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At Gulfport shelter, residents create makeshift community

GULFPORT, Miss.—A midnight rain poured down here Sunday and woke Kim Warner to action.

She rose from her sleeping mat in the grade-school classroom that she and her 5-year-old son, Andrew, now call home. Clutching a towel and a shampoo bottle, Warner shuffled toward a tumble of chilly water spewing from a busted roof gutter.

"People laughed when I first did it. Then I turn around and three people are standing in line," she said, rubbing a towel over her head for the first time in days. "You find whatever works."

A week after Hurricane Katrina took their homes, jobs and most of their possessions, an odd new rhythm has begun to breathe through Bel-Aire Elementary School, a makeshift community of about 170 refugees at one of the many Red Cross shelters across the battered Gulf Coast.

Darrell Files, 53, a carpenter and painter, wakes at 5:30 a.m. to hook a coffeepot to a generator. Don Alvarez, a former regional executive for Red Lobster, mans the kitchen. Teri Senecal, 38, studies an accounting textbook by flashlight in the predawn haze while her husband and three children sleep inside.

Routine—if not comfort, cleanliness or much by way of prospects—has started to return for many of the dispossessed.

"We need to realize, until things come together, this is the reality," said Phil Crawley, 36, a McDonald's crew trainer who was staying in a motel on the shore before Katrina took it out. "If you're staying here you've got to be helping in some kind of way."

On plastic chairs lining Bel-Aire's red brick facade, residents share their pasts, their escape or destruction stories, their cigarettes. Inside, most sleep in classrooms, but many line the darkened halls on cots or pads on the floor.

They often lack a place to land or the money to leave. Many wait for help, for word from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on housing or money, for contact with relatives.

At night, some gathered around the TV outside to watch the news. But the crowd seated near the school entrance wanted none of it.

"I don't have a home. Or furniture. My job blew away. What is there to know?" Files said.

"We know what's going on," Alvarez agreed. "We're living it."

During the day, a handful of men leave for temporary jobs cleaning up hurricane-damaged areas and structures. The jobs, offered through day-labor organizations, pay $8 to $10 an hour, the men say. The money is only part of the satisfaction.

"Ninety-nine percent of people here want to work," said Larry Satchfield, who's managed this shelter from its opening the day before Katrina tumbled ashore. "Every morning people go to work and come back. They come back home."

A few could leave, but they stay for lack of a solid plan. John Jensen, 60, was a blackjack dealer at the Copa Casino, which flipped across the seaside highway. Now he runs errands for other residents. He could start over in Vegas, he said, but he likes the company.

"It's an awful thing to say, but yes, it's where the action is," Jensen said. "I'm part of something. All of a sudden, I'm needed."

Most, however, face a hard mental strain. Residents often break down in tears, said Satchfield, 34, a bartender who's working with the local Red Cross chapter.

Satchfield, with thinning hair and waylaid plans to open a sports bar in Mexico, is part motel manager, part lay psychologist. His voice weak from weariness, he says his greatest needs are portable showers, reliable medicine and good food.

On Sunday, he made a late insulin run to a nearby hospital for a young female patient and stood watch at the school entrance for a new influx of residents.

The night before, six people threw up and were quarantined or shipped out. Many had drunk dirty water.

Late Sunday, Satchfield mopped up standing water in the women's restroom before catching a few hours rest in his Chevy Durango, its back window blown out by Katrina.

Many residents say conditions have improved since the first few days after the hurricane curled back the gymnasium roof like the tab of a sardine can.

Toilets didn't work for the first two days; Satchfield and others gathered rainwater in bags to pour into the toilets. They ate crackers.

Many of the people here arrived by happenstance.

A police officer pointed Files to Bel-Aire after he rode out the hurricane in a church up north, then returned to nothing. Senecal, her husband, James, and their three children "saw our trailer had two walls instead of four," James said. The trailer-park manager suggested Bel-Aire.

New people come through at all hours. The rolls grow as health officials order other shelters shuttered, usually for unsanitary conditions.

Bel-Aire has working toilets. Others don't. The difference, say residents, is monumental.

Seven people arrived Sunday night from a shelter where the halls reeked because of stuffed, broken toilets and urinals.

"The sanitation was ungodly," said Walter Persinske, who arrived Sunday from a closed shelter in Biloxi.

Persinske, who rode out much of Katrina aboard a floating rooftop, was grateful for small things: baby wipes, which "get the smell out of my pits," heated meals, a floor pad.

"I got used to sleeping on concrete," he said. "Then I got rich and I got a blanket and two pillows."

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(Simerman reports for the Contra Costa Times.)

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

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

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