Katrina victims in tents


BILOXI, MISS. -- In the afternoon, when it is warm, Valentina and Gary Stilwell can almost forget there are no walls around them. Valentina has hung one of her paintings on a tree, and there is a bowl of hard candies on the coffee table. The concrete slab beneath them is as spotless as linoleum.

But on Sunday night a cold wind shuddered through east Biloxi, shaking their tent so badly that Gary had to get up several times to drive the stakes back into the ground. In the morning, the weight of what they had been through bore down hard.

"There's nobody that can do anything for us," said Gary, a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran. Valentina, 44, put it more bluntly.

"I said to the FEMA guy, if you can't bring me my trailer, just bring me a .38 and a bullet," she said.

Nearly two months after Hurricane Katrina passed over the Gulf Coast, stretches of east Biloxi resemble shantytowns. In the Point Cadet neighborhood, hundreds of people are sleeping on the ground beside the rubble of their homes, living in tents that poke out from piles of debris.

"What people don't understand is that it is an emergency situation," said Bill Stallworth, city councilman for Biloxi's second ward. "You don't have any place to go, and you're sitting there, and you're starting to freeze."

The residents of New Orleans' poorest neighborhoods were evacuated until they could face the staggering question of whether to return to a ruined place. But in impoverished east Biloxi, many residents never left, or they returned to stay beside their modest homes and wait for the delivery of a trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

There is no count of how many people are living in tents, but aid agencies have distributed more than 1,000 tents. Stallworth estimated that between 1,000 and 1,500 people were living in tents, even as temperatures began dropping into the low 40s at night.

Michael Beeman, FEMA's district director for Harrison County, said he wishes local people had used federal rental assistance or stayed in safer environments instead of returning to neighborhoods that may be dangerous.

"The people you find here are proud individuals who do not want to leave their property. They come back, they want to stay," he said. "The challenge for us is being able to give them something that will be better."

Residents interviewed said they felt they had no choice but to stay on their property, in part because they feared it was the only way to expedite the delivery of a trailer.

"FEMA, when we went and signed up for a trailer, told us, `You have to be on your property'" in order to receive keys, said Valentina Stilwell, an artist who works seasonally as a tax preparer. "I've had a lot of FEMA people come to my property and not call me prior. What are we supposed to do?"

Beeman said FEMA crews are under orders to contact residents by phone before they travel to a site.

FEMA has provided about half the trailers requested by households in Mississippi - 10,641 of 22,515 requests - and hope to supply all of them by Dec. 1, Beeman said.

FEMA officials were not aware until recently that people were still living in tents in east Biloxi, Beeman said. Since learning of the encampments, Beeman has sent community relations teams out to determine which households should be a priority.

Ellen Barry writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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