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Water becomes the lifeline for disaster relief operation

BILOXI, Miss. (BP)–It’s the one thing on everyone’s mind: We need water.

“We’re serving 5,000 meals today [Sept. 1], but if we don’t get a water delivery this afternoon, we’ll have to shut down,” said Vernon Boteler, Mississippi disaster relief volunteer with the feeding unit set up at First Baptist Church in Biloxi, Miss.

Water and ice usually are the first supplies delivered to disaster sites, but they’re scarce this time around.

One truckload of ice arrived Thursday morning in this coastal town that was hard hit by Hurricane Katrina. As people swarmed toward the truck as it set up in an empty parking lot, 20 police officers stood in front of the ice to hold back the crowds. Officers passed out the ice, allowing only one bag per family.

“We’re accustomed to having truckloads of ice and water at a [disaster] site,” said Alabama volunteer Christy Hardin. “This is the worst I’ve seen to get supplies.”

Hardin and her husband, Rick, run a communications disaster relief unit, but little communication is possible at this point. Although the unit has satellite hookups for Internet and phones, the only thing working is ham radio.

“All the usual ways of communicating aren’t working here. We can’t make requests. We can’t find out what’s on the way,” Christy Hardin said. “As hard as it is for the volunteers, it’s worse for the people here. They’re desperate.”

With no electricity and no water, people are sleeping in their yards at night and using public areas as toilets. Looting has become a serious issue across the coastal areas, including Biloxi.

“They’ll take anything to make their lives closer to normal,” Hardin said. “We saw people stealing road signs that had fallen on the road. They made primitive-looking structures out of them. You learn early [as a volunteer] that people do what they can to cope.”

As the Mississippi unit was preparing to provide its noontime meal, no one would be receiving water or anything else to drink.

“One lady came through the line yesterday and said she didn’t need food, but she wondered if she could just get a Coke,” Hardin recounted.

Mississippi volunteer Dixie Kennedy has seen this kind of desperation throughout her 10 years as a disaster relief volunteer.

“It’s tough for so many of these people,” Kennedy said. “One man came through the food line and said, ‘I’ve always said I’d never accept help like this.’ I told him there’s never been anybody anywhere that didn’t need help sometime.”

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  • Sherri Brown