Carbondale "adopts" forgotten Mississippi town
pitkin county correspondent
Carbondale officials have decided that it’s time to go around the normal channels for getting relief to a small town that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and then ignored in the storm’s chaotic aftermath.
Carbondale Town Manager Tom Baker, Police Chief Gene Schilling and Fire Chief Ron Leach have launched the “Carbondale adopts Pearlington” relief effort to provide aid directly to the small community of Pearlington, Miss.
The “adoption” is Carbondale’s way of offering to help those who are “off the radar screen” of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other relief organizations, Leach said Sunday.
“We wanted to help a community that was not in the national headlines … that was not getting any help,” he said, calling the case of Pearlington “the untold national story of the disaster.”
Saying it is “time for local leadership” to step forward and direct whatever response possible in the ravaged region, Leach described the idea as “an end run” around federal authorities.
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Asked if such a move might not anger the feds, he responded, “I don’t care. The federal system has failed, and it’s time that communities such as Carbondale go direct … on a grassroots, human level. We’re cutting through the government bureaucracy and red tape.
“Our place is not to do everything,” he said of the officials who came up with the plan, “but rather to coordinate and focus the community’s desire to help.” The fire department’s board of directors instructed him to get the ball rolling after a recent meeting, he said.
The aid program will be the topic of a special meeting Thursday at the Carbondale Fire House at 7 p.m.
Online research into what has become known as “the zone” – the stretch of Gulf Coast communities destroyed or severely damaged by the storm – revealed that Pearlington has received little help and is in desperate shape, Leach said.
Pearlington, an unincorporated area in Hancock County with a population of around 1,600, is about halfway between two towns that have been in the news since the hurricane – Slidell, La., and Waveland, Miss., both of which were wiped out by the storm. Pearlington is only a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico and is only a short distance east of Lake Pontchartrain and New Orleans.
The community, described as a poor town of mobile homes and small houses, was hit by a 20- to 30-foot storm surge of mud and water that ripped up the Pearl River. The town was “pretty much destroyed.”
That description came from Gene Gunn, a Florida businessman who traveled from St. Petersburg, Fla., where he lives, to the Gulfport and Biloxi area to help survivors.
Reached by cell phone, Gunn, 35, said he had learned of Pearlington’s plight through the online message board of The Sun Herald, a daily paper in Gulfport, where hundreds of victims have been searching for information, relatives and help.
Gunn carried in a truckload of supplies from Florida, and he delivered the goods to emergency aid stations in Pearlington, then stayed on for a few days, resupplying from a nearby Wal-Mart at one point, and offering to help people locate relatives, check on their homes and other ways.
He said on Sunday that the American Red Cross had finally reached Pearlington, but that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) still had not shown up. The agency is reeling from mounting criticism of its handling of the disaster, and a national movement has begun to force Congress to name an independent review board to look into the matter.
The town, Gunn said, “is just starting to get to the point where they can get in and start rebuilding.”
And that is where Carbondale wants to get involved, said Leach.
He said the plan at this point is to send a team of emergency response experts in an RV loaded with relief supplies down to Pearlington. There, the team can assess the situation and determine what exactly is needed by the community.
A local support effort is then planned to collect the needed materials, money, or whatever is needed.
Leach said he wanted to model the link between Carbondale and Pearlington after the fabled “Red Ball Express,” a World War II supply service made up primarily of African-American soldiers who ran “essentially, a military trucking company,” he said. The Express kept the front lines supplied with everything from ammunition to food, and is credited with being among the most critical elements in the Allied victory over Germany.
The goods collected in Carbondale will be funneled into a Red Ball Express-style trucking network, transported to Pearlington and then distributed as needed to the victims of the storm, Leach explained.
“We figure it’s smart to prioritize what’s needed … with the people who are the most affected,” he said, adding that the idea is to link “fire department with fire department, police department with police department, Rotary Club with Rotary Club” and so forth.
To get the job done, he said, “We’re gong to need huge help and support from the Carbondale community.” He expressed confidence that “the community will rally … the Carbondale community is hungry to focus.”
In the meantime, he said, anyone who wants to help out can donate by sending in checks made out to the Carbondale Katrina Relief account at any Alpine Bank. Checks can be dropped off at the banks, at Carbondale Town Hall or at the fire station.
“Every dollar that’s donated will go directly to the citizens of the community of Pearlington,” Leach pledged, explaining that public money will be used to fund transportation and other logistical needs.
Leach added that anyone with the means is welcome to step forward to be a sponsor, whether by writing a check to help the effort along or by donating in-kind assistance through a company, such as vehicles to ferry the goods to Mississippi.
For more information about the aid effort call 963-2235.
Efforts to reach officials in the Pearlington area, where communications continue to be problematic, were not successful.
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