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As recovery lags in Gulf, spirits sag, too

In pockets of Mississippi's coast, Katrina survivors battle the foe of despair.

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Volunteers, working from a donation-driven recovery center nicknamed "PearlMart," have provided 85 percent of the labor to rebuild about 150 out of 500 homes. But donations, supplies, and even the volunteers themselves are dwindling, with no groups yet scheduled for August. Scraping the free-labor barrel, organizers are now often relying on 13-year-olds to swing hammers.

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More darkly, locals blame several suicides on the poststorm ennui. Long waits and lack of progress have caused neighbors to raise voices against one another, as Dixon can attest. Some who have rebuilt say they feel guilty as they watch their neighbors struggle. For many survivors eking out days in trailers, there's a sense that "they've been forgotten," says Mr. Scurfield at the Katrina Research Center.

Many simply want straight answers. "Our government, if they're going to give people money, then give it to them," says Pearlington resident Rocky Pullman, chairman of the Hancock County Board of Supervisors. "If they're not, then just tell them they ain't, tough luck, it's over with."

In some ways, Mr. Dalessandri says, the government not only has failed to help residents in a timely manner, but also has undermined Pearlington, in part by mandating new building standards that are too onerous and far-sighted for the immediate needs of residents.

What's more, aloof attitudes by bureaucrats and arbitrary decisions about rebuilding requirements, especially by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have added to the human toll of the recovery, says US Rep. Gene Taylor (D) of Mississippi, who lobbied for faster funding in scathing testimony on Capitol Hill in May. A June report from Congress's Government Accountability Office faulted federal agencies for taking too long to get into long-term recovery mode. No public buildings – such as fire stations and city halls – have been rebuilt from Pass Christian to Pearlington.

"Economically and physically clobbered places like Pearlington continue to deal with [recovery managers] who don't appear to know their jobs, don't understand the ropes, and won't make decisions," says Representative Taylor in an interview.

Government officials bear some blame for the long waits and stringent demands – such as requiring Pearlington's only school to be rebuilt 30 miles away on higher ground, says Mike Womack, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. But so do many local residents, he adds. Many simply do not want to build to conform to the new storm elevations – an attitude that puts them in conflict with policymakers and taxpayers who aren't keen to bail them out again in the event of another whopper hurricane.

"One of the greatest impediments to rebuilding the Mississippi Gulf Coast are social issues, where at least 50 percent of the delay involves people who don't want to accept that they have to build in a different fashion to be safe," Mr. Womack says.

Checks mailed to some households

Still, the first 96 checks for Phase II of the Mississippi recovery effort were mailed last month, part of a multimillion-dollar aid package for at least 7,000 low-lying households, including some in Pearlington, that had no storm insurance – allowing up to $130,000 per family to rebuild to the new elevations.

"[Recovery] is never soon enough," says Donna Sanford, recovery director for the Mississippi Development Authority in Jackson. "This is a problem we've never dealt with before, so there's no road map for us to follow."

One way that townspeople have bucked up their flagging spirits is by returning some of the outpouring of charity that flooded Pearlington after the surge receded. When a tornado flattened a Kansas town this spring, people here scraped together enough blankets, clothes, and toothpaste to fill a 53-foot trailer.

They knew exactly what the Kansans would need after the storm.

How to help

Mountains to Mississippi

A charity based in Carbondale, Colo., it has raised $300,000 to help specifically in Pearlington. Contact:

Pearlington Recovery Center

It accepts donations, offers of volunteer labor, and construction materials. Contact: 6098 1st St., Pearlington, MS 39572, (228) 533-0101

Salvation Army

It provides direct aid to residents on the Gulf Coast. Contact: The Salvation Army, Hurricane Relief Fund, P.O. Box 630243, Baltimore, MD 21263-0243