In the poorest of neighborhoods here, people sleep outside with no running water or power. They live among starving cats, rotting heaps of garbage and constant, buzzing flies. The bathroom is anywhere and everywhere. The filth is inescapable.
Weeks after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their homes and jobs, many people in east Biloxi are living amid the rubble of their own houses, waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deliver the trailers they have applied for — or for other federal assistance.
“We just wait and pray,” said Kenneth Albus, 45, who has spent weeks in the wreckage of his rented house, taking care of friend Margaret Nevels, a 65-year-old woman with swollen ankles and a heart condition.
People subsisting in similar, squalid conditions can be found all over east Biloxi, this city’s version of the lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans and only blocks behind the wealthy casinos that line the coast.
Those interviewed — black, white and Vietnamese — feel that FEMA has forgotten them. Nobody cares about the poor, they say. Never have, never did. Katrina didn’t kill them, but they fear the coming weeks might.
“We alive now, and we want to stay that way,” 81-year-old Bessie Tanksley said.
Federal agency acknowledges difficulties
FEMA says it hasn’t abandoned Biloxi’s destitute and has already provided $465 million in housing assistance in Mississippi.
Jess Seigal, a FEMA spokesman in Biloxi, acknowledged that it’s difficult to find temporary housing on the coast and that many people are reluctant to leave what remains of their homes.
But “the folks sitting in their front yards don’t have to stay there,” he said.
FEMA is trying to get trailers to everyone and knows people are frustrated. Seigal said 3,915 units have already been delivered to the six southern counties in Mississippi, including Harrison where Biloxi sits.
He estimates the state will need a total of 30,000 units. He didn’t know how many would be required in Biloxi. FEMA was trying to distribute 500 a day.
“We’re not there yet,” he said.
'We just want shelter'
After Katrina hit Biloxi, Tanksley emerged from her attic with 10 other people. Weeks later, she sits on the porch of her ruined brick house along with other family members taking refuge there.
Typhaney Neely, 29, came here with her four children including 3-month-old Christian, who was napping on a cot inside the moldy, dank and clearly uninhabitable house.
“We don’t want handouts,” Neely pleaded. “We just want shelter. I’m just frustrated about her and my children getting a trailer. It’s going to get cold.”
Neely, who’s not related to Tanksley but considers her like a grandmother, said they tried to find a hotel room, but none was available. Many hotels are booked for weeks, if not until the end of the year, in Biloxi and Gulfport. Snagging an apartment has been impossible. Tents are the more likely scenario. Many of the displaced are too proud — or too scared — to go to shelters.
“Try to find me a place to rent,” Albus said. “Show me one that don’t cost an arm and leg and two fingers.”
New poor join original poor
Down the street, a group of men sat together in a rank corner of the block, sipping whiskey and trying to ignore the putrid smell wafting from an adjacent house. The booze, said one 52-year-old man nicknamed Raghead, “eases my mind.”
This stretch of Biloxi, a city of about 50,000, is a sanctuary for the original homeless, the people who had nothing before Katrina swept over this place, wiping out the casinos that supplanted the fishing industry as the main economic driver years ago.
“We don’t have a roof,” Raghead said. “We got a tarp.”
He would love a trailer, but he has more immediate problems.
“They giving out a lot of stuff but nothing for the diarrhea,” he said. “People don’t have toilets around here. We need some port-a-potties.”
Porches to nowhere are now serving as living and bedrooms. Plastic coolers are refrigerators. Broken trees are used to hang laundry. Kitchens are comprised of random cutlery and a camping stove.
The luckiest ones, like 37-year-old Tuan Nguyen, have secured tents and scrounged gas grills. Nguyen, his wife, Ngan, and two children, ages 7 and 8, are squatting on the tiled porch of a friend’s home that was flooded.
His wife keeps the porch spotless. It’s where they eat and sleep in a tent. Shoes are forbidden. For three weeks, the Nguyens have been living on this porch. Churches have supplied most of their current possessions like pots and pans, food and water.
Food deliveries from Red Cross
“That’s all we have,” Tuan Nguyen says, pointing to a few boxes. “I got no money. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I lost everything.”
As his sad words trail off, a Red Cross van appears, letting people know through a loudspeaker that food has arrived. Nguyen goes to the truck and is handed a plastic foam box containing chicken dumplings, peas and apple sauce.
One of the Red Cross workers, 44-year-old John Capecci from Baltimore, has been volunteering for three weeks. He knows the streets, driving them day after day searching for the needy.
“There is an endless supply of them,” says Capecci. “It goes on for mile after mile.”
Those are the ones struggling on land. Others remain stranded on shrimp boats docked at the sound, huddled in cramped conditions that can be unbearable because of the Mississippi heat.
The boat people — those who fled Vietnam after the communists took over — are boat people once again.
Frustration over delays
Tam Tran, 44, is back on his shrimp boat named “Vanna Lavie” with his 5-year-old daughter and wife who’s four months pregnant.
“If the weather is real hot I go to the tent; if it’s OK I sleep here,” he said. The family sleeps in one tiny cabin on the same bed together. The pier where the boat is docked has no power.
Weeks ago, Tran went to FEMA for a trailer. He’s not heard back since. He tried calling FEMA recently but the number wasn’t working.
“This made me mad,” Tran said, raising his voice. “I made application for a long time, and I still don’t have it. How do I survive?”
FEMA’s Seigal understands the frustration.
“There are folks working their butts off to make this happen, but the volume is incredible,” he said. “It’s taking time.”
Seigal said after people register with FEMA, an inspector from the agency will visit the home sometime between 10 days and two weeks later. Within four to six days the trailer is supposed to arrive if conditions are right.
“We’re not going to place a trailer in a yard without sewage or water or electrical lines,” Seigal explained.
From porch to tent
After Hurricane Katrina ravaged their little white house of 20 years, Mike Hardy and his wife lived outside on their broken, warped porch — next to piles of stinking debris and the massive tree that fell.
Their living quarters were next to a dirty commode strapped underneath a metal walker. “That’s our bathroom,” said Hardy.
About a week ago, Hardy and his wife, Donna, decided to move a few feet away and joined some other friends and family who had set up tents. Their porch had become intolerable.
“Who can sleep there?” Hardy asked. “There are rats, snakes.”
Hardy, a carpenter, is worried about the water moccasins — “They don’t play” — and is building a floor for the tent out of lumber.
Before he can get more permanent shelter, somebody is going to have to help out. “We’re trying to put in for that FEMA trailer but we can’t get that damn tree out of the way,” he said.
Hardy then looks down at the ground and puffs in his cigarette.
“I’ve seen better days.”