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In Gulfport, evacuees huddle at a school, out of options

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published September 3, 2005

GULFPORT, Miss. - Outside Mrs. Ruiz's classroom, near a bulletin board with essays about summer vacation, two men are sprawled out on a gray blanket. One of them snores, a rash covering his bare belly.

Down the hall, a man on an air mattress stares blankly out an open door as utility crews go by on Pass Road, then a truck advertising $200 generators and a Humvee carrying armed soldiers.

In the front, a dozen people are propped up against the wall - snoozing, smoking, talking, chasing sweat with water. Victoria Knobloch, 45, feels safer in the open air.

"It's scary in there," she said, pointing to the darkened entrance of Central Elementary School.

Nearly a week after Hurricane Katrina struck, 13,000 Mississippians remained at 101 Red Cross shelters Friday. At the elementary school in Gulfport, 160 residents were still stranded.

They are among the saddest cases, their homes destroyed, jobs gone. Unable to reach family. If they had money to fill their gas tanks, they'd have no place to go. Many have only the clothes on their backs, or what they could find in garbage bags left by the more fortunate. Tensions have escalated as has the threat of disease.

"We thought the shelters would be needed for a day, maybe two," said Col. Joe Spraggins, who is overseeing the relief effort in Harrison County. "No one knew the catastrophe we would be dealing with. It's a big problem."

The school will remain open as a shelter for only one more week.

"After that, who knows what we'll do," said Takiera Watson, 22, who was rescued by helicopter after the storm, taken to a hospital then bused to the school. Her apartment building was destroyed, as was the Subway where she worked in Pass Christian.

She and the others could be moved to trailers or "tent cities" officials are planning.

Many evacuees deplored unsanitary, unsafe conditions at the shelter. The bathrooms, they said, overflow with sewage and some people have taken to urinating in the hallway. Water needed to flush the toilets has been scarce, so some people went to a nearby creek Friday and hauled some back. Ice deliveries have also been spotty. Food and drinking water, however, have been steadily available, evacuees said.

"Horrible is an understatement," said David Walser, who has been at the shelter since Sunday.

Walser, 58, has colon cancer and said he missed a chemotherapy treatment.

"The nurses come down and say they are going to call the chemo place but they never come back," he said.

Regina Vanderwarf held her 2-year-old daughter's hand and walked across the parking lot to a beat up van. Another evacuee agreed to take her to Winn-Dixie.

"I can't stand it in there," she said. Vanderwarf, 27, is due to have a baby boy late this month though she fears a premature birth. "I've had false labor pains three times this week."

"You know," she said just before the van left, "a girl got raped here last night."

Shelter director David Hockman said he had not heard that, but Gulfport police Officer David Montague confirmed there was a sexual assault. He said he was not authorized to say more.

Issac Newton, a paramedic assigned to the shelter, said about 15 people were without medication. He worried what the coming days would bring. While he said the Red Cross workers inside were doing their best, "five days after the storm you'd expect a more concentrated effort with assistance."

Though Newton's ambulance idled in the parking lot, it could not be used to take several evacuees to the hospital. The ambulance is to stay there to deal with medical situations as they arise, Hockman said.

So the stranded were forced to find rides of their own. One man begged a reporter for a few gallons of gas so Victoria Knoblochcould get the treatment she needed. Her arms and legs were laced with bandages that covered wounds she got crawling through rubble of her destroyed condominium for her dog, Nicky. She found him under a pile of bricks, frightened but okay.

"I've got him, but I don't have anyone else to turn to," Knobloch said. Then she began to cry.

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