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Mississippi misery

With their property destroyed and nowhere to go, many of Katrina's victims are finding shelter, and more, in Mississippi churches

Mississippi misery

Reporting from Biloxi, Brookhaven, Gulfport, and Jackson, Miss. -- While the rest of America remembered victims of Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on its fourth anniversary, Darrin Curtis sat on a hard gym floor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Brookhaven, Miss., facing his own life-changing losses. Mr. Curtis, 34, fled his Chalmette, La., home on the eve of Hurricane Katrina's landfall with his wife, two children, and three sets of clothes. Exactly two weeks later, that's all he has left. "My house is under 15 feet of water. Everything I have is gone." Mr. Curtis fears his two sisters-in-law may be gone as well. The family hasn't heard from either, and both were last seen in New Orleans.

Mr. Curtis is one of an estimated 388,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees filling shelters, hotels, and temporary housing situations in 36 states, according to the American Red Cross. More than one-third of those evacuees are from Mississippi, where large swaths of the once-thriving Gulf Coast have been reduced to piles of shredded rubble.

In the shadow of the wrenching disaster in New Orleans, Mississippi is staggering from the worst storm to ravage the region in a generation. As of Sept. 12, the state's death toll stood at 218, a total far higher than those of Hurricanes Andrew, Hugo, and Ivan. Officials say they are finding fewer bodies each day, but are bracing for more fatalities as workers sift through debris.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Mississippi homes and businesses have been leveled. Officials in Pass Christian, Miss., say 8,200 of the town's 8,500 residents are now homeless. The state aims to establish 10,000 temporary shelters for displaced families and relief workers by the end of the month, as it clamors to shelter not only its own evacuees but also thousands more from neighboring Louisiana.

The task of sheltering evacuees has largely fallen to the Red Cross, which has leaned on dozens of churches across the state to house, clothe, and feed hundreds of destitute families. While hundreds of thousands wait on aid from FEMA, many churches are not only meeting evacuees' basic needs, but helping them rebuild their homes and lives.

Mr. Curtis stumbled on the Faith Presbyterian Church (FPC) shelter late at night when he stopped in Brookhaven with a hungry family and an overheated car. A clerk at Wal-Mart told him a Red Cross shelter was less than a block away, and the Curtis family joined nearly 250 other evacuees in FPC's crowded gym.

Bo Case, a resident of the small town just south of Jackson and a member of a local Baptist church, arrived the same night to help oversee shelter operations. He says the 300-member FPC has taken in evacuees from as young as 5 days old to as old as 100 years. Church volunteers have done the bulk of the work.

After a national radio host interviewed Mr. Case about the shelter's efforts, truckloads of food, water, and clothing arrived from dozens of states. A married couple from Atlanta arrived in a blue-and-white mobile home packed full of supplies, handed the keys to shelter volunteers, and said: "Please give this to someone who needs it." A missionary family on furlough in Arizona drove all the way to Brookhaven to take families who have decided to relocate in the town on a shopping spree for home and school supplies.

Mr. Curtis is one who has decided to settle in Brookhaven instead of returning to an unsalvageable home, and he has already found a carpentry job through a member of the church. When he's not working construction, Mr. Curtis has been helping with clean-up efforts in the neighborhood. Despite his staggering personal loss, Mr. Curtis' sunburned face is filled with gratitude and the excitement of a new start: "Why would I want to go anywhere else?"

On the other side of the FPC gym, the Baraket family is grateful for the shelter's help, saying the church members are "like angels," but the family is overwhelmed by their losses. Naser Baraket arrived at the shelter with his brother, two sisters, and their families, and all 17 share a packed room off the gym, where air mattresses fitted with donated blankets line the walls.

Mr. Baraket and his family, immigrants from Jordan, owned four houses on the same block in Slidell, La., and a successful car dealership in New Orleans. All of their property is destroyed. Mr. Baraket shows pictures of his ruined home with water lines nearly reaching the ceiling, the refrigerator overturned in the living room, and all the new furniture destroyed. Like many in this region, Mr. Baraket does not have flood insurance, and his homeowner's policy is useless. With no other family in the United States, he said they are considering returning to Jordan. "We had the American dream two weeks ago," says Mr. Baraket. "Now we have a nightmare we wish we could wake up from."

FPC pastor Rob Oates says the church is committed to helping the shelter's nearly 50 remaining evacuees, many of whom have no place to go, and Mr. Case says he will remain at the shelter until the last person leaves: "I consider these people my family."

Thousands of hurricane evacuees fled beyond Brookhaven to Jackson, the state capital, where at one point some 1,300 packed into the Mississippi Coliseum. A few miles away, First Baptist Church Jackson (FBCJ) began taking in the weakest of the refugees and became a Red Cross shelter for people with special medical needs.

Dozens of cots and a handful of hospital beds sit in neat rows in the gym of FBCJ's family life center. A small table sits beside each cot, covered with personal items and a small, orange New Testament the church gives to each evacuee. Nearly 30 patients with a wide range of health problems fill the makeshift clinic where volunteer nurses and doctors tend to the patients round the clock. Some are on oxygen, some sit in wheelchairs, while others lie listlessly in bed. One man naps while his prosthetic legs, fitted with tennis shoes and blue-striped socks, lean against his cot.

At 83 years old, Thomas Smith is one of the strongest patients in the shelter, sitting straight-backed on the edge of his cot dressed in brown pants and a red button-down shirt he picked out from the shelter's clothing closet. The retired Navy man has lived alone in the same apartment in New Orleans' French Quarter since 1962 and has gone to a nearby VA hospital for dialysis three times a week for two years. After going to the hospital the day before Katrina hit, Mr. Smith wound up stranded in a waiting room with dozens of other patients for four days.

The hospital's power quickly went out, and Mr. Smith slept in a chair in the stifling heat. Bathrooms didn't work, water was limited, and the hospital ran out of food by the fourth day, while Mr. Smith missed two critical dialysis treatments. Flood water flowed through the halls, but Mr. Smith, who spent 15 years on Navy ships, says the experience "wasn't so bad-I'm used to water." On the fourth day soldiers in Humvees evacuated the hospital, airlifting Mr. Smith to Jackson where he immediately received dialysis.

Mr. Smith says the volunteers at First Baptist "have been wonderful," treating him better than doctors back home. Though he's unsure about his apartment's condition, Mr. Smith, who has very little family, wants to return to New Orleans as soon as possible: "Even if I don't have anything left, I'm by myself-I don't need much."

Lee Thigpen, First Baptist's director of community missions, says the church is trying to place shelter residents in more permanent settings, and when the shelter closes, the church will focus on the long-term needs of other hurricane evacuees who are settling in the Jackson area. "They can get a FEMA check for a couple months' rent, but what are they going to do after that?" asks Mr. Thigpen. "That's where the church comes in."

On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, thousands of residents aren't giving up on their homes, and residents of Biloxi are struggling to regain a sense of normalcy while debris, trash, and clothing fill trees, and many homes and businesses lie crumpled. Many traffic lights have blown away, and drivers sit in long lines while National Guardsmen direct traffic. Tombstones lie flat in cemeteries, street signs are gone, and dozens of side streets are barely passable, filled with trees, debris, even boats.

South of the town's railroad tracks near the coastline, most of the homes are destroyed or severely damaged. Some low-income residents remain in their damaged homes, suffering through reeking mold and mildew, while others stay in shelters or camp out in the hot parking lots of destroyed shopping centers. Sand is barely visible on a beachhead filled with appliances, clothing, trash, furniture, and small pieces of homes.

On the west end of the beach, Samaritan's Purse (SP) has set up camp at a United Methodist conference center that escaped complete destruction. In a huge black-and-white trailer, shadowed by a hollowed-out chapel, SP workers sift through hundreds of requests for help from the community. About 200 volunteers from all over the country filled 326 work orders in the first week.

Rusty Thill, a volunteer firefighter from San Diego, has been helping SP in Biloxi. Mr. Thill first encountered SP in 1993 when his rental home was destroyed by southern California fires and the group sent hundreds of volunteers to help rebuild thousands of homes. When Katrina slammed the South, Mr. Thill sold everything in his apartment, loaded his gold Chevy truck, and headed to the Gulf Coast, where he's helped with search and recovery and construction efforts: "Every firefighter has a helping heart. That's just who we are."

On a 90-degree Monday morning, Mr. Thill takes a group to Linda Ogden's home where she lives with her elderly mother. The house sustained roof damage and needs several tarps until it can be repaired. Ms. Ogden, who moved in two weeks before Katrina, knows no one in the neighborhood and initially didn't know how she would take care of the leaking roof. After praying with Ms. Ogden and giving her a Bible signed by each person on the team, the volunteers hop on the roof and begin laying sturdy tarps that will last as long as three years. "I can't believe they would help people for free like this," says Ms. Ogden. "I'm so thankful."

Twelve miles west in devastated Gulfport, dozens of volunteers fix 12,000 meals a day for residents around Pass Road Baptist Church, an inner-city congregation near the city's worst destruction. Nearly 10 percent of the congregation lost everything, but the church has staged an enormous relief effort. Volunteers from North Carolina prepare and serve meals, a group from Pensacola, Fla., brought a mobile medical clinic, and the church's sanctuary is packed from floor to ceiling with donated items.

Pastor Keith Thrash oversees the efforts between making rounds in the neighborhood to check on elderly residents who refuse to leave their homes. On a stifling afternoon, Mr. Thrash coaxes Mindy Anderson, 81, out of her decaying home, convincing her to visit a doctor. As Mr. Thrash pulls a mildewed, water-logged rug out of Mrs. Anderson's living room, he reflects on his new line of work: "They didn't teach us this in seminary."

Mr. Thrash says the church will help people as long as they need it and hopes to reach out to as many as possible in the community: "We all came here in different ships, but now we're all in the same boat."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.