Katrina Victims Struggle to Obtain Assistance

Hurricane survivors in Mississippi seek financial assistance from the government but are encountering chaos and frustration in the process. Thursday, many of the hurricane victims hoping to get debit cards, or other forms of financial assistance in the Mississippi Gulf Coast, were out of luck.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

The president says that $2,000 can be used for immediate needs--food, clothing, other essentials, but there is plenty of confusion about where and when that money will be available. Yesterday, many of the hurricane victims hoping to get debit cards or other kinds of financial help in the Mississippi Gulf Coast were out of luck. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER reporting:

Outside the hastily established FEMA Disaster Recovery Center in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, a long line of hopeful hurricane survivors waits, including Rita Leone of nearby St. Andrew.

Ms. RITA LEONE (Hurricane Survivor): I lost my home, my car, and I work at a casino and I no longer have a job. I certainly hope that under the circumstances, I leave with something so that I can take that next step to find that little light at the end of this tunnel.

SCHAPER: But Shelly Birmingham(ph) of Gulfport came out of the bland-looking abandoned Kmart shaking her head and breathing a long disgusted sigh.

Ms. SHELLY BIRMINGHAM (Hurricane Survivor): It's so unorganized, you can't even imagine the chaos that it is in there. It's so unorganized.

SCHAPER: Birmingham says she got to the center at 7:30, and nearly six hours later, she says she's no better off than she was in the morning.

Ms. BIRMINGHAM: They don't tell you whether or not you're qualified for FEMA to get the grant. And then you go over to Small Business Association, and they don't tell you anything there. And then they send you back to FEMA. So you don't really know what you're getting.

SCHAPER: Others came out just as frustrated, complaining about computer system crashes, vague advice and of being told they'll hear from FEMA soon by phone or by mail. Some people still don't have phones while others are living in shelters or moving around. Vickie Rivers of Ocean Springs says the staffers at the center were even different from the day before.

Ms. VICKIE RIVERS (Hurricane Survivor): We came yesterday and they were filled to capacity, so they set us up appointments for today. So when we first got here this morning, it was chaos. Nobody knew what was going on. The man that was in charge was saying that they should not have given us appointments. They didn't know where to stand us. They put us in a line. They were taking other people ahead of us. It was just very frustrating and very chaotic.

SCHAPER: Rivers says she just wants to know what kind of financial assistance, if any, she can get to fix the roof that Katrina's winds tore off her house.

Ms. RIVERS: I got registered and I don't know what that means. I still don't know--I was told that an inspector would be in touch with me. You know, I'm hearing tales that everybody gets $2,000, and then--but these guys didn't tell me that.

SCHAPER: That's because many of the FEMA staffers on site didn't even know about the expedited assistance debit cards that news reports and FEMA press releases suggested would be available here.

Mr. JOHN McDERMOTT (FEMA Public Affairs Officer): I really can't address that.

SCHAPER: Not even the FEMA public affairs officer on site, John McDermott, knew much about it.

Mr. McDERMOTT: I heard about a debit card, but I haven't confirmed what the details are or how you get it.

SCHAPER: A sign taped near the door said that those who qualified for expedited assistance, quote, "will, within a few days, receive an electronic transfer of funds, a debit card or a check at the mailing address provided when they registered." A FEMA spokesman reached in Washington further clarified that debit cards will be handed out at a few select shelters but that most in Mississippi will be mailed and would not be handed out at the disaster recovery center here in Ocean Springs nor at two more opening today along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He also wouldn't say just how long it would take to process applications and get the money into the hands of those waiting for assistance. The on-site spokesman McDermott admits there are kinks to work out of the system, but he urges those seeking relief from FEMA to be patient.

Mr. McDERMOTT: You have to go through the process, and you need to call the 800 number. You have to get in the system. That all goes pretty quickly. It may not seem so, but we're living in the same conditions the victims are. We're having poor communications. We're frustrated, too.

SCHAPER: But, McDermott says, FEMA will provide aid for every person that needs it and will be in the Mississippi Gulf Coast for the long term. David Schaper, NPR News.

STAMBERG: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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