'City Hall got blown away and I guess we're doing their job'

Click to follow

For the first crucial days after Hurricane Katrina hit, the coastal Mississippi resort of Waveland was a forgotten town. The first half-mile or so back from the beach had been obliterated by a 40ft tidal wave that left refrigerator parts and clothing wrapped around the upper branches of tall pines stained brown from the salt water.

Along Highway 90, drivers drowned in their vehicles, which were tossed one on top of the other. Survivors were left without shelter, without food or water, without petrol to drive their cars - assuming they still had cars - in search of basic sustenance.

The first significant help, when it came, was not from Fema, the federal government's emergency management agency, or from the state of Mississippi, or even from the Red Cross. Rather, it came from an evangelical church from Alabama whose volunteers and pastors moved into a large car park in front of an abandoned K-Mart superstore, set up tents and sleeping quarters and started distributing food, water, ice and basic medicines.

After more than a week on site, the Life Christian Church of Orange Beach, Alabama, is running a vast operation, involving up to 60 volunteers who run in between industrial pallets of bottled water, nappies and toilet paper, serving three square meals a day to 4,000 people, putting on concerts and church services and taking delivery of anything from gasoline to artichoke hearts.

Not only did Fema have nothing to do with this set-up, the church's pastor, Rick Long, explained: "Actually we're feeding Fema. And the police. And the National Guard." The federal authorities are relegated to a tiny corner of the car park, where they do little more than process paperwork.

What this appears to portend is something Joe Allbaugh, President George Bush's first Fema director, once indicated as his goal: to get the government out of the disaster relief business and turn the whole thing over to the private sector, especially what the White House likes to call "faith-based organisations".

By now there are other feeding points in Waveland, some of them run by old-style government relief workers. And the army and National Guard are pouring resources into the area from an air base a few miles to the north. But the over-riding impression, when it comes to services offered to individual storm victims, is one of government playing a strikingly subsidiary role.

Perhaps symbolically, Waveland's City Hall was obliterated - all except for a memorial plaque recalling the tamer ravages of Hurricane Camille in 1969 - and on the site has grown an impromptu tent city-cum-private distribution centre run by the man whose obliterated house it sits on, Brian Mollere, and a colourful local character, Wild Bill Laprime, who says he now wants to run for mayor. "City Hall got blown away and I guess we're doing their job for them," he said.

At the K-Mart car park, another private organisation - doctors from North and South Carolina - had set up a state-of-the-art mobile hospital unit with full air-conditioning, triage centre, an operating theatre and a full inventory of drugs. It was developed with a $1.5m (£820,000) grant from the federal government, but when it came to deployment the doctors were on their own.

At first Fema told them to go to Gulfport, a casino town 20 miles to the east. But the doctors discovered that the hospital in Gulfport was still functioning, so they made their own decision to come to Waveland, where some of the injuries inflicted by the storm had become severely infected.

Everyone in Mississippi has stories about the slowness of the government response - raising troubling questions about how effective any move towards privatisation can be. There are also questions about where a single church with a congregation of 800 could find the resources to mount a humanitarian operation costing $15,000 to $20,000 a week. Pastor Long insisted it was being funded by the church and its donors and said he was not receiving a penny from the federal government - the constitutional separation of church and state would make such subsidies illegal.

This operation raised questions, too, about race. Like many towns in the Deep South, white and black people live apart. A few black families came for supplies, but none hung around what was a white-run organisation catering to awhite crowd.