Wed, Sep 07, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Katrina survivors face tough decisions

STAY OR GO?Residents of the Gulf Coast region are having a hard time deciding what to do with their belonging and their property in the storm's aftermath


The people who have chosen to stay or are stuck in demolished communities along the Mississippi coast scavenge for basics each day, as convoys of soldiers and supplies pass them by, headed for the nearly empty city of New Orleans.

Some are staying with the hope of rebuilding their communities. Others say they would leave if only they could get a ride. All agree that with no water or power, probably for months to come, they need more help from the government just to survive.

"I have been all over the world. I've been in a lot of third world countries where people were better off than the people here are right now," retired Air Force Captain William Bissell said Monday.

"We've got 45 km of coastline here that's absolutely destroyed, and the federal government, they're not here," he said.

Most homes still standing along the Gulf Coast are empty, but every few blocks is someone who stayed.

Some federal aid has arrived in the communities, and private donations have come in sporadically, but it's unorganized and residents know they can't depend on it.

The official death toll in Mississippi stood at 160 and rising Monday. More than 17,000 people were living in American Red Cross shelters in the state, with thousands more in hotels and storm-damaged homes.

Virginia Fisher tried to stay in a shelter, but she left when people started getting sick with a stomach virus.

"I know I'm better off here," she says of her home. It's uninhabitable and reeking, but she and her husband, Buford, are living in it anyway, holding fast to what little community they have left.

Each morning, people in their neighborhood gather food and water from private donors and scattered aid stations and congregate in the Fishers' yard to share it out.

"We got 22 people coming here for food and water," Fisher said. "As long as I'm here, they're going to come here."

Authorities have been talking for days about building a tent city for refugees, but not much has come of the plan. Mike Beeman, FEMA coordinator for Harrison County, said he hasn't met a person who wants out.

"They want the help," he said, "but they don't want to leave."

But after a week of it, there are residents who have had enough.

Lavone Lollar, 34, and her three children have been living with 75 others in an Ocean Springs shelter that smells like dirty diapers. She would leave "in a heartbeat" if she had a way.

"The roads are so backed up and everybody's still fighting for gas," she said. Most people in the shelter don't have cars, "so we're having to wait for people to come to us instead of us going to them."

She fears the psychological toll the disaster is taking on those slowly realizing they've lost everything.

"You talk to somebody one minute, they're OK," she said. "The next, the devil's starting to get into them."

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency director Robert Latham said his agency will work with local authorities and the Red Cross to help people who want to relocate. Alabama has offered about room for about 2,500 in shelters or hotels.

For those who want to stay, Mississippi officials say they will eventually offer temporary housing in tents or in 20,000 small trailers that have been ordered.

The idea of tents only adds to Renee Chambless' fears.

"You can't trust anybody. If you sleep in those tents, you might wake up and see your daughter being carried off and raped," Chambless said. She and her 15-year-old daughter plan on staying with friends in their damaged home in Saucier instead.

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