Mississippi is running dangerously low on fuel and medical personnel, and faces a looming housing crisis for tens of thousands of people, officials said four days after Hurricane Katrina blasted through the state.
The state's death toll from the hurricane currently stands at 147, but seems certain to rise as officials widen their focus of attention from larger cities and coastal areas to rural communities further inland.
"That number is going to go up," said Gov. Haley Barbour (R), who accompanied President Bush yesterday on a tour of Gulf Coast communities ravaged by the hurricane. "If you see the devastation, you wonder why it didn't kill a million people."
Refugees and survivors continued to tell horror stories about looting, terrible sanitation, long lines for gas, a continuing lack of food and water, and a relief operation that has been excruciatingly slow. Government officials, however, painted a very different picture of the relief effort, called for optimism -- and even suggested that difficult experiences were good for people's character.
"We're spoiled," said Col. Joe Spraggins, civil defense director of the hard-hit Harrison County. "All these years we've had everything given to us. God gave us this disaster and we've got to live with it. It might bring us back to reality."
At a news conference in Jackson yesterday, Barbour and other government officials only mentioned meeting upbeat people during their tour with President Bush. When asked whether he had told the president about the financial needs of the state, Barbour said, "He doesn't need anybody to take him to school on that, he understands that cold."
"There are tens of thousands of homes on the coast that are uninhabitable," Barbour said, of the coming housing crisis. And officials had still not gotten a full understanding of the scope of the disaster in many areas: "We went places where the debris is chest deep, head deep."
Barbour said fuel shortages were the most immediate issue, and called for people who owned tanker trucks in Mississippi and neighboring states to step forward and help with transporting gasoline. He also put out a call for nurses, healthcare workers and physicians, and said that he was worried about the risk of disease outbreaks.
Some 9,000 National Guardsmen, mostly from other states, are expected to be in place by this weekend to help maintain security and assist with relief efforts.
In coastal communities, the search operations continued endlessly. Long Beach, Miss., firefighter Christopher Findlay said he had found four bodies since Monday.
"It's like reliving 9/11 again, looking through the Pentagon for bodies," said Findlay, 40, who lives in Long Beach, and was formerly a firefighter in Bowie, Md. "Now I'm looking for bodies again, but some of them are in trees."
Findlay and other firefighters have been pulling double duty, participating in rescue and relief efforts while also policing badly damaged areas.
"Looting is pretty bad," he said. "People are taking clothing, liquor -- things that aren't life-surviving, material items. I don't have a problem if someone is trying to get food or water, but beyond that, we're busting 'em.
"What we're getting worried about is people are starting to shoot at us now," he added. "That's the lowest form of human being haunting the Earth."
But Findlay acknowledged that even honest people were reaching breaking point.
"Everything is just stretched so thin. People's nerves are really agitated," Findlay said. "They want things now, but it's not here. It's coming in. We're only issuing two bags of ice per vehicle. We'd like to give more, but if we did, it'd never last."
Officials in Harrison County relaxed the nightly curfew by two hours to 8 p.m., despite increased security fears. The reason, Spraggins said, was to give people more time to venture out for gas and food, errands that now could take all day or longer.
Most residents are without electricity, phones and sewage service. Sanitation is a challenge. The Salvation Army is providing 20,000 meals a day for the hungry. By Saturday, the nonprofit group will have a total of 20 canteens operating, serving 30,000 meals a day, Spraggins said. By the end of the weekend, 2,500 portable toilets are expected. One hundred tractor-trailers filled with ice and 500 filled with water are on the way, as well. About 28,000 residents out of 195,000 in southern Mississippi have had their power restored as of Friday, Spraggins said.
Fuel supplies are so low that emergency response crews in Long Beach had no gasoline Thursday night.
Judy Hampton, a Long Beach resident who showed up at a gas station, found a line two miles long. She stood before the Cowboys Gasoline station on State Road 49 with tears in her eyes.
"I have to wait in that line?" she screamed in the 95-degree heat. "I lost my house and everything in it," she said, looking skyward. "I'm lost."
Klein reported from Long Beach, Miss. Staff writer Christopher Lee in Long Beach contributed to this report.
A recovery team removes one of the bodies found in a destroyed oceanfront apartment building in Biloxi. Kim Sides, left, and friend Gloria Stafford react to the destruction in Gulfport, Miss. Tens of thousands of homes on the coast were destroyed in the storm. Biloxi residents Johnny Hutcherson, left, and his girlfriend, Kelly Grisham, take shelter with their car and a tarp on a beach in front of a barge casino pushed inland by the hurricane.
While touring the devastation on the Gulf Coast, President Bush hugs Biloxi resident Sandra Patterson, who lost her home in the hurricane.