Three days after Hurricane Katrina punched its way through this Gulf Coast town, rewriting lives and redrawing neighborhoods, Joe Reeves and Pat Rutland emerged from their battered home in search of something to eat. The only thing emergency workers could offer was the promise that help was on the way.
For Reeves and Rutland, the promise was hollow: The roar of Katrina's waters has been replaced by sweltering nights. Homes lie in shambles everywhere. The outside world keeps promising aid, but it never seems to arrive.
"It's been four days since there has been any food here," Rutland, 46, exclaimed. "I can't understand it. We can't live off just water."
Frustration and fatigue replaced shock among hurricane survivors in Mississippi on Thursday. Poor sanitation and decomposing bodies threatened to spark outbreaks of disease. Electricity, telephone service and plumbing remained distant dreams.
Federal and state officials said they were racing to clear roads, restore power and rescue trapped people. About 12,300 refugees statewide are in shelters, and more than 881,000 residents are without power.
"Even though there are huge resources being expended, it just takes a while in order to get momentum going," said Scott Hamilton, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency in Jackson, about the delay in getting aid to survivors. "It is now flowing, and we are making improvements every hour and every day."
Hamilton said a statewide death toll was not yet available. He said thousands of rescues have occurred.
Most of the destruction, and presumably most of the deaths, were centered in Mississippi's southern counties, which bore the brunt of the hurricane's fury. Officials said the death toll in Harrison, Hancock, Jackson and Pearl River counties stood at 100 as of Wednesday night. Gary Hargrove, Harrison County's coroner, said bodies had been recovered from inside collapsed buildings, on top of debris, along the coastline and on inland waterways, and that more corpses were being found. He asked residents who find corpses to leave them alone to prevent spread of disease, and to inform authorities.
"People have been washed out to waterways and in woodlands," Hargrove said. "There have not been any large masses of bodies recovered from any one location. We are finding some families together. They are scattered over an area, but they are not piled up in one place."
The Mississippi National Guard announced plans to activate thousands of additional troops, ratcheting the force up from 2,700 to 12,000, Bloomberg News reported, quoting the head of a Pentagon task force.
Harrison County officials said about 6,000 National Guard troops from other states were expected to trickle in over the next few days.
Hamilton said that Mississippi's highways are finally clear of debris, with a couple of exceptions that included state Highway 90, which runs along the coast. "It doesn't means all the roads are open to the public, but emergency units have more capacity to travel," he said.
Fifty miles of coastline in Harrison, Jackson and Hancock counties suffered about 90 percent destruction, Hamilton said. "There is no other area of the state that has sustained that kind of destruction."
A storm surge of more than 20 feet swept away homes, pushed over utility poles and flung driftwood, cars and other debris hundreds of yards as the tide rolled in, and again as the waters retreated, officials said. In parts of Gulfport, Biloxi and several smaller communities, power poles still leaned precariously over roads, business signs lay in tatters on the ground, and billboards and trees were toppled into houses.
Thousands of people lined up yesterday at distribution centers for water and ice, while others traveled the streets in search of open stores and gas stations. For many survivors, some of whom lacked money to flee town, the primary concern was dwindling stocks of food.
"We had a few canned goods and bread and peanut butter, but we're about out of it now," said Reeves, 53, a maintenance worker at a nursing home. "We've got water, but that won't last long. With no air conditioning, we're burning up at night. We can't sleep."
Survivors have been forced to be resourceful. Reeves and Rutland stashed buckets beneath the downspouts of their home's gutters during a rainstorm Wednesday night, collecting enough water to flush their toilets and take sponge baths. Before that they had been bathing in a nearby saltwater creek -- which carried unique risks.
"You've got to watch out for snakes," said Charles Reeves, 31, a carpet layer.
Thousands of other residents in Harrison County had similar predicaments. Most cell phone service is down, and regular telephone lines are out. While a few bank branches opened to allow people to get cash, ATMs depend on electricity and telecommunications systems to work, so they were unusable. Most businesses were closed anyway. Gasoline was scarce, and people lined up for hours at the few stations that were open.
There have been reports of gunshots, and looting and lawlessness at night. Authorities have imposed a nightly curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., but enforcing it is only one of the many things on a to-do list that includes looking for people still trapped in the rubble, ensuring that debris-strewn roads are made passable and free of downed power lines, and trucking in basic supplies.
"It just takes time for things to get here," said Col. Joe Spraggins, civil defense director for Harrison County. "They're getting here just as fast as they can get here."
One immediate problem Thursday was cleaning up several tons of rotting chicken strewn over parts of the west side of Gulfport, officials said. The poultry had been frozen and packed in shipping containers, but Katrina scattered them. The nearby city of D'Iberville faced a similar problem with 1 million pounds of raw shrimp that was tossed from containers now littering the port waters there.
"We want to stop another problem," Spraggins said. "We can get diseases of all types there, and we don't want any more than we already have."
Daniel Cross, 32, a leader of an 18-member search-and-rescue team from Jackson, said his crew had encountered many residents who had cut their way out of their homes and debris-strewn neighborhoods and made their way to Highway 90, a major east-west thoroughfare near the shoreline. The first things they asked for were water and food, Cross said.
"People are past the period of feeling lucky to be alive," said Cross, an instructor at the Mississippi State Fire Academy in Jackson. "Now they're frustrated, especially at night. Night is the most dangerous time for these people. We do what we can to get aid to them. Help is coming but -- it's bad to say -- it will take a while."
Vedantam reported from Washington.