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Tiny towns still struggling from Katrina

Date: 11/7/2005

Tiny towns still struggling from Katrina
Communities in pine forests, bayous all but erased by storm

Monday, November 7, 2005; Posted: 5:38 p.m. EST (22:38 GMT)

Lois Campbell and Don Lee rode out Katrina in their Pearlington home and now live in a nearby FEMA trailer. SPECIAL REPORT

Across the parking lot, the Salvation Army hands out hot food. Signs taped to the school gym doors announce its reopening as the "Super-Duper Pearl-Mart." Inside is everything a well-outfitted Hurricane Katrina survivor needs, from blankets to board games.

Help is here. Finally.

Pearlington is one example of the tiny communities hidden in the pine forests and bayous along the Mississippi-Louisiana border that Katrina all but erased two months ago.

While national attention focused on horror stories coming out of New Orleans, folks in these small towns say they were left to fend for themselves.

It's been a slow, painful struggle since then, and some towns are doing better than others.

Streets are still lined with smashed homes, cars are stuck in the mud where Katrina deposited them and the woods are jungles of fallen timber. But the roads up and down the state line are open, FEMA trailers are arriving, utility crews are busy, and there is ample food and water.

"It looks a lot better than it did on August 29th," said Shirley Crawford, 60, of Hickory, Louisiana, a hamlet of several hundred people about 30 miles north of New Orleans, as she watched workers cart off the last of the fallen trees from her yard.

Her neighbors cleared her road themselves in the hours after the hurricane, she said.

Overwhelming scope
Emergency officials said the scope of Katrina was overwhelming. The hurricane came ashore with 145 mph winds and a storm surge up to 30 feet high that sent Gulf waters surging over homes and businesses more than a mile inland.

Eric Gentry, a FEMA operations specialist, said the agency set up a base camp at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Mississippi, to insure rural communities weren't forgotten.

But the storm clogged roads with fallen trees and debris -- sometimes even entire houses -- and slowed response times by days. Once the roads were clear, emergency workers set up supply distribution centers in areas that could serve the most people, Gentry said.

"The reality of it is it's just an overwhelming disaster," Gentry said. "It was days into the storm until all the roads were passable. That's one of the reasons people were told to evacuate. It takes time to get back in."

Katrina destroyed emergency communications and wrecked all but one or two of the eight rescue vehicles the state deployed along the Gulf Coast, said Mike Womack, deputy director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

Still, he said the National Guard managed to drop supplies in isolated areas by helicopter.

State emergency officials are looking into improving disaster response training for local governments, he said, adding: "It overwhelmed the state of Mississippi without a doubt, and it overwhelmed the federal government for a period of time. Could we have done better? Absolutely. But how much money are you willing to spend to prepare for a hurricane?"

Residents in threatened areas should have left before the storm, he said. "It was a mandatory evacuation area out there. Some decided not to leave."

In Pearlington, a town of 1,680 people on the Louisiana-Mississippi line, the storm surge pushed houses off their foundations and deposited tugboats in woods.

Pearlington doesn't have a mayor or a city council. The closest thing to a government is the volunteer fire department, and most of its members evacuated ahead of the storm.

They needed three days to hack their way through the debris and get back into town, said Fire Chief Kim Jones.

His firefighters did their best without outside help, Jones said, fighting fires, transforming their station into a makeshift shelter and acting as a surrogate police force.

More than two weeks went by before U.S. Department of Forestry firefighters arrived and converted the elementary school into a shelter, which the Red Cross eventually took over, Jones said.

Shaun Clark, who ran the Red Cross shelter in Pearlington, blamed the delays on the size of Katrina.

"Responding to a few families displaced by a fire is one thing. Responding to a disaster that displaced tens of thousands of people is another," Clark said of the initial delays in reaching rural areas. "FEMA just wasn't ready for this. The blueprint ... just wasn't appropriate for the scope of the disaster."

Fewer than 10 people were in the shelter one recent night, down from 57 when it first opened, Clark said.

Pallets of bottled water and other supplies were stockpiled in the elementary school parking lot. Shelter workers were busy distributing water pumps to local residents courtesy of Water Missions International, with another 300 pumps on their way.

'One day at a time'
The Rev. Bobby McGill, pastor of Holmes Chapel United Methodist Church in Pearlington, held services for about a dozen people outside the Pearl-Mart, telling them they should rely on God to get them through.

"As the songwriter said, we can only take it one day at a time," McGill said.

But people are still hurting. Their homes are piles of splintered lumber piled in roadside ditches. Clusters of tents have sprouted all over town, and everyone wants to know why they're still waiting for a FEMA trailer when their neighbors got theirs a week ago.

"It was 41 [degrees] this morning, and the night before, the wind," said Debbie Drum, 40, who's been living in a tent with her husband, Ray, 45, for a month and a half. "I don't know how long we can hang on."

The story was the same in Lakeshore, a loose collection of homes in the woods that surround Bay St. Louis in rural Hancock County.

The Rev. Don Elbourne Jr., pastor at Lakeshore Baptist Church, said the storm shoved his church off its foundations into the road, along with 20 homes. It was three weeks before relief workers arrived, he said.

Now, the roads are clear and the local elementary school is back up and running, Elbourne said. A trip through the woods revealed shiny white FEMA trailers in people's yards, but just as many tents.

Over in Pearl River, Louisiana, home to about 2,000, shattered billboards and blue tarps draped across roofs are reminders of the hurricane's powerful winds, even miles inland.

But traffic signals are working again, the Family Dollar store has returned to its normal 9 a.m.-8 p.m. hours and "help wanted" signs hang in the windows of the Wishbone chicken restaurant.

"Everything's getting back to normal now," said 27-year-old Cindy Blanchard of Pearl River.

Not according to Don Lee in Pearlington. Green mold caused by flooding covers the walls and ceiling of his house. Lee, 50, who received a FEMA trailer after about a month, looked around at his demolished neighborhood and shook his head.

"I can't see where it's gotten a whole lot better," he said.