Mississippi officials evaluate Gustav’s damage

Published 1:11 pm Thursday, September 4, 2008

A day after Hurricane Gustav washed ashore, Pat Furey sat disgusted in his flooded kitchen as his wife cooked sloppy joes by candlelight.

“Once it’s all said and done, I’m going to relocate,” Pat Furey said, ready to abandon the home he built in 1970.

“I can’t go through this every two or three years … I just finished rebuilding from Katrina,” said the 70-year-old retired electrician. “I’m on a fixed income.”

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Still, the Fureys are optimistic people, and the kind of couple who would offer reporters food even though their house was flooded — for the second time since 2005 — and they had no electricity.

The Fureys live in Pearlington, a low-lying area that hugs the Mississippi-Louisiana state line. In that community and along other parts of Mississippi’s 70-mile coastline, thousands of people are assessing damage from Gustav, a storm that pushed ashore Monday in Louisiana but still pounded parts of Mississippi and Alabama.

They weren’t the only ones in the area ready to pack up and go for good.

Tony Vegeletta, 74, wore sandals and shorts Monday and had his salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in a pony tail as he cleaned the muck from his garage.

He rebuilt his house on stilts after Katrina leveled it, so there wasn’t much damage this time. Still, Vegeletta had to evacuate with his Harley Davidson and Yamaha motorcycles to keep his “bikes” from flooding. He’s not the kind of man who likes to run from storms.

“I’ve had enough of this. As soon as I sell this … I’m gone,” he said.

Pearlington and nearby Waveland were practically wiped off the map by Katrina. Many people who have rebuilt there have put their houses on stilts.

On the Pearl River, which separates Pearlington from Louisiana and feeds into the Gulf of Mexico, a shrimp boat sat grounded on the bank. Debris from Gustav still littered roadways.

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Greg Flynn said the National Hurricane Center recorded the storm surge at Waveland at 11 feet. The storm surge at Pascagoula, on the eastern side of the Mississippi coast, was 6 1/2 feet.

MEMA said at least 20 people were rescued from flood waters Monday. There were no reports of injuries, but MEMA said at least one traffic death near McComb was blamed on the storm.

Gov. Haley Barbour urged evacuees from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and from south Louisiana to delay their return home. About 14,500 people were in shelters Tuesday across Mississippi, and thousands were in hotels. Charter buses would begin transporting some evacuees back to their homes on Wednesday.

“There are still streams and rivers in the state that are rising. It’s still raining over much of the state,” Barbour said Tuesday. “The weather continues to be bad.”

Barbour said at a briefing that he’s asked President Bush for a disaster declaration for 16 counties. A declaration would make the counties eligible for federal reimbursement.

Thousands of soldiers, state troopers and local police kept watch on evacuees’ homes and property, the governor said. He warned that many roads are covered by storm waters and, once that water drains, there could be weak spots that would trigger accidents.

Mississippi utility companies said more than 90,000 customers remained without electricity Tuesday. About 40,000 were in the southwestern corner of the state, including the cities of Natchez and McComb, both more than 100 miles north of New Orleans.

Gustav toppled hundreds of trees in Natchez, a Mississippi River town known for its elaborate antebellum homes. The sheriff’s office and the emergency operations center were running on generators.

“Adams County is 100 percent blacked out,” said Stan Owens, the local emergency management director. He said some residents might have electricity again Wednesday.

Gustav ripped a section of facade off a wall of Natchez’ Eola Hotel, built in 1927.

Manager Ron Brumfield said the Eola was full Monday night when the damage occurred, but no one was injured.

Bands of rain and strong winds covered Mississippi on Tuesday, stretching from the coast through Jackson and up into the Delta. Several tornado warnings were issued.

The city of Picayune and Hancock County south of Interstate 10 were under curfews Tuesday night. However, Hancock County “is welcoming back its evacuees,” Flynn said. Power was expected to be restored by Wednesday for everyone in the county whose home wasn’t to damaged. City offices and schools would open Thursday.

A steady stream of vehicles with Louisiana plates headed south Tuesday on Interstate 55 in Jackson.

About 150 people, mostly from Louisiana, were still staying in the Mississippi Trade Mart on the state fairgrounds in Jackson. Rows of Army-green cots with the American Red Cross logo stood in neat rows on the concrete floor.

A sign by the front door listed a few shelter rules: “No weapons. No drugs. No alcohol. No pets.”

Max Alford, 62, sat under a covered walkway outside the building and watched the rain.

“We’re dying to get back home,” Alford said, but added that his group of seven relatives will stay until New Orleans officials say it’s OK for evacuees to return.

“We’ve got food. We’ve got shelter over our heads,” Alford said. “What else can you ask for? We’re very grateful.”

Despite the problems it caused, Gustav was mild when compared with Katrina, but some emergency officials aren’t quite ready to relax with other storms brewing.

“We missed a bullet. Now if we can just get Ike to take hike we’ll be in good shape,” said Jackson County Civil Defense Director Butch Loper, referring to a Tropical Storm in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s not yet clear where that one will go.