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Relief reaches Biloxi, but death toll expected to top Camille's

BILOXI, Miss. _For the first time on Monday, Gulf Coast residents began to see beyond Hurricane Katrina's destruction to the burgeoning relief effort that continues to arrive from all around the country.

Often, that relief is coming from a ragtag citizen corps of do-gooders, swooping in to fill what many saw as a void created by a mismanaged federal emergency response.

"The people in the projects here weren't getting any help at all—no food, no diapers for the kids," said Pastor Herman Henderson, wading through piles of clothes, food and baby formula he'd collected from his congregation in Birmingham, Ala. "I've brought three trucks of supplies down to help these people, because nobody else was."

But bad news seemed to arrive just as quickly as the good Samaritans fanning out along the coast. Biloxi's mayor predicted that Katrina would prove to be deadlier than Hurricane Camille, which killed about 200 in 1969.

"We have generations of families here," said Vincent Creel, aide to Mayor A.J. Holloway. "We're finding they said, `My mother and father stayed through Hurricane Camille and did OK, and I'm going to stay.'"

Now, he said, "We're finding their bodies."

Because of the wide swath of Katrina, "I expect to be finding bodies for weeks," said Biloxi Fire Chief David Roberts.

Those searches will be slowed by the stench of more than just human corpses: Roberts said cadaver dogs are alerting rescuers to dead animals and rotting meat in refrigerators, prompting time-consuming efforts to sift through the debris.

"It's frustrating, but it's gratifying it's not a body," Roberts said.

With help from firefighters from as far away as New York City, about 98 percent of the city has been covered in the initial search for bodies.

The spread of disease from rotting food piling up along the coast continued to worry health officials.

There was no lab or working test equipment in the days after the storm, and doctors were forced to loot a nearby pharmacy to get enough drugs to treat patients. At Hancock Medical Center in Bay St. Louis, emergency room director Dr. Sean Appleyard said officials there were bracing for more patients admitted for sanitation-related causes. In an area that's taken on a surreal quality in the past week, even the water here isn't what it seems: Emergency rooms are filled with those who drank what Katrina has turned into poison.

Said Appleyard: "We expect a rise of bacterial diseases like cholera and dysentery."

Even as local and federal health officials began their laborious inventory of toxic hot spots, help was arriving in other forms, including more National Guard troops and U.S. Marines and a cherry-picker army of power-line crews.

Mississippi Power President Anthony Topazi announced that his 9,200-member crew would try to restore power by Sunday to all customers who can safely receive electric service. But he warned that it would be a daunting task.

"I cannot emphasize enough how monumental this restoration has been," said Topazi. "We lost electric service to all of our 195,000 customers because of Katrina. We lost all systems, including telecommunications, suffered facilities damage and lost the use of all generating units at Plant Watson in Gulfport."

The company, the largest in the area, had restored service to 44 percent of its customers by Monday.

But power was returning to a brand-new world. All week long, Biloxi and nearby Gulfport have been suspended between faint hope and helplessness: Thousands of its residents have been flung throughout the South, as if Katrina were still blowing their lives apart; neighbors have lost track of neighbors; promised help often came haltingly.

Monday brought some encouraging news. Food and water were finally bountiful, available in abandoned gas stations, church yards and parking lots.

Looting arrests in the coastal counties appear to have topped out at about 100. More gas stations reopened. Crews trimmed fractured trees, and bulldozers cleared streets.

Those cleared roads, however, quickly became crowded, as utility trucks, rescue vehicles, fuel tankers, relief convoys and sightseers squeezed onto the main arteries. With that new traffic came heated tempers and long lines, such as a three-hour wait for gas and a parking-lot queue of cash-strapped customers hoping for a $200 withdrawal at Keesler Federal Credit Union on Pass Road.

But many residents, especially in poorer neighborhoods, said they felt abandoned by the world, and they sat stunned and embittered outside their ruined homes.

"I've lost everything," said Donald Thomas, 73, a retired graphic artist who's now stuck outside his shattered home because the scooter he used was stolen by Katrina. He said no one had come by to help him. "There must be someone who can help me. I have no idea where FEMA is."

In many cases, others came to lend a hand—church groups, nonprofits, even individuals who'd been moved by the tragedy.

Volunteer doctors opened up a clinic in a Sunday school room. Independent truckers pulled into town laden with sandwiches and canned soup.

Even a Virginia car dealer chipped in, showing up here with a large pickup truck full of generators. He then gave them away to whoever needed one, said Fire Chief Roberts.

The fire department also benefited from the generous Virginian: He finished by giving them his truck.

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(May reports for the San Jose Mercury News. Amy Worden of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Heather Duncan of The Macon Telegraph, Mark Washburn of The Charlotte Observer and the staff of The (Biloxi) Sun Herald contributed to this report.)

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

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

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