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Relief begins to flow to battered Miss. coast

BILOXI, Miss.—Five days after the storm and a day after President Bush walked through the rubble, held survivors close and promised relief, the flow of help to Mississippi's Gulf Coast gathered speed. There were small signs of hope among the citizenry.

But new troubles also mingled with old:

_Fearing an outbreak of dysentery, federal officials on Saturday afternoon ordered the immediate evacuation of hundreds of people from a Biloxi shelter.

_Gasoline shortages, communications gaps and disorganization disrupted the flow of aid in places, and communities off the beaten path kept waiting for basic relief: food, water, bedding and more.

_Biloxi-area officials warned residents to stay away from smashed-up areas near the gulf because natural-gas leaks created a threat of fire or explosion.

_The search for the dead continued, as did the often-desperate process of identifying who was dead, who was missing and who was merely out of contact. The number of confirmed deaths in the six southern-most counties rose to 134. By county: Harrison, 65; Hancock, 30; Pearl River, 17; Jackson, 22. Stone and George counties reported no deaths. The toll is feared to be much higher.

More threats to health emerged. In coastal communities, there's no working sewage system. Portable toilets are scarce. People are trying to live in damaged homes, finding refuge in their vehicles or in some cases living with strangers.

At 1 p.m. Saturday, eight buses capable of carrying 850 people rolled up to the Mary L. Michel School on Pass Road in Biloxi, in support of a Federal Emergency Management Agency order to evacuate the school, a major shelter for refugees. A medical team and police entered the building and ordered hundreds of people to leave the complex, where an outbreak of diarrhea was spreading. People were told to board the buses—headed to a Red Cross shelter in Georgia—or hit the streets.

"There's a lot diarrhea, a lot of bad water," said Patrick Velasco, part of the medical team rushed in from Mobile, Ala. "Dysentery is the word."

People asked where they were going in Georgia.

"I cannot reveal that for fear of it being mobbed," Velasco said. "It is a state-of-the-art Red Cross facility across the border."

Many who have spent the week at the shelter were walking around town, unaware of the urgent shutdown. Families were split up; those left at the shelter debated whether to evacuate or take their chances on the streets of Biloxi.

Officials reported trucks with supplies stranded without fuel in or near Meridian, about 150 miles northeast of Biloxi. The American Red Cross faced the possibility of halting its supply trucks until more fuel arrives. Mississippi Public Broadcasting, the only source of broadcast news and critical information for many throughout the state, put out an urgent call for diesel fuel so it could continue to broadcast.

The Mississippi Coast chapter of the American Red Cross said it was running out of gas and diesel fuel. Trucks with fuel went through some of the worst damaged neighborhoods distributing water and military-style instant meals.

"As long as they have gas, everything is fine," said John McFarland, a Red Cross board member. "But everybody is looking at the clock."

One caravan that did make it to the coast consisted of eight charter buses with doctors and nurses. More National Guardsmen arrived, and Navy personnel continued to provide emergency services, but Keesler Air Force Base, heavily damaged by the storm, still hadn't initiated any response.

Officials across the coast said they weren't satisfied with FEMA's response. Donovan Scruggs, director of community development for Ocean Springs, said Saturday—five days after the hurricane struck—that his city didn't even have a FEMA contact.

"Outside assistance from FEMA has been pretty much nonexistent," Scruggs said. "We've been running the show, but nobody here has any experience managing a disaster. We need the experienced show-runners."

In Hancock County, one FEMA representative was present, looking for a site for FEMA operations.

Mike Beeman, the FEMA coordinator for Harrison County, said Friday that federal agencies are responding to the area's needs, but several logistical problems had emerged—most notably the gas shortage. Beeman said a task force for temporary shelters had been established. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also in the area and has programs for people who need tarps and help with their homes.

Beeman said FEMA is only a partner in the relief efforts, and the organization takes its cues on where to place needed services from local and state officials.

On Saturday morning, Mississippi Power announced that it had restored power to about 40,000 coast homes. Company spokesman Kurt Brautigan said it would take "several weeks" for power to be restored for everyone.

Some of the injured and ill were transported from hospitals to other locations.

"Hospitals all along the Gulf Coast have made beds available," said Dr. Charles Johnson.

Meanwhile, the stench of decay—human and animal—was growing stronger in flattened neighborhoods where cranes would be needed to untangle the debris. Bodies swept out to sea in the storm Sunday are still coming back, authorities said.

But amid the damage, threats and fears, there still were signs of encouragement. Among them: more trucks and cargo helicopters, more security, more electricity, a little more water, more residents making order in the rubble and looking ahead.


(This report was compiled from the work of more than a dozen reporters working at the Sun Herald in Biloxi.)


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

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