diminish the higher you move up the chain of command. By Sept. 7, Lott concluded that FEMA and its Mississippi arm were overwhelmed and understaffed, and he went straight to circumvention mode.

"We're just going around them," Lott said. "We talk to people on the ground, and they tell us what they need."

Lott has used his office to funnel in aid donated by his fellow senators. He worked with Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, to get two 18-wheelers full of baby supplies, disinfectant and basic medical goods from Ohio to the United Methodist Church center in Jackson.

Both help and hindrance

According to FEMA, the agency is doing a good job in Mississippi under trying circumstances. Spokeswoman Mary Hudak, who is working in Jackson, said FEMA had supplied 99 million bags of ice, 37.5 million liters of water and 7.8 million meals to the state as of Saturday. The Red Cross and Salvation Army have served an additional 3.8 million meals. FEMA has provided 12 search-and-rescue teams and 15 medical-strike teams, and 21 Disaster Medical Assistance teams have treated 16,331 patients. There are five FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers, and 318,000 households have registered, while approved aid payments total $250 million.

"I think we're working well with the state of Mississippi," Hudak said. "Quite frankly, there have been challenges: the scope, the damage to infrastructure, the debris, the lack of fuel."

Officials say that although FEMA is well-intentioned and helpful, it has been plagued by disorganization and agonizing slowness. At times, it has even been a hindrance. A local FEMA liaison has answered the Ocean Springs mayor's questions by telling her to call an 800 number.

On one occasion, Gulfport Mayor Warr arranged for trucks of ice and water to be sent to local shelters, where evacuees had gone 36 hours with nothing to drink. He discovered that FEMA had ordered the trucks held at a distribution point at the Stennis Space Center. "The trucks were sitting for a day and half out there, idling, waiting to be told to come on in to town," he said.

Gulfport is badly in need of generators to keep its pumping stations working; sewage was beginning to come out of manhole covers, and Warr feared an outbreak of disease. He put in an order for 157 generators with FEMA and did the paperwork. Then he got a call saying the generators couldn't be sent without a specific address.

"Send them to City Hall," Warr said he replied. "I've got 157 places they need to go."

He never got the generators.

Pascagoula, where Lott lost his beachfront home, was hammered with a 22-foot wall of water and 160 mph winds, and yet, Lott said, "It's been hard to get attention." He did help to get the USS Comfort hospital ship sent to Pascagoula to provide emergency beds and food for the town's first responders, 400 of whom lost their homes.

But when Lott asked a Harrison County sheriff how they were faring, the sheriff reported that he was worried about FEMA diverting supplies.

Lott told him, "If anyone from FEMA tries to confiscate anything, arrest them."

Sometimes, when coordinated federal aid has broken down or failed to appear, corporate ingenuity has filled the gap. Diageo, an international beverage company, sent two large generators to Gulfport 29 hours after the storm.

Lott said he asked a Diageo executive, "If you can get there that quickly, how come the federal government can't?"

He said the executive replied, "I refuse to answer that, on grounds it might incriminate me."

Fending for themselves

In Gulfport's Turkey Creek neighborhood, residents expect to fend for themselves, because that's what they have done ever since emancipated slaves established the inland community along a winding canal during Reconstruction. When flooding from Katrina reached the attics of the shotgun houses, some of which dated from the 1880s, the residents rescued each other. Two men filled air mattresses, threw them in a boat and began plucking the elderly from roofs and floating them to safety.

Among those rescued was the Rev. Lettie Evans-Caldwell, 70, a sixth-generation Turkey Creek resident. By way of thanks, her son, Derrick Evans, 38, has set up one of the more-effective ad hoc relief efforts in the area.

Evans was driving frantically to Gulfport from Boston, where he teaches civil-rights history at Boston College, when he heard that his mother had survived. Evans immediately began thinking about what the townsfolk would need.

He reached a county supervisor, William Martin. The area, Martin reported, was desperate for supplies and he hadn't seen a trace of FEMA or the Red Cross.

In every town, Evans stopped for supplies. By the time he reached Tuscaloosa, Ala., he had rented three trucks and nearly maxed out his credit cards to the tune of $20,000. He had six generators, 600 gallons of gas, a chain saw, pallets of food and water, and tarps to cover roofs.

Along the way, he said, "We were passing FEMA trucks along the side of the road."

Once Evans had provisioned Turkey Creek, he linked up with the Good Deeds Community Center in North Gulfport, an informal distribution center where volunteer Rose Johnson has been serving meals and doling out supplies. They began shuttling supplies to neighboring towns. They sent food to Long Beach and loaned a chain saw to firefighters, who used it to cut a man out of his house.

"Poor people know how to survive," Evans said. "These are low-income African Americans. We certainly weren't a jackpot tax base. But we've been here for 139 years, and been through one Reconstruction. This community is about as up-on-our-feet as anyone. We're not running around looking around for something to eat and drink."

"Where's the cavalry?"

In Ocean Springs, Mayor Moran slept on the floor of City Hall for 12 days.

A charming oceanfront bedroom community of 17,500, Ocean Springs was cut off from Biloxi by a knocked-out bridge and was virtually incommunicado for the better part of a week. Apart from a brief assessment visit by a FEMA medical-strike team, Moran and her 40 police officers, 25 firefighters and 40 public-works employees were alone for five days before they received any response from outside.

"We knew we would be on our own for 72 hours, but after five days, totally exhausted, we were just left saying, 'Where's the relief? Where's the cavalry?' " she said.

Finally, help came in the form of two tractor-trailers of supplies — from New Life Community Church in Chicago. An interfaith alliance of 15 churches in Ocean Springs had arranged for the delivery. The trucks carried water, diapers, cleaning supplies, dry food and used clothes. When the drivers said they couldn't unload without a secure place to put the supplies, Moran ordered the locks cut on a county warehouse.

Next, she broke into her own public-works building "to hijack a forklift." She had staff break into a fish-and-tackle shop to get waders. They left an invoice.

On Friday, a dozen mayors gathered in the Gulfport City Hall to brainstorm about how to speed aid to the affected cities. They called it Mayors on a Mission.

They sat around a conference table, swapping stories and potential solutions. Among their listeners was Marsha Barbour. She stood at the front of the room and thanked them for their tireless efforts.

"I know there are frustrations," she said. "None of y'all have had a break." She waved a sheaf of papers. "I will facilitate anything I can. I only see Haley late at night. But I do get the last word."

Afterward, she remarked that the mayors seemed determined to solve their own problems. "There was no whining from these people." But she was concerned about the overwork and exhaustion she sensed.

After three weeks, the worst problem confronting Mississippi is homelessness. Officials at every level are clamoring for trailers. In Jackson County alone, the Red Cross estimates that 105,000 people are homeless.

By last week, when Mississippi had received only 20 trailers from FEMA, Lott was calling the delay "an unmitigated disaster." But by late Friday, there finally appeared to be a breakthrough: FEMA assured local officials that housing was on the way. FEMA says 2,949 trailers and mobile homes are in the state, with more coming.

All the federal officials have asked Warr what he needs.

"I can't tell you what we need," Warr replies, "because we need everything."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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