Katrina Victims: Where's FEMA?

In East Biloxi, Community Fills Federal Void

More than a week after Hurricane Katrina mauled the Mississippi coast, 48 Hours correspondent Bill Whitaker reports a refrain is heard again and again in this devastated city.

"I can't find FEMA anywhere," says Jeff Miller.

Miller and his family are desperate to get out of their battered trailer. It's soaking wet, and they can't breathe the mold that's in the air.

"It's been hell," says Miller's wife, Shelly. "We tried calling FEMA. You can't get through on the phone lines."

As we were talking, a woman walked up.

"FEMA? I would like to volunteer my services. Are you looking for them?" she said.

Biloxi resident Tuan Tran and his wife drove by. They've lost everything. They could not find FEMA either.

They'd all come to the Main Street Missionary Baptist Church seeking the federal agency that would cut them a check, and help them find shelter.

In the wake of Katrina, this church is filling the federal void. It became the de-facto emergency relief center when 150 people ran here, climbing up to the second floor to escape the tide surge that washed away their houses. Now, this is the only institution providing food, clothing and shelter in hardest hit East Biloxi.

Pastor Kenneth Haynes says he saw a FEMA representative... briefly.

"There was a lady who came in the second day, which might have been Tuesday, I'm not sure. She told us she was from FEMA," he says.

Pastor Haynes says he has not seen the woman since.

People here know things are worse in New Orleans, and in Biloxi, patience isn't just a virtue -- it's a way of life. But three days after Katrina hit, you could hear in the voice of Major Wildish, of the local Salvation Army, that supplies and patience were wearing thin.

"We have a great need for food. We have a lot of people and yet we don't have enough food to feed them," he said.

By Sunday, patience was gone.

"I've been so angry because we've been forgotten over here," says Ganese Darden. "There's nothing, there's nothing in East Biloxi."

So people here have been left to do what they've always done: rely on themselves, their neighbors, their churches.

Pastor Kenneth Davis heard the church was housing more than 100 homeless storm victims and rushed over the next day with water in the biggest container he had -- a trash can. He thought it might be used to flush toilets. Instead, desperate, thirsty people drank it.

"When I think about it -- the thing that hurts me so – we are [in] America. Why should Americans drink water from the trash can?" he says.

What does FEMA say about all this? That this was a storm like no other. Local FEMA coordinator Michael Beeman says he doesn't want to bring in too many people too fast and overtax the devastated infrastructure.

"How many of you are having problems getting gas and you're asking us to bring more people in here? What we're trying to do is to think the process out," he says.

While FEMA is thinking, the American people are acting. Biloxi now is relying on the kindness of strangers.

Oxfam, the international relief agency, rushed in. Nathaniel Raymond is directing the effort.

"As Oxfam, our goal is to help governments where they can't fully respond to emergencies in their own countries," says Raymond.

Their last major project was aiding victims of the Asian tsunami.

"We're not moving into the questions of when are we going to have shelter? We're not moving to questions of where are these people going to get assistance to help rebuild their livelihoods? We're not there and we were moving in that direction much quicker in many cases in the tsunami," says Raymond.

And like the tsunami, the response from individuals to this tragedy has been swift and moving. Dave Stevens brought goods from Alabama.

"We heard there was a need here, so we came," says Stevens, from the United Methodist Church in Spanish Fort, Ala.

They came from Charlotte, Florida, the NAACP from Atlanta, and a mobile medical truck from New York.

These folks started in Minneapolis with few supplies, got so many donations along the road they arrived in Biloxi with a truck load. Minnesotan Dwiji Guru raised money for tsunami victims. He says he could do no less here at home.

"If the government is not doing it, we have to take care of the government separately and take care of the people first," says Guru.

Pastor Davis says he's been moved to tears by the public outpouring.

"The response from the government is another matter," he says. "It probably wouldn't be wise for the preacher to tell you about that. It probably wouldn't be wise."

On Tuesday, Marines stormed the Biloxi beach with troops to help patrol the streets. FEMA also opened a relief center a town away. But many people in East Biloxi lost cars to Katrina, and they can't get there.