The Long, Angry Wait for Help

In Jackson, Miss., confusion, politics, and a crush of evacuees and local townsfolk stir emotions at an aid site

By Brian Grow

It was scene not unlike the "freedom marches" of the Civil Rights era. In Jackson, Miss., at the Trade Mart on the State Fairgrounds, at least 1,000 people, many of them evacuees from hurricane-ravaged communities on the Gulf Coast, lined up as the sun rose on Tuesday, Sept. 6, hoping to collect relief vouchers from the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Administration. The line twisted and turned between cars in the parking lot. The wait for help, it seemed, would be hours long. The temperature of the crowd, like the hot Mississippi air, was quickly rising.

Mixed into the gathering of storm evacuees were many residents of Jackson and other towns in Mississippi, mostly poor and black, eager to collect food stamps and other storm-relief aid that they were told, erroneously, were being handed out in the same place.

Jackson Mayor Frank Melton fumed silently as people crowded around him. He tried to call the county food-stamp office to find out why they were directing people here. He never got through. Two women shouted complaints about the chaos in his ear. "The city can handle this fine," hissed Melton, nattily dressed in a black pinstripe suit. "If I can get all the other agencies out of the way."


  Striding from under the walkway of the Trade Mart, Melton, the former head of a local TV station who was elected in July as the city's second black mayor, said, 'Ya'll come on, go with me." Close to a hundred people quickly fell in line behind him. The march -- and a lot of fingerpointing, confusion, and recrimination -- began.

As cities across the country work feverishly to handle the influx of refugees, some, such as Houston, appear to be managing the barrage of demands for aid smoothly. But here in Jackson, a sleepy town of 200,000 in central Mississippi, caring for the victims of Katrina is a work in progress, and it's illustrative of the challenges that the huge relief effort is facing in communities large and small across the Gulf region.

Jackson itself is still battling to recover from the storm, which ripped down signs and knocked out power. So the thousands of hurricane escapees who fled north along I-55 -- possibly doubling the city's population, according to one police official -- have added an almost overwhelming burden. Aid for them is being meted out steadily, but quite slowly.


  Melton arrived at the Trade Mart on Tuesday morning as the rumbles of discontent grew in the crowd. His plan, he explained later, was to get people out of the sun, divide them into groups of storm refugees and locals who needed additional assistance, and making the process of doling out relief more efficient. So he organized the ragtag march across the parking lot to the air-conditioned Jackson Coliseum, 200 yards away. As they walked, the crowd hooted and hollered. "Yeah!" yelled one man. A woman worried aloud that a riot would break out.

Inside the Coliseum, Red Cross workers and fairgrounds officials stood flabbergasted as the mayor ordered the crowd upstairs and into the arena's seats. They trudged around cots set up for hurricane victims, weaving between suitcases and water bottles.

"I'm not going to leave them out in the sun while you all get your stuff together," said Melton to Red Cross and law-enforcement officials, going back a second and third time to bring back hundreds more evacuees. One teenage girl collapsed in convulsions in the parking lot, spitting phlegm. A doctor rushed to her side. State Fairgrounds chief Mike Brinkley was furious. "The mayor has lost his mind!" he said. Added Hinds County Sheriff's Deputy Captain Charles Bullock, "He thinks he's f------ governor, but he's only the mayor."


  It's a scene that has played out before with Melton, say critics. Shortly after taking office, he forced out the city's fire chief. Then, he sent out a memo requesting the resignation of the entire city council, though he didn't have the authority to remove them. After leading the assistance-seekers to the arena, Melton stood firm. "Nobody is in charge," he says. "I pissed everybody off in order to help those people.... I have no regrets about it."

Still, exactly who is in charge of the relief effort in Jackson remains an elusive question, although Melton suggested on Wednesday that he may take over the relief operation by executive order. But no expedited help arrived for the people who followed Melton to the arena on Tuesday.

And the next day, many of them were back in the steamy line at the Trade Mart, waiting their turn for relief. Only this time, the crowd was even larger, the line for assistance even longer.


Grow is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Atlanta bureau

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