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Hurricane relief turf battle ends peacefully

WAVELAND, Miss.—The Rainbow Family's "hippies" do the cooking. Seventh-day Adventists and a group of Christians from Bastrop, Texas, unload tractor-trailers jammed with food and run medical clinics.

After a rocky start, the groups are working together to provide supplies and hot meals for 2,000 or so residents of Waveland, a Gulf Coast community almost destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

But in the first three weeks after the Aug. 29 storm, the shopping center parking lot that's now the largest emergency feeding operation in Waveland became an ideological battleground.

At odds were members of the two highly organized Christian groups and the Rainbow Family, a loose confederation of volunteers, most of them young, who staunchly oppose anyone who bosses them around.

"All three of them were having a kind of turf war," said Wes Griffith, the liaison officer for the Hancock County emergency operations center. "They were depending on us for daily shipments of food, water and ice. I told them they need to cooperate or we wouldn't cooperate with them."

The clash involved a coveted spot near the front entrance of the parking lot, across from the demolished Waveland Police Department, and friction over who would do much of the cooking.

"The Adventists cut our supply lines. It was traditional military strategy," said Jimmie Jones, a 57-year-old farmer from Columbia, Tenn., who first sided with the Rainbow Family but has since become a sort of parking lot peacemaker.

During one especially contentious day, Jones said, an Adventist leader prevented Rainbow volunteers, including 25-year-old Clovis Siemon, from getting food from a refrigerated trailer to cook in their tent kitchen.

It got so heated that Griffith drew a diagram delineating each group's "territory."

Then the Rev. David Canther showed up.

Canther, who runs the Adventists' national disaster emergency operation, convinced Griffith that the groups could compromise.

"Wes said, `Hallelujah,'" and ripped up the diagram, Canther recalled.

Still, the groups clashed. The Rainbow Family, Canther said, rejected putting anyone in charge. When the Adventists lent the Rainbow Family a forklift and some pallet jacks, they weren't returned because no one would take responsibility for keeping track of them.

Volunteers were running into each other, with no organization to control operations.

Canther met with the Rainbow Family and was amused when Siemon got up and started talking —and was shouted down by his own members.

"Clovis got his tail feathers burnt a little, but after that, perhaps for the first time in their history, the Rainbow people identified a need for organization," Canther said.

A compromise was worked out. The Adventists, who as of Thursday had sent 298 tractor-trailer loads of food to Mississippi, set up separate areas for their own kitchen and for a type of market where storm victims could get food staples and water.

Rainbow Family members became the primary cooks and kept their spot near the front entrance. But they gave up enough of their turf to allow the Adventists to set up a medical trailer.

The Bastrop Christians keep supplies moving in and also operate a medical clinic.

Juan Ruiz, a 19-year-old Rainbow Family member, said he had learned a bit about human interaction.

"I've learned what a little humility and cooperation can accomplish," he said.

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(Pawlaczyk and Hundsdorfer report for the Belleville News-Democrat.)

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

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