“I’ve Never Been This Scared in My Life”

BYLINE: By Greg Munno Staff writer

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. A1

LENGTH: 859 words

DATELINE: Gulfport, Miss.

The room was dark, dank and filthy, but neither Michael Kessler nor Paul Brown showed a hint of disgust.

The two Central New Yorkers had just carried water and food to David Jackson, a 68-year-old man confined to his water-damaged apartment in a public housing complex locals call “The Bricks.”

Diabetes had robbed Jackson of his ability to walk, but not of his love of life or God, and as the three men prayed together, hands joined, tears streamed down the faces of Kessler and Brown.

The volunteers from Abundant Life Christian Center in Cicero came to Mississippi wanting to help the neediest of people.

Wednesday, they found them.

Since arriving in storm-battered Mississippi Sunday, the workers have set up and staffed distribution centers, cleared debris, fixed roofs and comforted hundreds of survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

At the crack of dawn Wednesday, for the first time, they took their aid directly to the people in the heart of a poverty-stricken section of Gulfport.

The complex, officially called Edgewood Manor, was badly damaged in the storm. One graffiti sign said “The Bricks Is Gone.”

Property owners have been trying to clear the more than 200 residents, but none have left.

Most have children or are elderly, and few have anywhere else to go. Some residents said armed guards told them that if they leave to get supplies, they won’t be let back in.

The guards also had shooed away several attempts to deliver water and ice, and the few times residents did get aid, chaos broke out as people scrambled for supplies, said Christene Brice, who helped organize Abundant Life’s foray into the housing complex.

Wednesday, the guards let volunteers from Abundant Life distribute goods. Stacey Ball picked up diapers and formula for her sister’s baby. Sheila Stokes filled a box with cereal and beans. Cynthia Augustine needed – and found – bleach and dish soap. Kids gleefully received stuffed animals and board games. Nearly everyone took water, since Gulfport’s public supply is still contaminated.

Despite an initial swarm around the food as residents jockeyed for position, everyone was courteous to each other. But it was clear that, 23 days after Katrina hit, people are still desperate.

“It has been rough here since the storm,” said Yolanda Smith, who along with her 13-year-old daughter, Jasmine, was getting food and water. “Most of us were afraid to leave, and most of us don’t have cars anyway. The Red Cross has been in here once, but no one from FEMA or the government.”

“And the added stress of being harassed by the property owners has made it almost unbearable,” Stokes added.

The employees of the complex watching the scene declined to comment on why they have been asking the residents to leave.

The property owners could not be reached for comment.

Once people realized there were enough supplies to go around, the atmosphere turned jovial.

“This is the way it should be all the time, black people and white people helping each other, working side by side. As Jesus taught us, we’re all equal,” Brice said.

Although the majority of the residents at “The Bricks” are black, the Abundant Life volunteers have encountered people of every race, and many of the groups helping storm victims in Mississippi are from black churches.

After things slowed down, Abundant Life workers loaded the leftover supplies back on their truck and started driving door to door to residents of the complex who might have missed the action or were unable to leave their homes.

Eglacia Sargent had to keep an eye on her young kids and was thrilled to see the Central New Yorkers. She, her fiance and her four children – ages 2 to 13 – were in their apartment when the roof caved in during the storm. Seeing it now, it’s hard to imagine they weren’t all killed.

They pounded on a neighbor’s door and begged to be let in.

“I’ve never been so scared in my life,” Sargent said.

They now live in a recently vacated apartment at the complex. The prior owners or management had cleaned it, and there’s nothing in it except a dingy old mattress without a sheet or blanket.

Lilly White and her husband, Louis, have lived in their apartment for 23 years. It now has a gaping hole in the ceiling that leads directly outside. “Whatever isn’t ruined already will be when it rains again,” White lamented.

Jackson, the man with diabetes, had a serene smile despite his pain and bleak living conditions. Brown, of Fayetteville, asked him if he had been saved.

“For 10 years, although I’ve always believed in God,” Jackson answered.

“I thought so. I can see it in your face,” Brown said. “You have been a blessing to me, to see you at peace in the midst of your pain. I think you are why I came on this trip.”

They clasped hands and prayed, drawing from Isaiah 53: “It pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.”

As the three born-again Christians prayed, Kessler started to cry, and he grabbed his hip in pain.

“I felt his agony,” Kessler said afterward. “His suffering is great. No one should have to suffer like that.”

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