BILOXI and PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss.-At 81 years old, all Felicia O'Connor wants is "a clean place to sleep and somewhere to make my coffee." For the past four months, Mrs. O'Connor has been sleeping and making coffee in a tiny FEMA travel trailer on a narrow lot behind her small, water-logged home in Biloxi, Miss. Hurricane Katrina filled the one-story house with 6 feet of sea water, destroying everything inside and leaving it uninhabitable.
The trailer is cramped, but Mrs. O'Connor considers herself fortunate: It's much better than the screened-in front porch where she lived for over two months before FEMA delivered the emergency unit. Like many life-long Biloxi residents, Mrs. O'Connor, a widow for 41 years, wanted to stay close to her home after the storm, even if it meant sleeping outside. She has family in other states, but "I couldn't stay away," she told WORLD from the small doorway of her tidy camper.
Scores of other Mississippians couldn't stay away, either. Mrs. O'Connor is one of some 100,000 people in the state living in FEMA trailers, and thousands more are on a waiting list. Clean-up has been steady along the 70 miles of devastated Mississippi coastline, but more than six months after Katrina's landfall, a first-time visitor to Biloxi might think a hurricane struck yesterday: Empty slabs, hollowed-out homes, crumbling hotels, and piles of rubble stretch for miles. Hand-made signs lean against dilapidated houses revealing a range of homeowner sentiments: "Stay away," "Coming back," "Not worth trying for."
Mississippi governor Haley Barbour thinks the devastated region is "worth trying for" and has aggressively pursued redeveloping the private sector first, and working with urban planners on long-term redevelopment, saying, "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild this state the right way."
Mississippi also will receive a major boost from the federal government-$5.1 billion of an $11.5 billion appropriation for hurricane recovery, and $368 million for Medicaid costs. That's all money the state desperately needs, according to Mr. Barbour, who is "1,000 percent unapologetic" for Mississippi's slice of the large aid package.
Mr. Barbour is also unapologetic about calling the amount of attention New Orleans has received since the hurricane disproportionate. "I think the good stories about Mississippi are not as newsworthy in people's minds," he recently told the Associated Press.
Mrs. O'Connor considers herself one of Mississippi's good stories. Cinching her bright blue housecoat on a crisp morning, she cranes her head around the corner of her trailer to survey the 11 workers renovating her house. These workers aren't paid-Mrs. O'Connor lives in one of Biloxi's poorest neighborhoods and has no insurance-they're volunteers from the North Carolina--based Christian ministry Samaritan's Purse.
"These people have been wonderful," says Mrs. O'Connor, who remembers when a Samaritan's Purse volunteer first stopped to check on her. "We had a word of prayer, and he told me he'd be back," she says, "but I thought I'd never see him again. . . . How I was wrong." The volunteer did return, bringing a work crew and supplies to gut, clean, drywall, and re-frame the house.
On this morning, volunteers from California and Florida are sanding freshly hung sheet rock. The group will also lay a new floor to replace the buckling hardwoods that are full of holes. "They've done everything they said they were going to do, and that's rare," says Mrs. O'Connor, who struggles with frail health. "I'll be so happy if I can get in my house just one more time before I go to glory."
Mrs. O'Connor is one of some 2,400 people that Samaritan's Purse has helped in Biloxi since last September. Biloxi site manager Ken Sides says more than 1,600 volunteers from all over the country have taken vacations, spring breaks, and unpaid leaves to help with the Gulf Coast project. "They're the backbone of what we do," Mr. Sides said from a makeshift office at the group's seashore campsite. Samaritan's Purse will stay in Biloxi "indefinitely," he said. "This is going to take years and years."
Lee Owens is glad it won't take years to get back into his house. The 82-year-old Biloxi resident has lived in a low-income neighborhood less than 2 miles from the beach for 44 years. The hurricane flooded his home, "but being blind, I couldn't see none of it, anyway," he says from the small stoop of his FEMA trailer. Mr. Owens' blindness has made life after the storm even more complicated. His son Jerald says his father has trouble maneuvering through the small trailer: "He's fallen down in there and hit his head a couple of times."
With Samaritan's Purse renovations nearly complete, Mr. Owens' limitations don't keep him from expressing his gratitude in tangible ways: Once a week he cooks chicken-and-dumplings for the volunteers in his trailer's tiny kitchen, and he says he spends his days praying for needy people and volunteers: "If it hadn't been for the Lord and these people, I wouldn't be here."
A half-mile down the beach, First Presbyterian Church of Biloxi is busy getting people back into homes as well. David Brand, the elder organizing the church's efforts, says the biggest challenge has been "knowing where to start." The California-based Christian Housing Relief Project gave the church a substantial starting place by donating 50 fully renovated mobile homes. First Presbyterian is giving the trailers to families who lost everything, and Mr. Brand estimates "about half will probably live in them the rest of their lives."
Mr. Brand says the relief efforts, which also include repairing homes "from stem to stern," have stretched the church: Sleeping bags and mattresses fill Sunday school rooms, and the church office has become a command center for work orders. But Mr. Brand is enthusiastic about the exhausting work: "This is what the church is supposed to be about."
Twenty-five miles west in Pass Christian, Miss., Bible Fellowship Church is learning how to stretch as well. City officials estimate only 1,000 of its original 7,000 residents have returned, and destruction of local businesses has wiped out 80 percent of the small town's tax base. Rubble, empty lots, and mangled trees stretch for miles.
The small Bible Fellowship Church has become a big hub for relief efforts in the Pass Christian area, serving as a full-time base for three Christian relief groups, including the Florida-based Save America Now. Bill Smith serves as on-site coordinator for the Florida group's effort to help homeschooling families affected by the storm. "You've got to find a niche," Mr. Smith says as he grills hamburgers over a campfire after a long day of work. Mr. Smith says Bible Fellowship-home to the Coast Christian Home Educators Association-has been invaluable in identifying homeschooling families that need help.
Bible Fellowship pastor Don Trest says he's concerned to protect his congregation from burn-out, but that the church will continue to help the community long after volunteers go home: "That's when we'll see real fruit of all this. That's when the real work will begin."
Forget Bourbon Street and beaches. Thousands of college students this year are spending spring break on the Gulf Coast gutting houses and scrubbing mildew. More than 10,000 students have registered with Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC) to work on relief projects in New Orleans and Pass Christian, Miss., on a spring-break mission trip of mammoth proportions. Students from all over the United States began arriving on the Gulf Coast for week-long shifts in February, and will continue through this month. During a peak week in March, more than 4,000 students were working on hundreds of projects at one time.
"We've been astounded by the numbers," CCC spokesman Tony Arnold told WORLD. Students are sleeping on cots and mattresses in circus tents, FEMA tents, and an empty New Orleans warehouse dubbed "Light City." CCC organizes work projects for hundreds of homes-from gutting to rebuilding-and provides meals, clean bathrooms, and security. Students pay just $50 for their stay. The logistics, managed by a small staff and a group of volunteer leaders, have been "incredible," says Mr. Arnold. The projects have run smoothly, and students say they plan to return for more service this summer.