Tent Life Wears Thin on Evacuees, Families

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 barely standing.

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 for squatters.

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 available.

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 homeless.

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 officials said.

"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, Gene Romano.

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 serious problem.

"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 there."

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 accomplished."


Copyright 2005 Chicago Tribune.

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