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‘Like We’re Invisible’

Times Staff Writer

April Smith said she woke up the day after Hurricane Katrina hit and heard God telling her to clean out her closet. With no relief trucks headed toward this tiny town about 15 miles northeast of Biloxi, Smith gathered a bagful of garments -- some that still fit her two young children -- to distribute on her own.

“People around here lost everything,” said Smith, 30. “And they were not getting the attention they needed.”

Rural Mississippi residents joined forces when outside help failed to appear after the disaster, which killed at least 219 across the state, caused billions of dollars in damage, and devastated coastal cities and inland hamlets with fierce winds and 30-foot tidal surges.

About 1.6 million people, more than half the state’s population, live in Mississippi’s rural areas. Of those, 21.1% live below the U.S. poverty line of $21,180 annually for a family of five. The national poverty average is 11.9%.

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Isolated and poor, many in this state said they felt neglected, especially by the federal government. No military convoys rumbled in to lend calm; no National Guard members came through to hand out ice and water. No officials arrived to set up shelters. Large charities and private insurance companies also overlooked them, residents said.

So they took matters into their own hands.

Robert Williams tried to contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the county about removing two 60-foot pine trees that threatened his mother’s home here.

No one responded, so Williams borrowed a chain saw and brought the trees down on his own.

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After a while, the 32-year-old church janitor got through to FEMA. “They gave us a case number and said someone would be out as soon as possible,” he said, standing beside the fallen trees, which crushed a utility shed. “We have no idea when that will be.”

Half a mile away, James Meeks, 54, found a large portion of his mobile home’s roof in a tree, crumpled like an accordion. Meeks’ wife, Betty, 57, called FEMA to find out about emergency compensation.

“To be honest, it has taken FEMA quite a while to get back to us,” she said. “I called them more than 10 days ago, and they said they would be right out. Nobody has come yet.”

James Meeks hauled out a ladder and crafted a makeshift roof. He worked without electricity, which did not return to his neighborhood until two weeks after the hurricane.

“We’re just out in the country, and it takes longer to get to us,” Betty Meeks said. “But then, it’s also easy to forget about us out here.”

Lea Stokes, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said that relief efforts in rural areas had been complicated and sometimes not as prompt as residents would have liked because of the scope of the disaster.

“Katrina went through our entire state,” she said. “We had to set up distribution centers [for food and other supplies] in 73 out of 82 counties in Mississippi. So it was very overwhelming.”

Pete Smith, spokesman for Gov. Haley Barbour, said Department of Transportation crews had been working their way across the state to clear roads and restore power. He acknowledged that “in rural Mississippi, it is sometimes harder to get to them.”

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At the Mississippi Development Authority, spokesman Scott Hamilton said officials were concerned about economic hardships in rural sections of the state. He said his agency planned to open business assistance centers throughout Mississippi. But he said his best advice was for people to “help themselves.”

Like Vancleave, many of these small towns lie in Mississippi’s heavily wooded inland region, up to 25 miles from the coast. Humble houses and aging mobile homes often are accessible only by dirt roads. One rural community, Moss Point, had the added headache of roaming alligators, escapees from an alligator farm that flooded during the storm.

Yet winding roads and marauding reptiles did not deter a small group of volunteers that traveled to the area from rural Georgia.

Devan Voyles said he cleaned out his bank account and loaded a truck with supplies, figuring that the hurricane could just as easily have walloped his area. He enlisted a dozen helpers, dubbing their effort Northeast Georgia Disaster Relief.

Voyles, 27, said he was nearly besieged in Moss Point when he handed out bottled water and grape juice. He repaired roofs, windows and walls, each project turning into a group effort, he said, with many hands helping.

“A time like this sometimes brings out the best in us and sometimes it brings out the worst,” Voyles said. “I saw people coming together, helping each other out.”

The loss of cars was a particular hardship. Some vehicles simply disappeared, picked up by Katrina’s winds and deposited elsewhere. Others were submerged in floodwaters.

Without cars, rural residents could not travel to FEMA offices or visit Red Cross stations, much less a hardware store for home repair items.

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After Ruby Williams, 49, of Escatawpa managed to borrow a car, the first thing she did was ask her neighbor A.C. Marion if he needed a ride to the doctor.

Marion, 78, recently had heart surgery and suffers from diabetes. No sooner did his sister move down from New York to help care for him than Katrina hit, and a tree crashed through her bedroom ceiling. Marion, whose car was ruined by the hurricane, said he and his sister made fruitless calls to FEMA for help.

“I think they’ve forgotten about us out here in Escatawpa,” he said. “It’s like we’re invisible.”

Williams echoed her neighbor’s view.

“I keep waiting for somebody to come out here,” she said. “But we haven’t seen any kind of inspectors, not from FEMA, not from the insurance companies. It’s like we are out of sight, out of mind.”

Churches provided a measure of relief, even as they assessed their own damage.

Pastor Nathaniel Smith, whose daughter, April, gave away her own clothing, found that the offices and meeting rooms at his New Light Baptist Church had been wiped out.

Within days of Katrina, father and daughter turned the church gym into a bustling operations center and banded with three other churches to form a community relief ministry designed to bring services to rural residents, regardless of whether they were members of the churches.

The gym became a distribution center for food, clothing, household supplies, job listings and relief information. April Smith designed a disaster relief needs survey that asked about a wide variety of concerns, including tree removal and shoe size.

The effort quickly expanded to more than a dozen churches along the Gulf Coast.

“Our local officials have done their best,” said Pastor Kenneth Maurice Davis of D’Iberville, who brought his storm-damaged Tabernacle Baptist Church into the relief coalition. “But our local officials need help, and that help should come from the federal level. That help, in these small, poor communities, has not been fast in coming.”

In many rural pockets, Davis noted, churches took the lead.

“The federal government often talks about faith-based organizations,” he said. “Now the faith-based organizations are asking about the government.”

When no military or Red Cross supplies showed up in his remote village of Turkey Creek in northern Mississippi, Grover Chapman emptied his freezer, spread out all the fruits and vegetables from his produce stand and started cooking -- for everyone in town.

“It was a time of need,” said Chapman, 60. “People were hungry. So we pulled together to survive until the cavalry came.”

He fed hundreds of people from pots simmering on an outdoor fire.

“I had no gas and no power, so I used wood off my building to make a fire,” he said. “It came off my roof, actually.”

Almost three weeks after the hurricane, Chapman managed a hearty laugh. “Come to think of it,” he said, “you can’t get much more rural than that.”

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Times staff writer Stephanie Simon in Denver contributed to this report.


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