Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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Katrina Updates

October 27th, 2005 7:39 PM

Tent City for the Forgotten

It's been nearly two months since Katrina leveled much of east Biloxi, Miss., where weary residents are tired of FEMA's promises.

By Ellen Barry / Los Angeles Times

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 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. Gary and Valentina slept in half-hour lulls between the gusts of wind, and 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, known as "the Point," hundreds of people are sleeping on the ground beside the rubble of their homes, living in tents that poke out from piles of debris.

On some lots, listless residents begin drinking hard in the morning so that by evening they can drop into a drugged sleep. On others — like the Stilwells' — families are trying to hold on to remnants of the life they had before the storm. But even the Stilwells began to feel hopeless when the temperature dropped this week.

"What people don't understand is that it is an emergency situation," said Bill Stallworth, city councilman for Biloxi's Ward 2, which includes much of east Biloxi. "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 to hotels or temporary shelters 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 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. Stallworth estimated that 1,000 to 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 wished local people had used federal rental assistance or stayed in safer environments — in shelters or with family members — instead of returning to neighborhoods that could be dangerous.

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

Residents interviewed said they thought they had no choice but to stay on their property, in some cases 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 were under orders to contact residents by phone before they traveled to a site.

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

Delays, he said, can be attributed to several factors: communities have not yet granted permits to place trailers; sites are in flood zones; municipal crews have not cleared debris; and newly delivered trailers must be inspected by their manufacturer.

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.

"It may have been an oversight on our part that we were not going back in there," he said.

On Elmer Street — a narrow lane made narrower by the piles of debris that line it — three families have been living in tents since the week of the storm, suffering from coughs and rashes that crept up their arms and legs.

Asked why he stayed beside the house that has belonged to his family since 1932, Derek Pride smiled and gave a simple answer: "It's paid for."

Kala Willis became so worried about her two older children that she sent them to stay with relatives two weeks ago; only the 2-year-old, Ashanti, remains. Willis has been putting Ashanti to bed fully dressed, wearing a hat and gloves, and piles her with blankets, but they still wake up in the morning covered with freezing dew, said Andrea Harris, 42, Willis' sister. "You can't sleep from shaking so hard," she said.

On Wednesday, three trailers arrived on Elmer Street.

East Biloxi's homeowners have always been protective of their neighborhood, settled by African Americans and Croatian fishermen, many of whom have passed down homes for two or three generations. In recent years, casinos have risen along the shores, making residential areas enticing to developers. Stallworth said several homeowners had sold their property "for little or nothing" after the storm.

"I'm encouraging everyone: Don't sell to the casinos, especially right now," he said.

But as the weather gets cold, options seem thin for residents sleeping outside.

In an encampment of six tents on Howard Street, Gerald Perry sleeps with an ax under his pillow. Perry, 56, has a tattoo that reads "Born to Lose," and described his days this way: A fifth of whiskey first thing in the morning, a second fifth at 2 p.m., and then, about 6 p.m., something to knock him out completely.

He said memories of the flood haunted him. Perry started to talk about finding bodies after the storm, but his friend, a tall, white-bearded man known as Daddy, interrupted him. There is a house rule against talking about dead bodies. But the warning came too late for Perry, who started to cry.

"We're in bad shape, we know that," Perry said. "What it is, is trying to stay drunk, trying to forget."

A few blocks down, the Stilwells stay on the rental property that they have carefully maintained since they first registered for a trailer in early September. A wind chime tinkles on a tree limb, and a handsome book of post-impressionist painting sits beside a table. A welcome mat has been laid down and shiny pots and pans are stacked on a cabinet.

By Wednesday, though, there was no sign that the cold weather was going away, and the Stilwells gave up cooking because it had become too windy. Valentina had developed a cough that hurt her lungs.

That morning, as she faced another day of waiting, Valentina, exhausted, began to cry.

"I want to be inside," she said, "so I can start my life."

A FEMA team arrived later in the day to inspect the Stilwells' power and water supply — for the fifth time, the couple said — and gave them another estimate that made their hearts sink.

It will be two weeks before they get a trailer.

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