From a distance, it looks like an Army base camp, or perhaps the old set from the television series “M*A*S*H.” But here, a little more than a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Mexico, on a muddy gravel lot that used to be a Little League field, a makeshift village has emerged for some of the many families who, as winter approaches, are still homeless because of Hurricane Katrina.
“Hold it there,” one evacuee, Mary Magee, said to her neighbor, as she tacked holiday decorations to the entrance of her family’s olive-colored tent. “Just hold it still.”
The tent city here is one of three set up in recent weeks along the Mississippi coast, making room for families now that the emergency shelters have closed and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is working through a backlog of some 5,000 families still on waiting lists for government-supplied travel trailers or mobile homes.
In Pass Christian, the need is especially dire. The city hall, the two public libraries, the local supermarket, a senior citizens’ home and the schools are all either severely damaged or nothing but rubble. All that is left of the town’s branch of Peoples Bank is the vault. The police department lost 15 of its 21 patrol cars.
The work of clearing debris and the crushed remains of about 2,000 houses is far short of the halfway mark. As a result, construction of large amounts of new housing is still months off.
With the nighttime temperatures dropping as low as the 30’s, local officials are trying to offer an alternative for families who want to stay in the area and would have few choices other than to sleep in cars or unheated camping tents.
“We are doing what we can to help people keep close to home that want to stay close to home,” said Nicol Andrews, a FEMA spokeswoman.
The tents, built by the Navy Seabees at a cost of $1 million, can be heated and cooled, and have plywood floors and walls that create an 18-by-32-foot wooden box inside the exterior fabric. They are set up in long, straight rows and distinguished only by alphanumeric addresses painted on their exteriors.
Free meals, financed by the federal government, are served in a giant white tent. And in Pass Christian, there is a community center with carpeting, comfortable couches, a couple of televisions, and a collection of donated books and toys. The toilets are portable, without running water, and are lined up near a tractor-trailer that serves as a shower house.
A roll-up date for the tent cities has not been set; some may stay open through only part of the winter, while others may be inhabited past the spring, local officials say. When the wind blows in from the Gulf or it rains, there can be no mistaking that despite any effort at niceties, the accommodations are rudimentary.
“It is a bit like a tomb,” said Dave Frisby, 55, a handyman whose home and tools were washed away by Hurricane Katrina. “It can be depressing.”
So far, the three operating tent cities are home to a total of about 300 residents. There is room for at least 700, although that number would be almost 3,000 if the tents were set up with bunks side by side, military-style. The last of the three opened three weeks ago, and more families move in each day.
Some local officials are frustrated that it took so long to get the encampments built and ready to operate. And now that they are in place, there have been some problems, like a recent series of drug arrests at the tents in D’Iberville, 22 miles east of Pass Christian, said the city manager, Richard Rose.
“I would prefer that it had never existed,” Mr. Rose said of the tent city, even though D’Iberville requested that the complex be set up. “The headache has been enormous.”
The fear of crime led some homeless residents in the area, like David Stipulkoski, 53, to turn down the offer of a tent in Pass Christian.
“I will never live there; it is a trap,” said Mr. Stipulkoski, a carpenter. Instead, he is camping outside his mother’s storm-damaged house in Pass Christian, in a tent of his own.
But the families who did move in are appreciative and say they feel reasonably secure. On a recent Sunday, as the mid-December sun was setting, the neighbors were still out and about, the Magee children riding their dirt bikes while their neighbor, Deborah Lewis, laughed with her sister at a picture of her sister’s golden retriever, Rosco, dressed as a reindeer.
Tent E10 is occupied by Mary Magee, her 28-year-old daughter, three grandchildren and her 10-year-old adopted son, all of whom once lived in a four-bedroom apartment in Biloxi. The tent, stuffed with clothing and other household items, looks like a cross between a storage closet and a dorm room.
Ms. Magee, 47, has bought a television, a microwave and stuffed animals. As grateful as the family is for the shelter, they still long for their old home, which was destroyed.
“I keep telling myself, one day, I will wake up and everything will be back in the place it was supposed to be,” Ms. Magee said. “But it’s not happening.”
At the Long Beach tent city, five miles east of Pass Christian, the entire inventory of Robert Stover’s possessions consists of a mattress on the floor, a Bible, a few donated books and a plastic bucket that he turns upside down and tops with a small pillow to create a chair.
Desperate for work, Mr. Stover, 45, a former plumber at an area hospital, found a job at a cigarette distribution warehouse. But it is in Gulfport, miles away, and he has no car, so he spends three hours each day walking to work. When it rains, his protective gear is two trash bags: one covering his body, the other wrapped around his head.
“When I think about what is before me, I see plenty of pain and problems,” said Mr. Stover, whose apartment in Long Beach was destroyed by the storm.
Many residents of the tent city, like the Magee family with their Christmas decorations, have taken small steps to create a sense of normalcy and comfort.
Lydia Tarleton, 68, who lives next door to the Magees in a tent she shares with Ms. Lewis, 50, and Ms. Lewis’s mother, Doloris King, 76, has photographs of kittens posted next to her bed, a reminder of her own pets, which somehow survived and are living in the ruins of her nearby home. She walks back to feed them twice a day.
“I am not bitter,” Ms. Tarleton said. “I am willing to wait, to work for it.”
Boredom is perhaps the biggest problem in the tent cities. There are no electrical outlets in the tents in Long Beach, meaning no television and no way to charge cellphones.
“You can’t communicate with the world,” said Kenneth Gray, 55, who was a construction worker in Gulfport before Hurricane Katrina. “It is just so isolated.”
Ms. Magee says that when aggravation over her plight causes her to argue about insignificant matters, she reminds herself that no matter how tough things are, at least her family is warm, well-fed and alive.
“A lot of people down here are in need,” she said. “I know that.”
New York Times