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Gulf Coast begins relief planning

BY PJ HELLER | BILOXI, Miss. | October 2, 1998

BILOXI, Miss. (Oct. 2, 1998) -- Interfaith relief efforts were taking shape today throughout the Gulf Coast as faith-based and secular organizations jointly began determining how best to help residents affected by Hurricane Georges.

One interfaith being organized in Mississippi is expected to incorporate groups throughout Jackson, Hancock and Harrison counties, the three coastal counties hard hit by Georges.

"It's coming together very well," reported Charles Moeller of Church World Service who was helping organize the interfaith relief effort.

Moeller also hoped to reactivate the South Baldwin Alabama Interfaith, which was formed last year in response to Hurricane Danny.

Ironically, Baldwin County was part of Project Impact, a program started by the Federal Emergency Management Agency aimed at building disaster-resistant communities. Pascagoula, Miss., which also faced the wrath of Georges when it came ashore and was still dealing with flood waters on Thursday, was another community participating in Project Impact.

Moeller was also scheduled to meet today with the Mobile County (Ala.) VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters) and expressed optimism that the group would assist in recovery efforts in Mobile and the smaller surrounding communities.

More than 300 homes and businesses suffered major damage in Mobile and Gulf Shores, according to officials.

Moeller said he was concerned about the situation in the Florida Panhandle, where heavy flooding was still being reported at mid-week. Florida officials said Georges caused an estimated $125 million to $150 million in damages in northwest Florida.

"We're really concerned with what's going on there," he said. "There are still many unknowns. We will have some needs there."

Moeller said that the interfaiths would focus on residents who need assistance but were not receiving aid from FEMA or the Small Business Administration.

"We will be working with those residents who have fallen through the cracks, trying to see if we can find other resources for them," he said.

Another focus will be on bringing in volunteers to assist in cleanup and rebuilding efforts, he noted.

With storm damage assessments still under way late in the week, initial damage estimates in the U.S. and the Caribbean were put at $2 billion. Four storm-related deaths were reported in the U.S. and more than 400 deaths were reported throughout the Caribbean.

As Georges dissipated and moved across the southeast, flood warnings had gone up in south Georgia. Moeller reported that Albany, Ga., still recovering from earlier storms, received rain but otherwise was not affected. The storm also spawned several tornadoes.

FEMA director James Lee Witt, who toured the stricken areas of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi on Wednesday, said more than 1,000 homes were flooded in coastal Mississippi and even greater damage was expected in Alabama. In the Florida Keys, where Georges first touched the U.S., some 1,500 homes and 693 mobile homes were damaged, according to preliminary FEMA reports.

President Clinton declared the entire storm-damaged area a disaster area, making it eligible for federal assistance.

Residents in the storm-ravaged areas, meantime, began returning home - or trying to return home -- and sifting through what was left of their belongings.

"I don't think there is any misery worse than high water," said Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice. "It causes so much work, it exhausts people, and you keep on working and you still got a mess. Moving mud and water is very discouraging."

But that's exactly what many residents throughout the region had to cope with in the wake of Georges, which made landfall early Monday near Biloxi with winds of 105 mph and torrential rains. In some areas, the storm dumped up to 30 inches of rain, pushing rivers over their banks and flooding roads and bridges.

By this morning, flooding had receded in most areas, shelters were all but empty and residents were trying to put their lives back together. Electrical power remained out Thursday in several areas of Mississippi, Florida and Alabama.

Both Fordice and Alabama Gov. Fob James both reported that structural damage to buildings there, was minimal.

Posted Oct. 2, 1998


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