By Dahleen Glanton Tribune national correspondent
Susan St. Amant and her five children live in the parking lot of a
boarded-up Taco Bell.
The children's faces are streaked with a grimy film of sweat and dust
from piles of debris that surround their makeshift home. They try to
clean themselves at night, but personal hygiene is difficult when they
can take only sponge baths and wash their clothes with bottled water.
St. Amant's arms are scaly and red, the result of second-degree burns
from sitting in the sun all day because it is even hotter inside their
tent. She longs for a cool breeze, but with each whiff of air, a foul
odor of decay blows through the small town where search teams already
have discovered 50 bodies and are looking for at least 52 more.
This is not where the St. Amants had hoped to be three weeks after
Hurricane Katrina destroyed their government-subsidized rental home
along with almost everything on the Mississippi coast. But until they
receive the travel trailer the federal government has promised, home
is a canvas tent in the open air.
"It's total hell here," said St. Amant, whose job as a cook at a
Kentucky Fried Chicken disappeared in the storm.
All along the coast, thousands of people live in broken-down houses
without running water, electricity and working toilets. Others sleep
in abandoned buildings, in their front yards and on porches that are
All along the coast, tent communities like the one at Taco Bell have
sprouted up in vacant lots, turning strip-mall parking lots into land
The housing situation is so dire along the Mississippi coast that
emergency workers and National Guard members sleep in tents erected on
the beach or along the road. Insurance adjusters and out-of-town
workers hired to help with the cleanup sleep in their cars in hotel
parking lots as far away as Alabama while waiting for rooms to become
Trailer communities began going up last week in Baton Rouge and other
areas of Louisiana, but in Mississippi's coastal counties, where an
estimated one in four dwellings were destroyed or heavily damaged,
only 519 families have received trailers, according to the Mississippi
Emergency Management Agency. Most of those have gone to police
officers, firefighters and other first responders who also are
About 4,000 travel trailers are being held at a staging area near the
coast, 1,000 of which have been assigned to families, state officials
said. Officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said they
are working with state and local leaders to identify suitable sites
for the trailers. Residents can place trailers on their property, but
they must have access to water, sewer and power lines. If they had
access to a working telephone line, many agree they would be 'as good
as new', but the phones are not going to be around for a long time either.
In many areas such as Waveland, where 80 percent of the dwellings are
uninhabitable, finding suitable sites has been difficult, FEMA
"When you look at the vast amount of destruction, it makes it even
harder to get things done. In Mississippi alone, there are hundreds of
thousands of people we are trying to help," said a FEMA spokesman,
At least part of the problem with trailers, however, may stem from
bureaucratic red tape. Trailer home manufacturers have been geared up
for weeks to produce some 125,000 mobile homes and travel trailers
requested by FEMA.
Kicking problem upstairs
But FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney told The Associated Press that
production has been delayed because the Homeland Security Department,
which oversees FEMA, has not yet developed a housing plan.
"We want to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars," Kinerney told
AP. "I know they [manufacturers] are standing by and getting a little
frustrated. We want to make sure we are spending the money the right
way. It doesn't mean people are going to go without."
While Gov. Haley Barbour has repeatedly praised the federal
government's efforts to help the state recover, his spokesman said
Monday that the governor sees the lack of temporary housing as a
"The governor has said he is not satisfied with the temporary housing
situation as far as getting the trailers out as fast as we possibly
can," spokesman Pete Smith said. "But there is no one to blame. The
governor wants the trailers to be moved as close to the evacuees'
property as possible so people can oversee the rebuilding. There is
more involved than just getting a trailer to a site and leaving it
Last weekend in some counties, the Red Cross began moving evacuees
from the schools that have sheltered them so that classes can resume
as early as next week. Some shelter residents are being moved to
community centers, and others are to be placed on a 490-passenger
cruise ship to be docked off Mobile, Ala.
Almost everything in Waveland, a town of about 9,000 about 60 miles
east of New Orleans, was destroyed, including the hospital and the
post office and the telephone exchange building. Every police vehicle
is gone, along with fire trucks and public works vehicles.
"Every firefighter, police officer and city councilman lost everything
personally and professionally," said Mayor Tommy Longo, who runs the
city by day and sleeps at night in a sewer treatment facility. "All
the city had left was a backhoe."
At the height of the storm, Waveland's 27-member police force was
trapped inside the station, which flooded with 20 feet of water. Half
of them, including the chief, swam outside and held on to an 8-foot
bush for seven hours. The others were stuck on the roof of the
building for just as long. Twenty-five firefighters also swam for
their lives, rescuing stranded people along the way.
"We have been trying to keep the people alive, and we are victims
ourselves," said Chief James Varnell, who is running the Police
Department from a trailer equipped with a couple of laptop computers,
a cell phone and a police radio. Battery power to run these devices
inlcuding the cell phone come from automobile batteries sitting nearby
which are replaced as needed when freshly charged batteries are
removed from a nearby automobile and the old batteries are 'jumped'
with a charging cable brought in, attached to an automobile generator.
On Sunday, most of Waveland's city workers and their families moved
into 150 trailers set up for first responders in a city park. Another
30 or so families like the St. Amants are waiting.
On waiting list, and waiting.
After placing their names on FEMA's trailer list on Thursday,
St. Amant and her extended family, which includes her elderly parents,
her sister and her two young children, and the family dog, waited all
weekend for word that they could move into a trailer. It never came.
Several residents have complained that everything seems unorganized
and chaotic, from the FEMA lines to the Red Cross sites where they go
for financial aid. People start lining up for assistance at daybreak,
but the forms often run out before noon; the cash on hand for
dispersal that day is usually gone earlier than that.
Others said the rules for aid are unrealistic in towns such as
Waveland where destruction is so widespread. FEMA will not hand out
$2,000 relief checks in person and instead wants to send them to
addresses or bank accounts. Asked what a victim should do if he or she
had neither, a FEMA official said Monday that the agency was willing
to work something out.
"We are camping in a Taco Bell parking lot, and they're asking for an
address and telephone number. We got our $2,000 check, but we don't
have nowhere to cash it," said St. Amant, whose check was delivered to
her home's mailbox, which survived the storm.
"I'm hoping we can make it another two or three days. I keep saying
that every day, and then it's another day. We just can't get nothing
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