In Biloxi, helping hands are private groups

A hard-hit city in Mississippi finds that - even 10 days after Katrina - public agencies are not providing much relief.

Here in Biloxi, Miss., where barges that once housed floating casinos now sit awkwardly on land and segments of porches are all that remain of stately houses, small acts of kindness are going on all over town.

At the Lighthouse Apostolic Holiness Church in east Biloxi, Betty Kelley spent Monday and Tuesday cooking stews and chicken in 30-gallon vats for hungry residents. "No one was coming in to help us. We had to do it all on our own," says Ms. Kelley. "All they have been saying is they want a hot meal."

Across the Gulf Coast region, similar scenes are playing out: small churches and private individuals trying to meet whatever needs they perceive wherever they see them. The parents of one Biloxi resident were offered food, shelter, and a cellphone by a stranger they met at a Louisiana gas station.

Deep appreciation of such acts, though, is matched by sharp criticism of the official response among many hit by Katrina. Private aid is not enough to suffice at times like these, they say, and government must play a role that is more urgent than what people here say they've seen thus far.

Disasters on the scale of Katrina always require a response from both. Nonprofits like the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army, and even small churches and local groups, may be more agile and better at filling specific gaps than are big government bureaucracies, experts say. But no private organization can even begin to coordinate the rescue, evacuation, shelter, and care for hundreds of thousands of people, they add. Charities simply don't have the same resources: While the Red Cross has received more than $400 million in donations in response to Katrina - and corporations have contributed at least $37 million - the government has released $10 billion.

"You're really working on different scales," says Christoph Gorder of Americares, a Connecticut-based group active in Katrina relief efforts.

"Help even on the smallest level of neighbors giving to neighbors is extremely effective and extremely needed in the immediate aftermath. It's very difficult for the government to address" those individual needs, Mr. Gorder adds. "We're great in America at taking responsibility as private citizens to do whatever we can. But we expect the government to take an active role and coordinate the big picture."

Among people here, frustration is rising with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in particular. Though complaints aren't always related to FEMA's areas of responsibility, there's a pervasive sense - among some disaster experts as well - that the agency has not performed up to par.

"You'd assume FEMA would have the capacity and structure to respond to these events in an expedient manner. That's the whole purpose of FEMA," says Havidán Rodríguez, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, noting Katrina is the first test for FEMA under its reorganization within the Department of Homeland Security. "This was the first opportunity the Department of Homeland Security had to show it was well-equipped and prepared, and obviously that was not the case."

One troubling aspect of the response, say Professor Rodríguez and others, was the apparent lack of communication - a basic requirement for disaster response - in the first days after Katrina. In a noted example, FEMA chief Michael Brown told reporters he had no idea that the thousands of people at the New Orleans Convention Center were desperate, though images of the center had been playing all day on television. Local officials and law enforcement officers complained of being unable to communicate.

Amid the initial confusion, some private citizens rushed to fill the vacuum. "It's a joke how long it has taken to get help down here," says Todd Schweizer, one of nine men from Florida who drove to Biloxi with 2,000 hamburgers, 2,000 hotdogs, and an enormous grill. The men, who work for a trash-collection business, also brought diapers, dog food, and water - $25,000 worth of products, says Mr. Schweizer, the company's owner. "These folks need our help."

Locals estimate that 90 percent of Biloxi residents have damaged homes or have lost all their property. But help from the state or federal governments has been slow, say city officials.

Councilman Bill Stallworth, who represents east Biloxi's Ward 2, says people have been calling in, asking for mattress vouchers, brooms, buckets, and mops. His district has only four portable toilets. "It is 10 days later, and there is still not a peep," he says. "Most are still living in unsafe housing, exposed to the weather. FEMA has been missing in action."

Linn, a Biloxi resident who didn't want to give his last name because he works for the city, says his house is moulding and his three cars are destroyed. FEMA told him he can collect $3,000 for the cars, but the agency hasn't said when. Though he's told there are places he can get information, he has no way to get around. "Everyone I talk to says FEMA tells them the same thing: 'I'll call you back,' " he says on his way to ask the police if he can borrow a bicycle.

That is changing. Two Public Health Service workers visited a church to ask if the pastor needed anything. The Air Force passed out crates of water, and the Salvation Army Emergency Canteen drove by.

Huge support has come from Southeast churches, says Eric Dickey, a former Biloxi city councilor. "All the churches are working to bring back normalcy," says Mr. Dickey, who unloads a box of shrimp from a pickup truck. "If we band together, it can trickle down to the people who have been missed by the national effort."

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