‘A beautiful place to save,’ an ugly situation
September 30, 2005
PEARLINGTON, MISS. – The one place in this hurricane-ravaged town that provides solace and a semblance of law and order has also become the focal point for frustration for some people living too long in survival mode.Pearlington is unincorporated, so it doesn’t have a municipal government to tackle road work, police protection or even water and sanitation. The town depends on Hancock County for its government services. And with Hancock County being one of the hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina last month, service isn’t always smooth.Hillary Furey, a young mother of two, claimed Pearlington has always been the forgotten corner of Hancock County, even during the best of times.”They don’t help us,” she said. “Pearlington helps each other.”The town has a lot of elderly folks. It’s mostly poor with some middle class. There is a mix of black and white.The town of 1,700 people was essentially wiped out by the storm. Locals refer to buildings that were swept off their foundations by wind and rain and turned into rubble as “slabbed”.Several hundred residents are living in tents on their property. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has started moving in trailers where people can live until they rebuild, but only a precious few have been delivered.
While people wait, all they can do is clean the tree limbs, debris and rubble off their property to create corners that are somewhat habitable. Many folks are just returning this week after evacuating for Hurricane Rita.A distribution center has been set up in the town’s elementary school through a coordinated effort by the county, state and federal governments. The compound also houses a medical center and shelter where about 30 people have stayed.Volunteers and FEMA workers hand out tools like chain saws and generators, food, clothing and cleaning supplies. When people from the Roaring Fork Valley contribute goods, this is where is lands. A trailer filled with tools, tents and camping materials was delivered to the site Friday by the Carbondale Rotary Club after donations were made by people in the Roaring Fork Valley.Two or three tractor-trailer loads come every day from a variety of church groups and relief organizations, according to Chris Ledbetter, a contract worker for FEMA from Gainesville, Ga. Several personal vehicles also deliver goods to Pearlington every day.”A lot of people spend their day here. This is like Wal-Mart,” said camp director Staci Pace.But it’s Wal-Mart with a twist. One corner of the distribution center is roped off. Members of the Zuni Hotshots, a firefighting crew from Zuni, N.M., coordinate the distribution of cleaning supplies, tools, extension cords, fans and other items that are so vital to survival today in Pearlington. People line up to receive supplies. They are supposed to show identification to prove they live in Pearlington.The main part of the center, which is located in the school gymnasium, is open to anyone. It has four aisles of food – mostly canned goods and pasta – clothing and baby items. Anyone is welcome to help themselves to those goods.
Some frustrated residents claim scam artists are finding ways to score not only food and clothing but also scarcer items like chain saws and generators.Rickey Lyons, a 43-year-old native of Pearlington, returned to the town this week after leaving because of Rita. He wanted to clear his property but was angry at the unavailability of a chain saw. He claimed that people from neighboring Slidell, just a few miles over the state line in Louisiana, were “loading and loading and loading their truck” with supplies intended for Pearlington residents.Lyons said he complained to authorities to no avail.”They all say they don’t know,” he said. “Somebody’s got to know. I don’t think they ought to overlook the people of the community.”Charles “Joe” Burton is an imposing man, even at age 60. He faces the challenges of surviving with a calm that he said comes from his belief in God.”It hurts but it don’t hurt, you know what I’m saying, bro?” he said.But that calm borders on fury when he raises the claim that hurricane victims from outside Pearlington and Hancock County are scoring supplies at the Pearlington distribution center.”Community people are not being served first,” he snarls in anger.
Pace acknowledged that some people are able to scam their way to access items intended for Pearlington residents. Some Louisiana residents have established camps in the town, leaving relief workers in a tough position.”Do you help them, do you not?” she said. Her crew is leaning toward helping as many people as they can.Ledbetter said people are asked to take only two sacks of items, regardless of whether it is food or clothing.”If we leave it on the floor, people will just take boxes and boxes,” he said. He said workers try to ensure that items intended for Pearlington get delivered only to the town’s residents. If no designation is made, items are offered to anyone.Pace said the high-demand items are the only ones that have fueled jealousy.”That has been a nightmare to manage, the generators,” she said. “That brings out the worst in people.”She’s considering not accepting donations of generators any longer. As for the chain saws, they are only supposed to be loaned out for 48 hours. There should be plenty for people to share, as long as they are returned on time or at all, she said.
After Lyons aired his complaint that out-of-staters were getting the important items, Daryl Arnold was the first person to exit the center with a chain saw. The Pearlington resident said he signed up for a saw on Monday, then checked back each day to see if he made the top of the list.”Today is my lucky day,” he said.Arnold said he has seen evidence that people from outside the community have taken advantage of the distribution center. Like Pace, he said the disaster has produced some unsavory behavior. But he largely credited relief efforts.”For the most part I’m satisfied,” he said. “We do get overlooked but I’m impressed with what happened after the storm.”Ana Weidie, 66, a longtime Pearlington resident, said some of the people complaining just are seeking an easy handout. They don’t think they should wait in line for what they need and they don’t like to sign a list for items, she said.”I just have to pray a lot for people who aren’t appreciative of what we have,” she said. “We have everything.”She was overwhelmed by the support flowing into Pearlington from all over the country. Weidie was well aware that areas in Colorado had “adopted” Pearlington. “How generous,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful place to save.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org