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With government aid spotty, people and private groups fill the void

GULFPORT, Miss.—For days Bill Ott heard officials on television saying help was on the way to the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast, but the TV images of the wreckage told a different story.

"'The cavalry is coming.' That's all I kept hearing," said Ott, who lives in Birmingham, Ala. "But I didn't see any government officials feeding people, so I thought if they're not doing it, I should."

On Sunday, he loaded his car with water and food and headed as far south from Birmingham as he could. When the National Guard blocked him from reaching the most heavily damaged area near the beach, he pulled into the parking lot of a metal recycling plant where an Illinois church group had set up shop and unloaded his supplies.

Across the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast, with government response spotty, private individuals, business groups and churches are filling the void.

Business owners roll into towns with tractor-trailer loads of sandwiches and muffins. Doctors arrive with their trunks filled with medical supplies. Church groups come with U-Hauls of water, diapers and coloring books for children.

With nobody to direct them, these spontaneous relief workers pull into church parking lots that show signs of activity or set up in debris-filled parking lots of vacant businesses.

Judy Keeling and her family, part of the 30-member Oak Grove Gospel Mission in Marion, Ill., drove 600 miles in an RV with a trailer full of supplies. She figured they'd served 2,000 people in 36 hours, including the Harrison County sheriff and a few National Guardsmen.

"People who didn't have anything drive up for baby supplies, crying and thanking us for helping them," Keeling said. She said that almost as soon as they fired up their kettles and started making soup, independent truckers began arriving looking for a place to drop off food and water.

"One guy with a truck full of frozen sandwiches and muffins said the Salvation Army turned him away because they didn't accept frozen food," Keeling said.

By Sunday afternoon the sandwiches and muffins were gone.

Sunday morning, Pass Road Baptist Church was just a house of worship. That afternoon it was a relief center with a food and clothing distribution system run by the Volunteers of America and a medical clinic staffed by volunteers from other Baptist churches.

One congregation member became a hastily deputized Federal Emergency Management Agency worker, manning a table in the church foyer, taking names and addresses and damage reports. It was unclear when the federal government would receive the reports or deal with them.

"We met for church because we thought people needed to be encouraged to keep hope alive," said the Rev. Keith Thrash, senior pastor. "By late afternoon, trucks started rolling in. They were driving down the road. They saw cars and thought the church must be helping somebody."

Thrash, like everyone else, said his church was unprepared for a disaster of this size. He said he took any help and supplies available because he wanted to make sure that help reached "real people" and wasn't stalled by government bureaucracy.

"We didn't want it to go into a holding tank somewhere," he said. "People were in lines before we had the first truck unloaded."

Volunteer doctors opened a clinic in a Sunday school room. With no power or water, they treated patients with a small stash of over-the-counter medicine, bandages and their bare hands.

Jeff O'Dell, a pediatrician from Pensacola, said he'd worked in similar conditions—in the Third World. Even in those countries, doctors were better prepared, carrying with them antibiotics and prescription medicines, said the former Navy doctor.

"This time we just took what we could and threw it in the car," he said as a man walked in and pulled up his shirt to reveal an 8-inch incision on his stomach lined with staple stitches.

Jonathan Adkison, a medical student at Southern Alabama University, pulled the staples out of Walter Cothern's stomach by hand.

Cothern, 57, had surgery two weeks ago for colon cancer. He grimaced but was relieved when it was over.

Then he turned to the doctors for help with other maladies.

"Do you have anything for gout?" he said.

The doctors couldn't help him on Monday, but they said maybe they could later in the day. That's when Volunteers of America plans to erect a military-style medical field facility, complete with electronic equipment and air-conditioned examining rooms, in the church parking lot.


(Worden reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)


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

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