Canvas Cities Rise Amid Hurricane's Rubble

New York Times

Tuesday 20 December 2005, 5:32 pm

by Eric Lipton

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss., Dec. 18 - A stone's throw from the Gulf of Mexico, on a muddy gravel lot that used to be a Little League field, a makeshift village has emerged for some of the many families who, as winter approaches, are still homeless because of Hurricane Katrina.

The tent city here is one of three set up in recent weeks along the Mississippi coast, making room for families now that the emergency shelters have closed and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is working through a backlog of some 5,000 families still on waiting lists for government-supplied travel trailers or mobile homes.

In Pass Christian, the need is especially dire. The city hall, the two public libraries, the local supermarket, a senior citizens' home and the schools are all either severely damaged or nothing but rubble. The work of clearing debris and the crushed remains of about 2,000 houses is far short of the halfway mark. As a result, construction of large amounts of new housing is still months off.

With the nighttime temperatures dropping as low as the 30's, local officials are trying to offer an alternative for families who want to stay in the area and would have few choices other than to sleep in cars.

The tents, built by the Navy Seabees at a cost of $1 million, can be heated and cooled, and have plywood floors and walls that create an 18-by-32-foot wooden box inside the exterior fabric.

Free meals, financed by the federal government, are served in a giant white tent. The toilets are portable, without running water, and are lined up near a tractor-trailer that serves as a shower house.

His tent "is a bit like a tomb," said Dave Frisby, 55, a handyman whose home and tools were washed away by Hurricane Katrina. "It can be depressing."

At another tent city in Long Beach, five miles east of Pass Christian, the entire inventory of Robert Stover's possessions consists of a mattress on the floor, a Bible, a few donated books and a plastic bucket that he turns upside down and tops with a small pillow to create a chair.

Desperate for work, Mr. Stover, 45, a former plumber at an area hospital, found a job at a cigarette distribution warehouse. But it is in Gulfport, miles away, and he has no car, so he spends three hours each day walking to work.