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In small towns, aid passes through and keeps on going

By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer
Published September 2, 2005

TEN MILE, Miss. - The woman needs more grits.

It's all she has fed her husband and six children since Monday, and she's on her last bag. Her 2-year-old boy has a rash and needs milk. The flies are swarming, the mosquitoes biting. Her small home is a sopping, roofless mess, so they've been sleeping on the front porch.

But each day, Mary Smith watches the trucks roll south down U.S. 49, taking supplies right past her house toward Gulfport and Biloxi.

"We're in dire need," the 40-year-old native said. "I don't know what people are going to do."

Just down the road, a neighbor tacked up a plywood sign beside U.S. 49 and spray-painted in big black letters, "What about us?"

In the small hamlets, isolated outposts and wooded back roads of southern Mississippi, help and hope have been slow to arrive in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Many small-town residents feel overlooked, as most of the relief efforts - and nearly all the attention - have centered on Gulfport and Biloxi.

"I've seen a lot of stuff headed that way. Generators, water," said Quincilla McCray, 18, as she sweated outside the broken-down home she shares with eight adults and four children in Wiggins, Miss. "We've seen a lot of big trucks pass us by.

"Everybody said it feels like we're forgotten."

To be fair, signs of help dotted the country roads Thursday. An aid station here. A telephone crew there. But it pales in comparison to the relief effort along the coast, where dozens of people lost their lives and the hurricane made entire towns and neighborhoods vanish.

Part of the problem is that Katrina left a different kind of damage here. It mowed down thousands of acres of pine, pecan and poplar trees. Power lines and tree trunks hang perilously over every road. Some streets have only one lane open. Far more remain impassable. One official Thursday said it took workers four hours to advance 2 miles down one road. There might not be as much death, but there's plenty of misery to go around.

In the rural counties between Gulfport and Hattiesburg, the storm shaved off roofs, sliced mobile homes in half, turned barns into splinters and snapped the steeples off many of the Baptist churches that pepper the countryside.

Though weary, racked with frustration and melting in the nearly 100-degree heat, most residents here seem to understand that emergency workers must deal with the worst devastation first and inch their way north.

"We're going to be the stepchildren down here," said Paul Ockmand, Jr., 62, a minister and auctioneer who lives amid the towering pecan trees and green pastures of Lumberton. "Priorities, you know."

Some locals insisted that they can get along just fine without help.

"We fend for ourselves. Neighbors help neighbors," said Mary Stuart Riley, 45, who was bathing and washing her clothes in Murder Creek, just outside Poplarville.

"Worse comes to worse, we'll live off the land," said her live-in boyfriend, Gayden Chadwick.

Peggy Staten, 58, who lives near Necaise, hasn't lived off the land just yet. But she's lived off the remains of her freezer and hospitality of her neighbors.

"Last night, we made chicken gumbo," she said. "Tonight, a big pot of white beans. We've all been cleaning out our freezers. That's kind of how we do it here."

Even Mary Smith, with her dire needs and dwindling bag of grits, maintained a fierce independence that runs deep in these parts.

"We country folks out here, we can make it," she said, nodding toward the fowl in her front yard. "I can skin that chicken if I have to."

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