FEMA Volunteers Go Door to Door in Alabama Town

Bayou La Batre was an impoverished coastal town in Alabama before Katrina swept through its mobile homes and one-story houses. Volunteers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are assessing the damage there.

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

Bayou La Batre, Alabama, is a small fishing town on the Gulf Coast that's home to a lot of immigrants. It's probably best known as the place where parts of "Forrest Gump" were filmed. When Hurricane Katrina struck last week, much of the town was devastated. NPR's Jim Zarroli walked with volunteers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency who are assessing the damage there.

JIM ZARROLI reporting:

Warner Street in Bayou La Batre is a dead-end road of one-story rented houses and mobile homes. It's always been a poor, rundown neighborhood. Then Katrina dumped eight feet of floodwaters here. Now the street is pretty much a shambles.

Mr. ED MAZULIS(ph) (FEMA): My name is Ed. I'm from FEMA.

Unidentified Woman: Hello.

Mr. MAZULIS: Have you guys registered?

Unidentified Woman: Yes.

Mr. MAZULIS: OK.

ZARROLI: Today, Ed Mazulis is going from house to house to make sure people here have registered with FEMA so they can qualify for assistance. Mazulis is a firefighter from Sedona, Arizona, who volunteered to help in hurricane relief. FEMA sent him to Atlanta for two days of training and now he's here for a month. He stops at the home of a Laotian family. Like most people here, they've emptied all of their flood-soaked furniture and possessions on to the front lawn and they're living in tents. Twenty-seven-year-old Little Flower Kaminivan(ph) stands holding her three-year-old son who has a bad rash on his leg.

Ms. LITTLE FLOWER KAMINIVAN: His allergies are coming up, so...

Mr. MAZULIS: Have you gone over to the clinic?

Ms. KAMINIVAN: The clinic--well, it doesn't help until--unless we have--actually have like actual cream for him because he's allergic to all this dust and the bugs and everything.

ZARROLI: Kaminivan says she and her husband worked at a shrimp company owned by her aunt that was destroyed in the storm. Now they're out of work. She's worried about finding housing.

Ms. KAMINIVAN: We're just trying to find another house so my kids will just--because we've drove around, we called around for housing and hotels. There's nothing.

ZARROLI: Some of the houses here are abandoned. The still-summer air smells strongly like rotting garbage and sewer water. As he heads down the street, Mazulis is stopped by a man brandishing insurance documents. Like a lot of people here, he speaks limited English. The man says he's been trying to get his insurance agent on the phone.

Unidentified Man: The flood come up, I don't think they cover it.

Mr. MAZULIS: OK. That's something you're going to have to deal with your insurance carrier. I'm sorry. We don't have the information on that. You'll have to talk to them.

ZARROLI: Mazulis says the situations he's encountering in Alabama sometimes remind him of the disasters he's faced back home in Arizona.

Mr. MAZULIS: We do something a lot like it with the wildfire stuff at home in the Western United States. We'll get whole communities decimated by wildfire and we go in and do a lot of the same thing.

ZARROLI: Even so, nothing has really prepared Mazulis for what he's finding in Bayou La Batre.

Unidentified Child: My house is my tree house.

ZARROLI: At the end of the street, two boys are building a clubhouse with some bamboo poles and a swimming pool cover that were washed in by the flood. Their father, Tommy Barber, stands watching them from the doorway of his mobile home. His wife has hung some rugs on the railing to dry. Barber says the water came on a few days ago and he's been scrubbing his house with bleach.

Mr. TOMMY BARBER: Clean up, rebuild. I mean, most people around here, you know, this is a pretty poor community. You know, most everybody around here is commercial fishermen and work in the fishing industry, you know, and you don't really have the money to just pick up and buy a new house, you know.

ZARROLI: In the yard sit two cars irreparably damaged by the flood. The Barbers have no car insurance, just liability coverage. Barber starts to talk about his older son who's autistic when someone from a church group drives by passing out free food.

Mr. BARBER: A child with autism--What?

Unidentified Woman: Where are the kids?

Mr. BARBER: Josh, Tommy, get you-all a sandwich.

Kids with autism, you know, they have their own little routine. If anything messes that routine up, it just really throws them off.

ZARROLI: So how's he handling this?

Mr. BARBER: Now he's handling it pretty good. The first few days, though, he didn't handle it too good, crying all the time like my wife. That's all she was doing was crying because she's never seen anything like this. You know, it just really blowed her mind.

ZARROLI: Mazulis gives Barber some contact information for FEMA and then moves on. If anything, the need for help is even greater elsewhere in Bayou La Batre. Some homes were flattened by the hurricane and many fishing businesses are destroyed. As US officials begin to tally up the damage from Katrina, they have their work cut out for them.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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