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Displaced Mississippians find temporary home aboard cruise ship

MOBILE, Ala.—Scores of passengers with luggage in hand boarded the Carnival Holiday cruise ship Sunday for a most unusual voyage.

The passengers are Hurricane Katrina evacuees from southern Mississippi, and the 727-foot ship will be their shelter for as long as six months. The vessel eventually will move west to Pascagoula, Miss., where repairs to the port are under way.

And despite how the huge, white ship looks from the outside, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which contracted with Carnival, are adamant about the vessel's purpose.

"We're not calling it a cruise ship," said Lynne Keating, a FEMA spokeswoman, standing next to the 46-ton vessel, which has nine decks, a casino, three swimming pools, and usually offers Las Vegas-type shows, comedians and musicians.

"This has nothing to do with tourism," Keating said. "These ships are only for temporary housing." Two other Carnival ships docked off New Orleans, the Ecstasy and the Sensation, also are being used as floating shelters.

Families displaced by Hurricane Katrina who have been staying in emergency shelters for three weeks now will have their own bedrooms, private showers and a breathtaking view—a far cry from the rows of cots and communal showers in outdoor tents.

"When you've been sleeping on the floor and on cots, oh, a bed sounds so wonderful," said Stephanie Mercer. "I think it's awesome. I've never been on one before."

Mercer, her husband and five children were boarding the ship about 5:15 p.m. Sunday.

"It's bigger than I thought it would be," said Roger Mercer Jr., 7.

Others were worried about the hourlong drive back to jobs and family.

"We don't want to have to live here very long," said Kevin Greenwood, 40, a Biloxi electrician who will make the drive to work each day. "We don't want the government to pay our way."

Evacuees won't have access to any of the ship's recreation activities, probably not even the swimming pools, Keating said. They'll be served meals three times a day, and a pizzeria will be open 24 hours. They'll be able to use the library and the lounges.

"I think this will give them hope," said Miriam Boyle, community liaison for a Mobile mental health organization, Project Rebound, preparing to send crisis counselors on board. "The physical plant will have a huge psychological impact," Boyle said.

More than 150 evacuees arrived Sunday at the privately owned Mobile Alabama Cruise Terminal on blue buses and in private cars. They came from shelters in Ocean Springs and other locations in Jackson County, about 40 miles from Mobile.

They entered the ship through a covered walkway and were greeted first by medical personnel "just to make sure they don't have a communicable disease," Keating said.

Passengers then moved upstairs to register with FEMA, while Carnival employees shuttled their luggage to the rooms, Keating said.

"The crew have a very caring attitude," she said.

Passengers are free to leave the ship to go to work, and vans will take them shopping, Keating said.

Dedicating the Holiday to the cruise ship terminal was expected to cause a loss in tourism-related revenue of about $1 million a month.

"We're sacrificing ... and we're glad to be doing so," Mobile Mayor Mike Dow said. "It's a desperate situation."

According to Carnival's Web site, the Holiday, registered in the Bahamas, is based in Mobile and typically sails to southern Mexico. The ship entered service in 1985 and can hold as many as 1,800 passengers.

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(Garcia reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)

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

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

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