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In Mississippi, hurricane victims welcome 1st signs of help

BILOXI, Miss.—The first relief shipments reached the battered Mississippi Gulf Coast on Thursday, but the help was far short of what was needed and desperate residents pleaded for more.

At some distribution points, hurricane survivors clapped, cheered and yelled, "Thank you, God!" when supply trucks showed up. At others, sheriff's deputies and National Guardsmen had to hold off a crush of people desperate for food and water.

Some communities remained beyond the reach of outside help. With so much news media attention focused on New Orleans, some Mississippians worried that they'd been forgotten.

"Where are the police and National Guard?" Stan Tiner, the vice president and executive editor of The Sun Herald, a Knight Ridder newspaper in Biloxi, asked in a column written for Friday's paper. "We wonder who will help us."

In the small town of Lakeshore, James Gibson, a 45-year-old with a heart condition, was wondering the same thing.

"There's no FEMA. No Red Cross. No help. People are sick. The water is like toxic gumbo," Gibson said. "We're the forgotten little town that got blown away."

The death toll continued to rise all along the Gulf Coast, as rescue efforts continued. Officials feared a massive public-health crisis from poor sanitary conditions.

President Bush planned a visit to the area Friday and asked Congress for $10 billion in aid, but it was the Federal Emergency Management Agency trucks full of ice, bottled water and prepared meals that most victims of Hurricane Katrina wanted to see.

In Ocean Springs, a line of cars stretched 5 miles as motorists waited to get ice and cartons of water at a middle school.

"We've got thousands and thousands of people out here who need help," said Dave Martinez, a part-time Jackson County sheriff's deputy.

The middle school, which was supposed to be a staging point for police, had been pressed into service as a shelter for more than 200 people who had nowhere else to go, including many elderly people in need of medical assistance.

Long lines have become a part of daily life. Drivers wait for hours outside service stations to buy gasoline. The ill and the elderly line up at drugstores hoping to fill their prescriptions.

At a Walgreens in Biloxi, store manager Michael Dailey handed out free water in the darkened building, but couldn't help with prescriptions because he'd been unable to reach any of the store's pharmacists.

"If I don't get my medication, I'll start having seizures," said Patricia Ladnier, 51, who had back surgery in late July.

Even the dead weren't spared. At Biloxi's Southern Memorial Park cemetery, workers were searching for remains from 131 aboveground crypts that the storm had ripped apart.

"Twenty years in the business and I've never seen anything like this," cemetery worker Dewayne Helleson said.

Search-and-rescue teams continued looking for people trapped under debris, and emergency officials began trying to prevent a disease outbreak from insects and deteriorating drinking water.

Six thousand National Guardsmen from throughout the country have received orders to report to the Mississippi coast to aid in the relief efforts, said Joe Spraggins, Harrison County's civil defense director.

One hundred people have been confirmed dead in Harrison, Hancock, Pearl River and Jackson counties. More bodies were being discovered under debris and in waterways.

"You name it, that's where we're finding them," Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove said.

There's hope that survivors may still be found, as well. Some were pulled out of collapsed buildings as late as Wednesday. Officials couldn't give a specific number but said there were similar stories from all over the coast.

As part of the effort to protect public health, emergency workers started scooping up 40 tons of decomposing chicken and 1 million pounds of rotting shrimp throughout several neighborhoods.

National Guardsmen were sent into the communities with shovels and front-end loaders. The chicken was strewn from downtown Gulfport west to Long Beach when Katrina's tidal surge hurled shipping containers out of the State Port at Gulfport. The shrimp, which came from a seafood storage plant, was scattered from D'Iberville to Biloxi.

"We could get diseases of all types," Spraggins said.

Desperation was clear on many faces.

"We have no water at all," said Sam Rosado, a Gulfport resident who waited for ice for hours in a Stein Mart parking lot. "What little food we've got left for six or eight people at the apartment isn't going to last."

The trucks he and hundreds of others waited for weren't there when officials said they'd be. All the crowd could do was stay and hope they'd show.

When the three semis finally came more than two hours later, people honked their horns. One man climbed atop his SUV and cheered: "The trucks are here!" Others praised God.

Tanika Butler was beaming as she pushed a shopping cart full of supplies.

"We haven't had ice or water since Tuesday," said Butler, who has 11 family members staying at her house. "We got by on what our neighbors, friends and family gave us."

The distributions didn't help everyone. Matthew Hall of Ocean Springs lost his home in the storm. His car won't start, and he has a flat tire and no way to change it.

He said there were rumors that FEMA and the Red Cross might come into his neighborhood with supplies. Until then, he's waiting.

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(Ron Hutcheson compiled this story in Washington from dispatches by Dodd, Wilemon and Hawkins. Marc Caputo also contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KATRINA

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