In Waveland, Miss., the little town that arguably received the worst punishment Katrina could mete out, those credited with the swiftest response are not disaster-relief groups or government agencies, but a bunch of hippies and a rock band.
"I hate FEMA and I hate the Red Cross," grumbles a police dispatcher as she files paperwork outside the crumpled shell that had been the Waveland police station. "They didn't show up for a week and a half. If it weren't for them," she says, gesturing to a relief center across the street, "we wouldn't have anything."
The dispatcher will remain nameless here, given her worry that ill talk about FEMA might affect its response to a ravaged police department that, five weeks after the storm, still awaited much-needed federal help.
"Them" is the New Waveland Cafe, a feeding station, medical clinic, supply depot and burgeoning community center serving the newly homeless multitudes around here. It was started by the unlikeliest of bedfellows: the Bastrop Christian Outreach Center, a full-gospel church from Texas, and the Rainbow Family -- counter-culturists who meet yearly at "Rainbow Gatherings" in national forests.
Meanwhile, the band 3 Doors Down, upon learning Waveland had lost its fleet of city vehicles, quickly purchased a fire truck and three police cruisers for the town -- the first new vehicles the city received. The four musicians, all from coastal Mississippi, loaned their tour bus to firefighters who needed shelter, weeks before FEMA provided trailers to the workers who'd never left.
"I cannot say enough about those guys," Fire Chief David Garcia says, gesturing toward the band's autographs scribbled on the fire truck door. "They really came through for us."
In what could, and probably should, be a disaster-response blueprint for the future, locals are identifying smaller groups as the ones who saved the day after Katrina. These include the police and fire departments that drove down with personnel and supplies, the individuals who showed up with backhoes and chainsaws and, yes, the churchgoers, the hippies and the rock band. "The difference is that we are actually doing what needs to be done," says New Waveland Cafe volunteer Shanda, doling out organic potato salad in a macrame bikini top, "instead of sitting around talking about it."
"Rainbow Gatherings" are probably the least likely places you'd think you'd find swift emergency response. But there, amid the council fire, "chanting for peace" and drum circles, are portable kitchens.
"We're used to hauling 'em two miles into the woods," volunteer Arjay Sutton says with a grin. "Here we could just drive up and park in a parking lot."
Aaron Funk, another volunteer, describes how the first group rolled into this coastal town expecting to find an established relief station and to pitch in however they could. Instead they encountered unspeakable destruction and no one there to help. They stopped near some woods, and the noise of their vehicle drew locals who'd survived the vicious winds and the 35-foot surge that took their homes. People emerged from the woods, some naked, the rest wearing tatters, one woman cradling a limp baby and pleading for help that was already too late.
No one expected this level of desperation. "The first days everyone was working really hard, double-time," Funk says. "We were the only hot-food facility on the Gulf Coast when we opened."
As the Red Cross and Salvation Army were setting up their relief stations nearby, the New Waveland Cafe was growing.
Local residents weren't the only ones who needed help. Waveland emergency workers and other city employees stayed on duty during and after the storm, though they were now as destitute as everyone else in town.
"We hadn't got any help, but we stayed here the whole time," narcotics investigator Jeremy Skinner says. "It got rough. For the first four weeks we bounced around trying to find a place to live," until FEMA sent some trailers down a month after the storm.
Skinner removes a rusted police baton from his belt and shows how it won't extend anymore. Like all the other Waveland cops, Skinner and all his gear were immersed in salt water for hours -- all 26 members of the department, cops and dispatchers alike, endured the storm in roof-high surging Gulf waters outside the police station. Two and a half miles inland, they clung for dear life to whatever they could grab. Somehow everyone made it, though the employees are all that remains of the Waveland Police Department.
When you work on a small force like that, Skinner explains, you buy your own gear: "I lost close to $3,000 or $4,000 worth of personal equipment that I need to do my daily job: my guns, my belt, my vest, everything." He puts the baton away. "But then you try to get assistance from FEMA, and every time you talk to them it's a different story.
"I didn't get to evacuate my stuff because I had to stay behind to help, but then FEMA turns a blind eye," Skinner adds. "It's aggravating, and it's just not right. People are filing claims for losing their privacy fence and FEMA will reimburse them, but I can't get them to cut me a check so I can go buy me a gear belt and a gun to protect myself and other people. They just expect me to go buy it, and I lost everything, too.
"Why isn't FEMA helping us to replace our equipment? Why doesn't FEMA come to the local departments, knowing that we lost everything, and not get us set up to do our jobs?" he asks. "It's other people, it's the public, who's helping us."
As Skinner speaks, a fire truck from Prince William County, Va., roars past.
A FEMA spokesman in Jackson answers Skinner's question as best as he can. "There's a process they can and should go through," Eugene Brezany says. "It's going to depend on getting their application in."
Brezany says FEMA will reimburse fire and police department losses through its Public Assistance/Infrastructure Program. Even his brief explanation of the process seems daunting. Each applicant has to fill out a project worksheet, "which identifies the scope of the work that is needed to be done," he says. "Then we have a meeting of the minds as to what that is going to cost. It's a reimbursement program; the local communities can pursue eligible areas of expenditure which we do reimburse them for."
Asked about the specific complaints of Skinner and other emergency workers, he says, "The guys you met may not have been well-informed as to how the process works. This is not a secret program. ... If they need that equipment right now, today, there's an expedited process that can get them some funding.
"If you're talking about guns and belts for officers ... some communities require their officers to provide their own equipment, and if that's the case that would not be something we do," Brezany says. "This public-assistance program is to restore the community to its pre-disaster conditions." Which means officers must abide by the conditions that existed before the storm, when they were asked to purchase their equipment out of their own pockets.
Brezany says that since the cops' weapons and gear are considered "work tools," they can apply for loans through FEMA's Small Business Administration Loan program. In short, the officers can and will probably be helped through FEMA -- just not anytime soon.
Skinner says tersely he doesn't have time right now to fill out loan paperwork or find a computer in a neighboring town where he can apply online. He and other officers have been using secondhand equipment supplied by other departments, donations Skinner calls "a godsend," but he'd expected those reinforcements to be temporary, until FEMA could replace his gear. "The reason I like having my own stuff is because I know what's happened to it, how it's been treated," he says.
Skinner looks across the street at the New Waveland Cafe. "It's sad that people like that are who's stepping up, rather than our government." He grins when he talks about the hippies over there, how he's turned a blind eye to the occasional whiff of marijuana coming from their tents. "You know what?" he says. "They're working hard, feeding 4,000 people a day."
Across the street, emergency workers, government officials and FEMA inspectors are among those who stand in line for what is arguably the best meal in town. After the initial shock of realizing that they were among the first responders in Waveland, the group issued the call that serious help was needed. It came, via truckloads of produce from organic farms, kitchen and medical supplies and volunteers pouring in. Volunteer Arjay Sutton says the Hancock County Emergency Operations Center has told the group its center will likely be needed at least until Thanksgiving. Until then, the area will probably remain without an economy, with all basic living supplies coming free from relief centers and the big tent set up by Wal-Mart in its parking lot.
"If there's need after Thanksgiving, we'll be here," Sutton says. "We're not going to compete with the local economy. As soon as it gets back to normal and people can support themselves again, then we're out of here."
But Sutton isn't holding out hope that normalcy will return to Waveland anytime soon. "I'm worried about these people," he says. "They're feeling powerless. We're starting to see the desperation. They're worried everyone's going to abandon them. We were the only ones who didn't pull out during Rita. We stayed and fed the people who could not go, and that was a turning point for them. They realized they were not going to be abandoned, at least by us."
He nods toward the long line of people snaking up to the food counters. "They're not seeing a lot of improvement, and that's very tough on them," Sutton comments. "This place doesn't look any different today than when I got here, except there's a couple of traffic lights on." He looks out onto Route 90, the town's main artery. "You just don't see trucks driving by here full of debris like you'd think you would."
Area cleanup has been a big topic of discussion under the tents at the New Waveland Cafe. Everyone here knows the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ended up awarding a $500 million cleanup contract to politically connected AshBritt Inc. of Pompano Beach, Fla. (with an option to increase by another $500 million.) They're aware AshBritt is a client of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's old lobbying firm, and that in the first half of 2005, AshBritt had paid $40,000 to Barbour Griffith & Rogers for its services.
Talk of cronyism and questionable deals makes Gulf Coast residents nervous. Among those getting fed at the New Waveland Cafe are independent contractors, truckers who drove to the coast with heavy equipment hoping to get in on the massive coastal cleanup job. Most are being turned away, much to the dismay of many living amid the debris by authorities.
Mike Eachus is one of those truckers. He came down from Cleveland, Tenn., ready to get going -- all he needed was an inspection of his equipment and the green light to start work. "I sat around for three days with all these other trucks in a line 5 miles long," waiting to get inspected, he says. "We all sat on the side of Highway 90, and if you got out of line you lost your place. So you couldn't leave. They opened the scales one day for an hour and then closed them. Same thing the next day. On the third day, they came by and left notes at nighttime saying they weren't going to be certifying any more trucks." He gave up, and is now cleaning up debris in the much less hard-hit area around Franklinton across the border in Louisiana.
Eachus said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was conducting the inspections, but Corps spokesman Mike Logue in Vicksburg says AshBritt is in charge of that. "That's what we pay AshBritt for, to manage that aspect of the project," Logue says. "That's a common comment that we hear. I get emails and calls all the time from guys who say they've been waiting in line for days and they can't get certified. All we can do is tell them it's just street-market negotiations, that the contractor only needs so many trucks and you just have to get in line."
Logue says AshBritt is actually ahead of schedule to reach the Corps' goal to have the coast cleaned up in eight months. He estimates the amount of debris at "230 football fields, each 50 feet high -- so the debris mission is about four times the size of Hurricane Andrew," he says. "The cleanup is doing pretty good."
Fire Chief David Garcia, outside his ruined fire department, says that rebuilding "bigger and better than before" has to be the focus for the people of Waveland; otherwise, they don't have much to look forward to. He points to some new growth emerging from all the bushes and trees that turned brown and dead after the storm. "Now some of the trees are growing back, and it looks like a big old bomb went off," he says.
His staff recently got trailers to live in. They still awaited portable offices from FEMA so they could, among other tasks, complete the extensive paperwork required by FEMA and the city's insurers.
"We're not supposed to be working out of the station because of all the mold and mildew that's growing in there, but if you don't have nowhere else to work you don't have a choice," Garcia says. "We can't wait for that. We do what we've got to do. And what we've got to do now is rebuild."