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Wednesday, October 19, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Biloxi residents "wait and pray"

The Associated Press

BILOXI, Miss. — In the poorest of neighborhoods here, people sleep outside with no running water or power. They live among starving cats, rotting heaps of garbage and constant, buzzing flies. The bathroom is anywhere and everywhere. The filth is inescapable.

Weeks after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their homes and jobs, many people in east Biloxi are living amid the rubble of their own houses, waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to deliver the trailers they have applied for — or for other federal assistance.

"We just wait and pray," said Kenneth Albus, 45, who has spent weeks in the wreckage of his rented house, taking care of his friend Margaret Nevels, a 65-year-old woman with swollen ankles and a heart condition.

People subsisting in similar, squalid conditions can be found all over east Biloxi, this city's version of the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans and only blocks behind the wealthy casinos that line the coast.

Those interviewed — black, white and Vietnamese — say FEMA has forgotten them. Nobody cares about the poor, they say. Never have, never did. Katrina didn't kill them, but they fear the coming weeks might.

"We [are] alive now, and we want to stay that way," said Bessie Tanksley, 81.

FEMA says it hasn't abandoned Biloxi's destitute and has already provided $465 million in housing assistance in Mississippi.

Jess Seigal, a FEMA spokesman in Biloxi, acknowledged that it is difficult to find temporary housing on the coast and that many people are reluctant to leave what remains of their homes.

But "the folks sitting in their front yards don't have to stay there," he said.

FEMA is trying to get trailers to everyone and knows people are frustrated. Seigal said 3,915 units already have been delivered to the six southern counties in Mississippi, including Harrison, where Biloxi is situated. He estimates the state will need 30,000 units.

After Katrina hit Biloxi, Tanksley emerged from her attic with 10 other people. Weeks later, she sits on the porch of her ruined brick house along with other family members taking refuge there.

Typhaney Neely, 29, came here with her four children — including 3-month-old Christian, who was napping on a cot inside the moldy, dank and clearly uninhabitable house.

"We don't want handouts," Neely said. "We just want shelter. I'm just frustrated. ... It's going to get cold."

Neely said they tried to find a hotel room, but none were available. Many hotels in Biloxi and Gulfport are booked for weeks, if not until the end of the year. Snagging an apartment has been impossible. Tents are the more likely scenario. Many of the displaced are too proud — or too scared — to go to shelters.

"Try to find me a place to rent," Albus said. "Show me one that don't cost an arm and leg and two fingers."

Down the street, a group of men sat together in a rank corner of the block, sipping whiskey and trying to ignore the putrid smell wafting from an adjacent house. The booze, said one 52-year-old man nicknamed Raghead, "eases my mind."

This stretch of Biloxi, a city of about 50,000, is a sanctuary for the original homeless, the people who had nothing before Katrina swept over this place, wiping out the casinos that supplanted the fishing industry as the main economic driver years ago.

"We don't have a roof," Raghead said. "We got a tarp."

Porches to nowhere are now serving as living and bedrooms. Plastic coolers are refrigerators. Broken trees are used to hang laundry. Kitchens are random cutlery and a camping stove.

The luckiest ones, such as Tuan Nguyen, 37, have secured tents and scrounged gas grills. Nguyen, his wife, Ngan, and two children, ages 7 and 8, are squatting on the tiled porch of a friend's home that was flooded.

His wife keeps the porch spotless. It's where they eat and sleep in a tent. Shoes are forbidden.

This is home — but without electricity. For three weeks, the Nguyens have been living on this porch. Churches have supplied most of their current possessions, such as pots and pans, food and water.

"That's all we have," Tuan Nguyen said, pointing to a few boxes. "I got no money. I don't know what I'm going to do. I lost everything."

As his sad words trail off, a Red Cross van appears, letting people know through a loudspeaker that food has arrived. Nguyen goes to the truck and is handed a plastic foam box containing chicken dumplings, peas and apple sauce.

One of the Red Cross workers, 44-year-old John Capecci from Baltimore, has been volunteering for three weeks. He knows the streets, driving them day after day searching for the needy.

"There is an endless supply of them," Capecci said. "It goes on for mile after mile."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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