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A woman's fight for Katrina victims: One family at a time

By Rose Arce
CNN
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PEARLINGTON, Mississippi (CNN) -- Hurricane Katrina was still an eggbeater of a storm when Angela Cole, sitting in her living room in upstate New York, decided to rent herself an SUV and head south.

Angela is a public health nurse who consults for large pharmaceutical companies, not the kind of white-uniform nurse who strides around hospitals in crepe-soled shoes. She didn't quite know what she was getting herself into. She just knew she wanted to help.

She traveled into Mississippi in the weeks following the hurricane and came upon Pearlington, a poor, unincorporated, multiracial place in Hancock County where most of the town's 1,700 people were hunkering down at the Stennis Space Center as wind and water battered their homes. "I stopped everywhere I saw any sign of life," she wrote in an e-mail to her friends. "Little by little, clusters of people began to emerge. And I began to do what I came here to do -- I cleaned and bandaged cuts; I distributed bread and peanut butter and jelly; I gave clothes to a young mother of two who has virtually no personal belongings now."

Angela had had offered her services to several federal aid organizations and says she got little or no response. Some local agencies even asked her to leave town because they were bringing the town bad publicity.

One of her frustrated e-mails reached me through a friend of a friend: "I know that while people are living in squalor there are hundreds and hundreds of FEMA emergency housing trailers parked one hour north of Pearlington at the Purvis, Mississippi, exit off I-59 North [just south of Hattiesburg]. I have photos to prove it." Her efforts persuaded CNN to single out the town for coverage.

"American Morning" anchor Soledad O'Brien; photographer Ric Blackburn and I did a piece for Christmas. I interviewed med students from California, a contractor from Colorado, a couple from Atlanta and office workers in New York who had all come to help. FEMA finally got most people trailers by Christmas and the officials who had opposed Angela's efforts stepped out of her way.

FEMA said it takes time to implement the trailer program on such a massive scale. Soledad promised to return to Pearlington. In March we went back and focused on one Pearlington family that Angela was working with, Denise Swanson and her four kids: Carrie, Darian, Destin and Lisa.

The kids gave Soledad a tour of the tiny FEMA trailer. Lisa, who was 5, was sleeping on a kitchen shelf above her 6-year-old brother Destin. The older kids, Carrie and Darian, were sleeping on a convertible kitchen table. Linda Martin, the children's grandmother, began crying as she said, "My kids are just living in areas, they're not even homes."

Outside, big debris piles burned nasty soot into the air and fetid water gathered in channels along the streets. The family wondered what their kids were breathing, drinking and playing in. CNN hired independent environmental testing firms to sample the soil, water and air around the Swanson's trailer. We got the results around Easter. Their water was foul, contaminated with coliform bacteria. The soil was in good condition, but a test showed dangerous levels of formaldehyde in the air inside the trailer.

By August, FEMA trailers were all around Pearlington and a lot of debris had been cleared. But still, there was no grocery store, bank, school or restaurant.

Main Street is nonexistent; Churches are operating out of tents and temporary shelters. Officials say the town's population is less than half what it was before Katrina, and not one family has moved out of a trailer and into a rebuilt house.

Every major street in Pearlington has a campground of church volunteers who, residents say, have led the efforts to recover and rebuild. Angela Cole has not given up. She founded a nonprofit organization funded by donations from volunteers she's met from around the country. Her goal is to get at least some of these people back in homes. She's launched a Web site, pearlingtonproject.orgexternal link, that includes her latest commitment to the people of Pearlington: "We must hold those in authority accountable for their inaction; and, we must persist until we have answers on behalf of those who cannot ask the questions for themselves.

"Those of us out in the world cannot allow our expectations to shrink. We must hold the hope for those who are too weary to do so for themselves. We must --and I know we will."


story.soledad.cole.jpg

CNN's Soledad O'Brien walks through the streets of Pearlington with nurse Angela Cole.

SPECIAL REPORT

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