- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2005

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. — Weary residents trickling into town to live in tents and trailers parked outside of gutted or flattened homes are surrounded by uncertainties as they struggle to restore order to their lives.

Will the economy return? How many people will simply opt to never come back?

“I think it would make everyone feel better if they just knew what was going to happen,” said Tim Nguyen, 31, who stood in the midday sun beside a small white trailer loaned to his parents this week by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

It has been a month since Hurricane Katrina put this and other cities at the center of her fury. Surveying a scene of utility trucks, Mr. Nguyen offered an optimistic observation.

“As bad as it looks now, this is good compared to what it was a week after.”

For the first time since the storm, a slight degree of normalcy has begun to return. But progress is slow. The economy remains all but nonexistent for 15,000 residents of Bay St. Louis and neighboring Waveland — both on the Gulf of Mexico, 45 miles northeast of New Orleans.

“There’s so many things to be angry about, but we’re just trying to take care of this house right now,” said Clay Stieffel, 44, as he and his brother took a break from cutting mold-infested Sheetrock out of his mother’s home.

“If I could just get a doggone blue tarp on this house,” said their mother, Merle Brennan, 70, who spent an hour in line Monday applying for a FEMA mobile home.

Although official numbers are still being calculated, some authorities estimate that more than 170,000 dwellings were destroyed by Katrina in Mississippi’s six southernmost counties.

With the Red Cross helping pay for rooms, hotels and motels from Mobile, Ala., to Galveston, Texas, are packed with displaced families.

Mrs. Brennan said FEMA told her that it will take between four days and two weeks for a trailer to be delivered to her house because the agency is overwhelmed by delivering temporary homes to those who were left, literally, with nothing.

The agency so far has delivered 1,781 trailers across southern Mississippi, and 4,437 others are waiting for delivery from a staging area in Purvis, 60 miles north of the disaster area, said Eugene Brezany, a FEMA spokesman in Jackson, Miss.

Gov. Haley Barbour has said he wants to avoid creating large parks full of FEMA trailers. One such “FEMA City” still remains in Punta Gorda, Fla., where officials planted about 500 trailers as emergency housing for victims after Hurricane Charley slammed that state last year.

The result appears to be a trailer-delivery process made more complicated in Mississippi, where several residents said they have been told by FEMA officials that they cannot receive a trailer unless they have a property to put it where electricity and plumbing has been restored.

Thousand of Mississippians are still living in temporary shelters or simply in tents pitched in parking lots along U.S. Route 90 in Bay St. Louis, and many have voiced frustration that paperwork required to get cash or a place to sleep is overwhelming.

FEMA numbers show that more than 419,000 people have registered for aid and that $345 million has been granted to people in Mississippi. The aid is given on a case-by-case basis and comes in various forms — from free checks for living expenses to trailers for people to live in rent-free for up to 18 months.

“If after a month or two, they continue to need our assistance, we’ll continue to provide that assistance,” Mr. Brezany said. “We don’t want people to expect that we’re going to be doing that for 18 months for them unless they need it.”

How Bay St. Louis and other hard-hit cities such as Gulfport and Biloxi fare after the immediate disaster response money dries up will depend on what sort of long-term federal and private loan money flows in.

Officials with the federal Small Business Administration (SBA), which overseas direct loans between Department of Treasury and disaster victims, is encouraging homeowners, renters and business owners to apply for low-interest loans immediately.

“The sooner people can get their application in to us, the sooner we can start to provide assistance,” said Matthew D. Young, a spokesman for the SBA, who added that homeowners and renters can borrow up to $40,000 for personal property damage and homeowners can borrow up to $200,000 to repair or replace houses.

That may be the only option for families such as the Nguyens, who immigrated to the United States two decades ago and whose entire life is packed into a temporary FEMA trailer.

My parents “have lost probably everything they’ve worked for since they came to America,” Mr. Nguyen said.

His mother, Cuc Ngyuen, 52, was happy just to have a place to stay for now.

“It’s comfortable,” she said, as she stood on the steps of her new home.

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