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In Mississippi, some people finally get food and water, some go to worship, but worries and rumors of disease persist

BILOXI, Miss.—The beleaguered Mississippi Gulf Coast finally got some relief Sunday as supplies of food and water began to roll in, and people gathered to pray, some on the concrete slabs that were all that remained of their churches.

But the fear of disease persisted, fanned by an outbreak of stomach ailments. Hospitals reported increasing numbers of people sickened by bad water or food.

Among Sunday's developments:

_The federal presence, civilian and military, widened as thousands of relief workers arrived and got to work, at least in large population centers.

_With the arrival of food supplies, stores started to reopen.

_Residents reported that neighbors were banding together to help one another, organizing cleanups and forays to relief centers.

The threat of disease continued to cause concern, though health officials discounted rumors that cholera and worse were afoot.

"There's no cholera, period," said Art Sharpe, a deputy director of the Mississippi Department of Health. He also downplayed rumors of other spreading diseases, including one about flesh-eating bacteria.

"What we're seeing is people who spent a lot of time in the water having sores on their extremities. It's not flesh-eating bacteria. It's staph, and we think we're containing it."

He said some people in shelters and elsewhere had come down with "nonspecific gastroenteritis," an inflammation of the stomach lining with symptoms similar to cholera: diarrhea and vomiting.

Still, it was clear that health authorities were concerned about illness where storm evacuees are gathered. Staffers from various state agencies toured shelters Sunday, and officials from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were on hand.

"Our biggest concern is that people are going to come home and drink the water," said Liz Sharlot, the communications director for the Mississippi Department of Health. Even bathing in contaminated water is a bad idea, she added.

Another worry: tetanus. Many people spend their days digging through the rubble of their homes and get cut in the process. Health workers have distributed about 4,000 tetanus shots, Sharpe said.

Shots for hepatitis A and B also have been distributed as well as oxygen, and insulin for diabetics. Sharpe said pharmacies had agreed to give insulin to those who needed it, without prescriptions.

Two hospitals reported growing numbers of patients, including many from emergency shelters, with illnesses related to unsanitary conditions.

Many patients Saturday had diarrhea, vomiting and skin rashes, said doctors at Memorial Hospital at Gulfport and Biloxi Regional Medical Center.

Sunday morning, Christopher Henderson of Biloxi was at Biloxi Regional waiting for his mother to be treated for a rash that made her skin peel off after she bathed in tap water. He said she had to wait only a few minutes for medical attention.

Kim Kwiatek, a doctor with a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster medical-assistance team from Ohio supporting Biloxi Regional, said he was using antibiotics to treat the skin problems.

Emergency room doctor Thomas Graves at Memorial said bacteria from sewage, chemicals or decomposing matter in the water could be causing the rashes.

He said residents shouldn't drink or bathe in water that didn't come out of a bottle and that they should urinate in the yard rather than in bathrooms to avoid an outbreak of typhoid fever from overflowing sewers.

"I'm worried about toilet flushing," Graves said. "Our sewers have to be clogged up with branches and leaves, and at some point that's going to start backing up into houses."

He warned residents to avoid meat that may be rotting. His own yard is strewn with raw chicken, he said, and a dead sea lion from a local aquarium is rotting nearby.

Kwiatek, the FEMA doctor, said he'd treated a number of patients from shelters and that he was hearing about "pretty gruesome" shelter conditions in some places.

"There are a lot of feces everywhere: in the hallways, in the grass and all around," said Kwiatek, who wore a container of hand sanitizer on his belt while he treated patients in tents in the parking lot.

Some of the more desperate or impatient are resorting to violence, Graves said, leading to minor—at least for the moment—injuries.

"People are saying, `You've got a generator. It's going to be mine,' " he said. "I'm afraid there's going to be shooting starting."

Henderson said he saw a family being turned away from Biloxi Regional after a woman threatened to shoot somebody if her baby grandson wasn't treated immediately for his breathing difficulty.

"I tried to explain to the grandma: `You got to behave with a civil mind,' " Henderson said. "There are other folks in here that are real sick too."

Last week, patients crammed into the hallways of Memorial and picked their way along floors damp with humidity. Doctors couldn't run CAT scans, and the lab went out for a day, Graves said.

"It was worse than a Third World country," he said.

When he was asked how doctors made decisions, he replied, "Prayed. The medical decisions I'm making this week would have appalled me last week. I hope nobody died. I go home and cry every night."

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

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