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Mississippi misery

With their property destroyed and nowhere to go, many of Katrina's victims are finding shelter, and more, in Mississippi churches

Issue: "New Orleans: Starting over," Sept. 24, 2005

Reporting from Biloxi, Brookhaven, Gulfport, and Jackson, Miss. -- While the rest of America remembered victims of Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on its fourth anniversary, Darrin Curtis sat on a hard gym floor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Brookhaven, Miss., facing his own life-changing losses. Mr. Curtis, 34, fled his Chalmette, La., home on the eve of Hurricane Katrina's landfall with his wife, two children, and three sets of clothes. Exactly two weeks later, that's all he has left. "My house is under 15 feet of water. Everything I have is gone." Mr. Curtis fears his two sisters-in-law may be gone as well. The family hasn't heard from either, and both were last seen in New Orleans.

Mr. Curtis is one of an estimated 388,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees filling shelters, hotels, and temporary housing situations in 36 states, according to the American Red Cross. More than one-third of those evacuees are from Mississippi, where large swaths of the once-thriving Gulf Coast have been reduced to piles of shredded rubble.

In the shadow of the wrenching disaster in New Orleans, Mississippi is staggering from the worst storm to ravage the region in a generation. As of Sept. 12, the state's death toll stood at 218, a total far higher than those of Hurricanes Andrew, Hugo, and Ivan. Officials say they are finding fewer bodies each day, but are bracing for more fatalities as workers sift through debris.

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Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Mississippi homes and businesses have been leveled. Officials in Pass Christian, Miss., say 8,200 of the town's 8,500 residents are now homeless. The state aims to establish 10,000 temporary shelters for displaced families and relief workers by the end of the month, as it clamors to shelter not only its own evacuees but also thousands more from neighboring Louisiana.

The task of sheltering evacuees has largely fallen to the Red Cross, which has leaned on dozens of churches across the state to house, clothe, and feed hundreds of destitute families. While hundreds of thousands wait on aid from FEMA, many churches are not only meeting evacuees' basic needs, but helping them rebuild their homes and lives.

Mr. Curtis stumbled on the Faith Presbyterian Church (FPC) shelter late at night when he stopped in Brookhaven with a hungry family and an overheated car. A clerk at Wal-Mart told him a Red Cross shelter was less than a block away, and the Curtis family joined nearly 250 other evacuees in FPC's crowded gym.

Bo Case, a resident of the small town just south of Jackson and a member of a local Baptist church, arrived the same night to help oversee shelter operations. He says the 300-member FPC has taken in evacuees from as young as 5 days old to as old as 100 years. Church volunteers have done the bulk of the work.

After a national radio host interviewed Mr. Case about the shelter's efforts, truckloads of food, water, and clothing arrived from dozens of states. A married couple from Atlanta arrived in a blue-and-white mobile home packed full of supplies, handed the keys to shelter volunteers, and said: "Please give this to someone who needs it." A missionary family on furlough in Arizona drove all the way to Brookhaven to take families who have decided to relocate in the town on a shopping spree for home and school supplies.

Mr. Curtis is one who has decided to settle in Brookhaven instead of returning to an unsalvageable home, and he has already found a carpentry job through a member of the church. When he's not working construction, Mr. Curtis has been helping with clean-up efforts in the neighborhood. Despite his staggering personal loss, Mr. Curtis' sunburned face is filled with gratitude and the excitement of a new start: "Why would I want to go anywhere else?"

On the other side of the FPC gym, the Baraket family is grateful for the shelter's help, saying the church members are "like angels," but the family is overwhelmed by their losses. Naser Baraket arrived at the shelter with his brother, two sisters, and their families, and all 17 share a packed room off the gym, where air mattresses fitted with donated blankets line the walls.

Mr. Baraket and his family, immigrants from Jordan, owned four houses on the same block in Slidell, La., and a successful car dealership in New Orleans. All of their property is destroyed. Mr. Baraket shows pictures of his ruined home with water lines nearly reaching the ceiling, the refrigerator overturned in the living room, and all the new furniture destroyed. Like many in this region, Mr. Baraket does not have flood insurance, and his homeowner's policy is useless. With no other family in the United States, he said they are considering returning to Jordan. "We had the American dream two weeks ago," says Mr. Baraket. "Now we have a nightmare we wish we could wake up from."

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