Shelter residents find sense of community

Neighbors band together to scrounge for food, watch out for each other

Katrina's Wake

September 06, 2005|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GULFPORT, Miss. - J.J. drives his butcher's knife into the bright flesh of a split watermelon and leaves it there. He squats down, squints and surveys the refugee-packed parking lot of Gulfport Central Elementary from beneath the brim of a camouflage cap. The other Pink Palace Orphans surround him, breathless, awaiting his command.

"You want a joke?" J.J. says instead. The gray-haired "orphans" nod vigorously.

"A guy walks into a bar with jumper cables around his neck. The bartender says, `OK, I'll let you in'" - and here J.J. grinned hugely - "`but, DON'T START ANYTHING!'"

The orphans roar, tipping their stubble-covered chins toward heaven.

So it wasn't a great joke. But 60-year-old J.J., or John Jensen, is a vital guy to have on your side at this hurricane shelter, where a week after the storm there is a sporadic food supply, no sanitation system, one reported rape and - in the words of a Red Cross volunteer - "some kind of vomiting sickness."

Although the infrastructure and supply chains are slowly growing stronger at this shelter and dozens of others in the Katrina-struck region, the refugees have learned over the past week to rely on each other for survival, forming networks of families, friends and, in the orphans' case, near-strangers, guarding each other's gear from the rampant thieves and pooling food stashes.

J.J. has emerged as their leader, and they fan out behind him as he strides through the dim halls or holds court on the concrete steps in front of the brick school. He alone among them has a fuel-efficient Geo and a genius for procuring supplies.

Scrounging around this devastated coastal town, he has produced treasures including pudding cups and portable fans. He has an intuitive grasp of which Wal-Mart just opened, which gas line is finally moving.

Before the storm, he was a bankrupt farmer from Iowa who had moved south to wash dishes and deal blackjack at one of the Gulf Coast casinos. He had no family and few friends. Now, he finds himself at the top of the heap in a shelter for 150 stranded people.

"Value is relative in this place," J.J. explains. "For instance, a place to [defecate] has become invaluable."

The Pink Palace Orphans heartily agree.

It was J.J. who named them that, in honor of the Pink Palace, a $75-a-week flophouse off the beach where they all lived off and on before the storm. The building was actually beige, but at some point in its history it was a memorable pink. The storm blew it away entirely, and the residents, most of them - like many people remaining in the shelters of southern Mississippi - poor and alone to begin with, have nothing and nobody except each other.

"That's why we say orphans," Rhonda Rall said. "We are a family now."

Each orphan has a distinct role. Rall, in her 50s and the only woman in the group, has the job of cleaning the dank strip of hallway where her former apartment mates have clustered their pillows and blankets, and of keeping watch for thieves who, despite her best efforts, made off with some of their meager belongings over the weekend.

There's Robert West, 54, a line cook with a sunburned barrel of a belly who keeps the gang in cigarettes, the one thing that J.J. refuses to "run missions for" because "they're not a necessity," he said.

Then there's John Moore, 56, a retired encyclopedia salesman with sad black eyes and a hacking cough who is the orphans' unofficial bard. At night, when the lights in the shelter finally come on and the orphans toss and turn in their tangled blankets, he writes poetry:

She is a woman with much grace

Though no feminine face

Her features are much the same

Thrashing and twirling, bad winds whirling, Katrina is her name.

They are a team, an outfit, a unit. They know each other's shirt and shoe sizes so that when the cardboard boxes of donated clothes come in, they can save the best for each other. On Sunday, Moore proudly presented a handsome pair of cherry-red tasseled loafers to West, who has much bigger feet.

J.J. does far more than his share. The storm seems to have brought out the best in him.

Even on Sunday, before the storm began, he thought about the neighbors who had evacuated to the school with him and packed extra batteries for flashlights they forgot to bring.

Now, in the aftermath, "he carries everybody's load," said Jaime Montezuma, 62, another orphan. "He gives us everything from food to a shoulder to cry on."

In stinking hallways filled with listless, weeping people, he buzzes with energy, planning reconnaissance trips in his beat-up Geo for gasoline or turkey fryers or refrigerators - whatever he thinks the shelter needs.

He supplies his friends first - at one point last week the orphans were practically living in luxury thanks to J.J.'s television and microwave and personal fan, which they ran at night until the shelter's generator gave out and he was made to unplug them.

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