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Mississippi misery

"Mississippi misery" Continued...

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

FPC pastor Rob Oates says the church is committed to helping the shelter's nearly 50 remaining evacuees, many of whom have no place to go, and Mr. Case says he will remain at the shelter until the last person leaves: "I consider these people my family."

Thousands of hurricane evacuees fled beyond Brookhaven to Jackson, the state capital, where at one point some 1,300 packed into the Mississippi Coliseum. A few miles away, First Baptist Church Jackson (FBCJ) began taking in the weakest of the refugees and became a Red Cross shelter for people with special medical needs.

Dozens of cots and a handful of hospital beds sit in neat rows in the gym of FBCJ's family life center. A small table sits beside each cot, covered with personal items and a small, orange New Testament the church gives to each evacuee. Nearly 30 patients with a wide range of health problems fill the makeshift clinic where volunteer nurses and doctors tend to the patients round the clock. Some are on oxygen, some sit in wheelchairs, while others lie listlessly in bed. One man naps while his prosthetic legs, fitted with tennis shoes and blue-striped socks, lean against his cot.

At 83 years old, Thomas Smith is one of the strongest patients in the shelter, sitting straight-backed on the edge of his cot dressed in brown pants and a red button-down shirt he picked out from the shelter's clothing closet. The retired Navy man has lived alone in the same apartment in New Orleans' French Quarter since 1962 and has gone to a nearby VA hospital for dialysis three times a week for two years. After going to the hospital the day before Katrina hit, Mr. Smith wound up stranded in a waiting room with dozens of other patients for four days.

The hospital's power quickly went out, and Mr. Smith slept in a chair in the stifling heat. Bathrooms didn't work, water was limited, and the hospital ran out of food by the fourth day, while Mr. Smith missed two critical dialysis treatments. Flood water flowed through the halls, but Mr. Smith, who spent 15 years on Navy ships, says the experience "wasn't so bad-I'm used to water." On the fourth day soldiers in Humvees evacuated the hospital, airlifting Mr. Smith to Jackson where he immediately received dialysis.

Mr. Smith says the volunteers at First Baptist "have been wonderful," treating him better than doctors back home. Though he's unsure about his apartment's condition, Mr. Smith, who has very little family, wants to return to New Orleans as soon as possible: "Even if I don't have anything left, I'm by myself-I don't need much."

Lee Thigpen, First Baptist's director of community missions, says the church is trying to place shelter residents in more permanent settings, and when the shelter closes, the church will focus on the long-term needs of other hurricane evacuees who are settling in the Jackson area. "They can get a FEMA check for a couple months' rent, but what are they going to do after that?" asks Mr. Thigpen. "That's where the church comes in."

On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, thousands of residents aren't giving up on their homes, and residents of Biloxi are struggling to regain a sense of normalcy while debris, trash, and clothing fill trees, and many homes and businesses lie crumpled. Many traffic lights have blown away, and drivers sit in long lines while National Guardsmen direct traffic. Tombstones lie flat in cemeteries, street signs are gone, and dozens of side streets are barely passable, filled with trees, debris, even boats.

South of the town's railroad tracks near the coastline, most of the homes are destroyed or severely damaged. Some low-income residents remain in their damaged homes, suffering through reeking mold and mildew, while others stay in shelters or camp out in the hot parking lots of destroyed shopping centers. Sand is barely visible on a beachhead filled with appliances, clothing, trash, furniture, and small pieces of homes.

On the west end of the beach, Samaritan's Purse (SP) has set up camp at a United Methodist conference center that escaped complete destruction. In a huge black-and-white trailer, shadowed by a hollowed-out chapel, SP workers sift through hundreds of requests for help from the community. About 200 volunteers from all over the country filled 326 work orders in the first week.

Rusty Thill, a volunteer firefighter from San Diego, has been helping SP in Biloxi. Mr. Thill first encountered SP in 1993 when his rental home was destroyed by southern California fires and the group sent hundreds of volunteers to help rebuild thousands of homes. When Katrina slammed the South, Mr. Thill sold everything in his apartment, loaded his gold Chevy truck, and headed to the Gulf Coast, where he's helped with search and recovery and construction efforts: "Every firefighter has a helping heart. That's just who we are."

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