Vanessa M. Gezari

The Tender Soldier
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Zared, 5, left, Paisley, 3, and Paxton Moran, 6, play near their home in Scenic Trails, a FEMA trailer park, months after hurricane Katrina destroyed their home in Mississippi. The Moran children called this pile of debris their tree house. There were nine of them altogether, aged 3 to 15, and they lived with their mother in a FEMA trailer with four bunk beds. Before the storm, the family rented a two-story house. Read the article in the St. Petersburg Times.

(Kathleen Flynn)
July 23, 2006 / St. Petersburg Times

Trapped In The Safety Net

One mild Saturday in December, Brandy Tomasich was driving down a back road when an unfamiliar number appeared on her caller ID. She thought it might be a telemarketer, so she let it go. She and her husband didn’t have any money.

A few minutes later, the phone beeped again. The caller said she worked for the vice president’s office.

“Vice president of what?” Brandy asked.

“Ma'am, the vice president of the United States.”

Brandy was so surprised that she missed the turnoff for Gulfport, where she was heading to make a car payment. She was 27 with a face full of freckles, a mother of two who could shoot hoops and string beads and silence her kids with a word when they talked back.

She and her husband, Corey, had lost most of what they owned to Hurricane Katrina. Before the storm, they had lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Bay St. Louis with pictures of their children on the walls and illuminated depictions of the Last Supper that were rarely lit up because Brandy didn’t want to waste the batteries. They served on the board of their local Little League, in which their son and daughter played. Corey was a volunteer firefighter with flashing red lights in the back window of his Toyota Camry.

On Aug. 29, the Gulf of Mexico washed into their cluster of red brick apartments. Water seeped into the cars they had paid off, but couldn’t afford to insure. It broke through the walls of the Firedog Saloon, where Brandy bused tables, and tore into boats and beachfront processing plants, foundering the fishing industry that had put money in Corey’s pocket since his teens.

They couldn’t afford to evacuate, so they watched from an upstairs window as water rose in the parking lot. The ceiling fell in and insulation leaked down. Days passed, and drowned horses rotted along residential streets. The nights were hot and still, and Brandy could hear her daughter’s labored breathing as she struggled with asthma.

On Sept. 15, President Bush stood in New Orleans' Jackson Square and delivered a speech on prime time TV. To those who had survived the storm, he offered a promise: “We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.”

Hurricane Katrina prompted the largest housing crisis since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and at $118-billion, the largest government-funded disaster recovery operation in American history. In October, some of that money settled Brandy and Corey in a FEMA trailer in a wooded campground called Scenic Trails.

The trailer park lay somewhere between civilization and the wild. Before the storm, retirees had fished in its lake and listened to bluegrass under a pavilion. Now a wheelchair rusted in the shallows. Where pleasure campers once roasted hot dogs, some residents cooked drugs. One afternoon, a boy found his next door neighbor dead of an overdose.

“To me, they put us here and just left us,” Brandy said. “That’s pretty much what we’re doin': fendin' for ourself.”

Precisely what Brandy and Corey expected from the government was hard to put into words, but they had worked, paid taxes and volunteered, fulfilling their civic duty the way some people forked over insurance premiums. They knew they were citizens of the richest country in the world, a country whose Army traveled across the seas to find needy people in Iraq to help.

“When somethin' like this happens, I ain’t askin' for a whole lot,” Corey said. “All I’m askin' for is what I lost.”

But they found that their conception of help differed from Washington’s. It would be some time before they realized that the safety net was exactly what they were experiencing: a $210-a-week unemployment check and a 264-square-foot trailer in a place they grew desperate to escape.

When the woman from the vice president’s office called that December day, Brandy anticipated rescue. Don’t worry about Christmas, the woman told her. We’re going to take care of you.

She knew Brandy’s name. She knew that Brandy had a 9-year-old son named Corey Jr. and a 4-year-old daughter named Raven.

What sizes do your children wear? she asked. What size do you wear?

I don’t want anything, Brandy said, as long as you take care of my kids.

Weeks passed, and Christmas came and went with no word from the vice president’s office. Brandy and Corey cooked a ham in their trailer and gave their children donated toys.

The phone call gnawed at her. In January, she drove to the public library in Bay St. Louis to look up the vice president’s address.

My family and I were very disappointed in the fact that we believed and trusted in her words, Brandy wrote. We thought we were just forgotten. We have had enough disappointment with everything since Hurricane Katrina. I wish you all would understand we have lost our home and everything we have ever owned, along with everyone else. I am really sorry if my letter sounds rude, so I apologize. Please understand where my family is coming from.

She typed their address and phone numbers, in case anyone in Washington wanted to answer. She didn’t hear back.

Scenic Trails lay 25 miles from the nearest supermarket, amid pastures, listing double-wides and pine woods shattered by wind storms that had accompanied Katrina. Eleven days after the hurricane, FEMA signed a contract to rent the park’s 193 trailer pads, which lay along yellow dirt roads with names like Apache Lane and Arrowhead Circle. It was one of more than 500 private and government-created trailer parks in which FEMA housed Katrina survivors.

Trailers lined the roads like crooked teeth, and children played in a muddy field strewn with plastic bags. Sewage was piped from the trailers into transparent tanks outside, and as the weather warmed, the smell hung in the air. The nights were dark, full of stars and the thud of music from low-slung cars that crept along the paths with their headlights off.

“I don’t know where these people came from,” said Vance Parker, a retiree who worked maintenance at the park, “but someone told me we got the lowest of the pile.”

At the park’s fullest, it might have housed as many as 700 people. They had not chosen to be there. Some hung a pink welcome flag or set up a bust of Elvis Presley near the trailer steps. Others fought, sold drugs and stole bicycles and propane tanks.

For a while there were so many complaints that sheriff’s investigators got the keys to one of the trailers and moved in for a few hours at a time to keep an eye on things. The park hired an off-duty jail worker to sit at the entrance and watch who was coming and going, but the trailer walls were two inches thick at most, and people couldn’t get away from each other.

At the edge of the park, where pines gave way to mud flats, the effort of raising nine children in a trailer with two sets of bunk beds sent a single mother to the doctor for antidepressants. The children’s playthings included a hammer, a machete and improvised explosives made from military Meals Ready to Eat.

One February afternoon, a 14-year-old boy named David Hudson Jr. came home from school to find men standing around the trailer next door. The trailer’s occupant hadn’t been seen in a while, and the men wanted to see if he was all right.

The trailer was locked, but David said what they all knew: that the storage hatch underneath was probably open.

Why don’t you go through it? one of the men asked.

David didn’t really want to, but he pushed up the hatch and squirmed inside. The trailer was warm and dim. A bottle of wine stood on the table. The TV was on, and the remote control lay next to the dead man on the floor.

“He had blood all around his head,” David said. He stumbled out of the trailer vomiting.

Brandy and Corey were grateful for walls and a roof, but they worried about their children. In April, in the trailer across from theirs, a sheriff’s investigator saw a man flushing foil-wrapped packets down the toilet. When the man stepped outside, a bag of crystal meth dropped from his pants.

The park harbored the kind of dysfunction they had been fleeing all their lives. As a child, Corey had watched an older half-brother beat their mother senseless; as an adult, he was the kind of son who would drive 10 miles to bring his mother a cold bottle of root beer. Now he lived a few hundred feet from a man who screamed obscenities at the woman who shared his trailer.

Corey was 29 and 6-foot-4, with lean muscled arms and a ball cap pulled low over his eyes. At 19, he had been arrested for shoplifting and sentenced to probation; according to court records, he hadn’t been in trouble since. He had seen people who misled the government after the storm - some in his own family - and he was determined not to be one of them.

“I can’t go to their standards and lie,” he said. “I try to do everything the right way.”

He had never known his father, so he coached his son’s baseball team and rolled up the car windows to listen to his daughter sing the alphabet song.

“I try to give my kids everything I never had,” he said.

Brandy had a unicorn tattoo on her ankle and kept a gun within reach in her trailer. She had met Corey when she was 14, and she didn’t like him at first, but he kept asking her out. Now she wore a necklace with her name in gold that he had given her. Under his shirt, he wore a crucifix that she had given to him.

“If I looked at another man,” she said, “I’d come home and tell him.”

Before the storm, they were working steadily, paying bills but never able to save. Brandy was looking forward to a job interview at Wal-Mart, where she had heard you could get benefits and bonuses if you worked long enough. Corey hoped to buy his own fishing boat. They took their kids to the movies and Chuck E. Cheese. Saturday nights, Brandy and Corey danced the two-step at the Brass Anchor.

Now the trailer park threatened to drag them down. The key to getting out, they knew, was work. Twenty-five miles away, hotels advertised for housekeepers, and Krispy Kreme needed counter help, but someone had to take Raven to school, which was nearly 30 miles in the other direction. Someone had to be around when Corey Jr., climbed off the bus.

Corey handed out cards along the coast in search of roofing jobs. More than once, church groups offered to do the jobs for free. Corey didn’t blame the homeowners.

“I’d appreciate the help too, if I could get it,” he said.

Before the storm, the government had been a peripheral partner in their lives. They lived in subsidized housing and sent Raven to federally funded Head Start, where a therapist worked to resolve her speech impediment. But they didn’t get welfare or food stamps.

Now more than ever, they needed help. Unlike homeowners, they had no place to go when the government took back its trailer. Mississippi has been promised $3.4-billion in federal housing grants, but so far, the state has committed only $100-million to restoring low-income rental housing damaged in the storm. Coastal housing officials say that won’t meet the need; the government is counting on a range of tax incentives to lure private developers to the coast.

When the president declares a disaster, FEMA provides temporary housing and reimburses survivors for uninsured clothing, tools and household items up to a maximum of $26,200. Corey estimated their losses from the storm at $12,000 to $15,000, but FEMA sent them a check for $1,600 to cover everything: his tools, their clothes and furniture.

I would like to know what you want me to purchase for the money you have given us as a family of 4, he wrote in a letter appealing the decision. Put yourselves in my position for one day when you lose just about everything we’ve lost, and you have kids, every day is a struggle from the time you wake up till you go to bed, but you still have to try to keep a smile on your face for your kids sake, because they feel what you feel. I am just asking for you to reconsider my case because the money you have given us is not an amount that we can even try to start over with, or even use it as a rental deposit.

While some park residents tried to rebuild their lives, others bided their time, knowing that sooner or later the government would kick them out. A man who lived on disability checks cruised past Brandy and Corey’s trailer one afternoon in the Mazda RX-7 he bought after the storm. Once, in frustration, Corey called FEMA to complain about fraud.

“What do I have to do, lie to the government?” he asked on the phone. “I’m a straight, honest guy. I work for what I have. I fight for people’s lives through the fire department. I have a wife and kids.”

In November, the president had chosen Donald Powell, a former Texas banker who had been chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., to oversee Gulf Coast recovery. Powell said that poor people in Mississippi likely didn’t expect anything from the government until they heard about FEMA’s programs on the news.

“They would expect to hope that someone would help them, but I think they would have probably talked about people like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, faith-based initiatives,” Powell said.

After the storm, volunteers flocked to the Gulf Coast, but Brandy and Corey found that most couldn’t help unless you had land and materials. One exception was Habitat for Humanity, which declined to build them a house because they didn’t make enough money to maintain it. They called the Salvation Army for weeks, but got only a recorded message.

Powell, whose title is federal coordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding, said that if he had been a low-income renter in Mississippi, he would have protected himself by buying insurance. In his travels since the storm, he said he had met people who were “extremely grateful.”

“I remember a cab driver telling me that he could not have made it without the trailer and the assistance,” Powell said. “And incidentally, in that regard, he said, ‘You know, I’m going to be back on my feet someday, where can I send a check back to the government for their help?’ ”

What about the taxes we paid? Brandy and Corey wondered. Neither community service nor years of hard work had raised their credit score or taught them to negotiate bureaucracies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They drove around copying down phone numbers from For Sale signs, followed up word-of-mouth leads and thumbed through newspapers for houses, apartments and land.

One afternoon in April, Corey gazed at a notebook full of numbers lying open on a picnic table in front of the trailer. A Pall Mall hung from his lips as he dialed.

“Yes ma'am,” he said in his best professional voice, which was nasal and slightly pleading. “I seen some homes that y'all had. I wanted to see what all you had to have to qualify …”

He scheduled an appointment with a Realtor. He hung up and dialed the next number. “Hello, ma'am?” He spelled his name, asked questions, left his number. He moved down the list until twilight crawled into the park.

Yellow lights came on in the trailers, and kids stopped playing basketball and put away their skateboards and disappeared inside. It was dinner time, bath time, but Brandy stepped out into the dusk, cell phone in hand.

Flies were rising out of the toilet when they flushed. She dialed FEMA maintenance.

“Yes, ma'am,” she said. “Okay, thank you. Thank you too.”

She slumped against the door. The sound of American Idol drifted out.

“They want to be rude on the phone: ‘Is that the only issue you have?’ ” Brandy said. “What, do we have to live with bugs now?”

She was used to making adjustments; she had been making them all her life. But the park seeped into her: sewage, flies, people fighting and yelling and making love and playing their music.

“It don’t go away,” she said.

Inside, on the kitchen table, a small brown fly crept inside the plastic bag that held a new loaf of Bunny bread.

The day of their appointment with the Realtor dawned clear and bright. The air was still cool when they began their winding descent to the coast. In the back seat, Raven babbled at cows and goats in the fields. Brandy smoked her first cigarette at 6:30 these days. She was smoking now.

Corey’s volunteer firefighter ID hung from the rearview mirror. Fires burned often, with the unseasonable heat and people cooking in cramped trailers, but he lived too far away now to answer calls.

As they neared the interstate, an old diesel Mercedes pulled alongside them. The driver was a blond man who looked a little like Robert Redford. Brandy recognized her congressman, Gene Taylor.

“That’s the one I’m tryin to get in with!” she said. “I need to call him and get an appointment.”

Gene Taylor turned and waved. A conservative Democrat whose waterfront house in Bay St. Louis was destroyed by the hurricane, he called FEMA’s response “pathetic.”

His constituents were resilient and self-reliant, descended from settlers who stayed behind when French troops withdrew from the swampland of lower Mississippi in the early 1700s. The 4th Congressional District is a swath of beaches and hilly farmland bordering the Gulf of Mexico, where American flags fly over hurricane ruins and lots of people have a relative in Iraq. Its residents gave President Bush more than two thirds of the vote in 2004, higher than anywhere else in the state.

Brandy had voted for Taylor, just as she had voted for Bush. But in this corner of the South, the relationship between some constituents and their government was such that even when a disaster ruined them both, one did not know how to approach the other.

“Since I was younger, I always heard of him helpin' people,” Brandy said. “But ain’t nothin' ever happened like this.”

How much were they supposed to do for themselves? How much was the government supposed to help them? The congressman drove on, trailing exhaust.

In front of Prudential, they sat in the car, waiting for 9:30. Corey had on a T-shirt and jeans. Inside, the Realtor wore a silky white blouse and salmon-pink nail polish.

“I want to see what qualifications I got to have,” Corey began. “I don’t have bad credit or good credit. I got a wife and two kids. I want to own something. Something I can pass on to my kids someday.”

The Realtor, Dixie Birdsall, was not looking at him. She was looking down at a stack of papers.

“I hear you,” she said. “I hear you.” She put the papers away.

The houses cost between $105,000 and $119,000. Corey took a deep breath. He said they had $5,000 to put down. It was all their savings: everything they had managed to scrape together since the storm from Corey’s jobs, their FEMA award and living rent-free in the trailer park. The Realtor said the down payment might be as little as $1,000.

Suddenly it all began to seem possible. Excitement crept into Brandy’s voice. She could get the kids into after-school programs, find a job.

“You don’t know how ready I am!”

They chose the cheapest house, a simple shotgun with three bedrooms and a front porch. Birdsall pointed to the place on the map where they were pouring the first slabs.

“If I get one, I’ll wear y'all’s sign all the way up and down Highway 90!” Corey said.

The only thing left was a credit check. Brandy stiffened. They had been turned down for a Small Business Administration loan because of an “unsatisfactory credit history.” Brandy was terrified of debt, so they had no credit cards except the kind you could prepay.

“I don’t want to start something we can’t finish,” she said.

“It should be really easy for you to get it,” Birdsall gushed. “One way or the other, I can get you in a home.”

Outside, Brandy lit a cigarette. “$105,000,” she said. “I guess you got to take a chance sometimes.”

They did not know, as they drove the winding road back to Scenic Trails, that they were passing the home of the park’s owner. Clifton Saucier lived in a ranch house a few miles from the trailer park, down a quiet country road with a spreading oak and a statue of Jesus in the back yard.

The government had been good to his family. For more than 100 years, they had lived on property granted to an ancestor under the Homestead Act of 1862. Saucier was 75, with thick glasses and a mild country manner. He kept the record of the land grant in a metal box, along with grocery lists and letters dating back before the Civil War.

Since September, the government had paid $600 in monthly rent and utilities for each of the occupied trailer pads at Scenic Trails. The actual number of rentals varied as trailers were removed and replaced.

Saucier had bought the park in 2003, after its previous owner filed for bankruptcy. He was a shrewd investor, but even he could not have predicted how profitable it would become, or how quickly. Before the storm, retirees and families drove in for holidays and long weekends, but the place was rarely full. By now, FEMA had paid more than $1-million in rent, and anticipated paying $1-million more before the contract ended, though Saucier doubted he would see that money. He said the number of trailers was steadily falling.

“The storm’s been good to us,” Saucier said. “It’s over double what we were makin' before.”

He struggled to make sense of his new clientele. He threw a catfish supper, which almost none of the residents attended, and spent $35,000 on a bigger laundry room.

“I know they don’t like it. We can’t help it,” he said. “But at least they got a roof over their head, a place to stay, and I think they ought to at least be thankful for that.”

He sat behind the desk in the park office one day when a resident stopped by to ask whether the government was going to evict them.

“No, they can’t do that,” Saucier assured her.

“We’re trying to get out of the FEMA trailer as fast as we can,” the woman said.

Saucier’s voice was soothing: “You’re going to be here with me for a long time.”

The next day, Brandy and Corey drove to Bayside Park, where builders were pouring foundations for the houses they had seen at Prudential. They didn’t like what they saw.

“If they build those houses that close together,” Corey said, “within five years, that’ll be the projects.”

They tried to keep their spirits up, but that afternoon in the trailer park, their optimism slipped away. Oprah Winfrey was hosting a show on social class, which made them talk back to the TV.

“The workin' poor class,” Corey said. “I been there. I’m still there!”

A weather man interrupted to warn of hail and tornadoes. “If you’re living in a less substantial structure, like a FEMA trailer,” he said brightly, “you may want to hop in the car and drive to the mall or Wal-Mart for the afternoon.”

Brandy stuck a plate of Waffle House leftovers in the microwave.

“Eat the whole thing,” she told Raven. “Don’t waste it.”

She wanted to be left alone. The TV went snowy, and someone knocked at the door. “Go home!” Brandy said. “Whoever it is, send him home.”

She walked into the dark, tiny bedroom and lay down on the bed. The room was narrow and close, with cabinets built into the wall. She covered her face with a T-shirt.

“I don’t even want to come home anymore,” she said.

Brandy and Corey struggled with charity. At least with the government, they figured they were entitled to take something back. But in this part of the south, where people built their own houses and fixed their own cars and sold crawfish off truck beds for extra money, dependency carried a stigma.

At a Baptist Church donation center where they wandered one day among shelves of canned beans and paper towels, a sign said: “Please only take what you need,” and at the door, a woman watched to make sure that no one took too much. Months after the storm, Brandy still observed careful rules about what she could and could not accept: no shampoo or canned goods because she had enough, but she would take a box of frozen chicken tenders if they were giving them away down the road. Corey suggested cutting the sleeves off the kids' shirts to make them last longer.

“That’s the style,” he said.

One Saturday morning, they drove to Corey’s aunt and uncle’s in Lakeshore. The storm had wrecked their house, and Corey was helping re-frame it. The work didn’t pay, but his aunt was a good cook, and she always gave them something to eat.

Corey’s relatives had been lucky. Someone gave them a mobile home, which was much bigger than Brandy and Corey’s trailer and stood on their own property. A church put their photograph on its Web site, gave them supplies and brought in volunteers to help them rebuild.

In the midday heat, Corey sawed two-by-fours. He and his uncle talked quietly as they worked. Corey’s jeans were stained black with mud and he sweated through his ball cap.

Inside, his aunt spread mayonnaise on toast and poured iced tea.

“Amish people, they was building someone a house,” Brandy said.

“Why don’t you ask,” Corey’s aunt suggested. “Maybe they could help you.”

“I can’t do that ‘cause I feel like I’m begging somebody for something.”

A woman with bleach-blond hair pulled into the driveway. She was a volunteer with Lagniappe, a Presbyterian church that had helped Corey’s aunt and uncle. She said that the church’s name meant “something for free.”

“Just like how Jesus was put upon the cross,” she explained. “The church gives and doesn’t expect anything in return.”

Brandy took a deep breath. “We haven’t gotten any help from anybody,” she said.

The volunteer looked at Brandy as if for the first time. She mentioned some mobile homes lying empty nearby.

“Will you write down your name and number for the chaplain?” the woman asked. “Write down your financial situation, write down where you live.”

Brandy dashed outside to Corey. “Hey babe,” she said breathlessly, “She said where she’s at they got some trailers that went through the storm.”

Corey sat in his truck to write. 35 miles to Scenic Trails, 35 miles back from Bay St. Louis have to travel sometimes 4 times a day … Raven goes to school in Waveland because of her speech impedement cliff palet.

“Just put, 'Husband works when he can get it,’ ” Brandy told him.

Roofing or anything, Corey wrote.

The woman from the church said she couldn’t guarantee anything.

“I appreciate you just trying,” Brandy told her.

And maybe someone was watching over them, because by the end of the day, Corey had a roofing job lined up. Brandy would help, picking up scraps and handing supplies to the men on the roof.

Back at Scenic Trails, she bubbled with excitement. If they threw all their energy into the job and got another and another, Brandy thought, they might be able to pull themselves back up.

The roof was so steep that Corey had to be tied on while he worked. The rope scratched his neck, and the sun seared a line across his forehead where his ball cap ended. Brandy shuttled the kids to school, then joined him at the job site. The heat made her head ache.

They rarely fought, but now the strain began to show. Corey searched the trailer for a notebook one morning, barking that he needed it.

“Boy, you better stop,” Brandy snapped. “You ain’t talkin' to some employee. You’re talkin' to your wife.”

The mortgage broker had called to say that Corey’s credit was too new to qualify for a loan on the little house they had seen at Prudential, but they had another idea. They had been eyeing some land in Bay St. Louis. They wanted to live there in a trailer while they built a house, but flood zones were shifting and they needed to check with the county government.

On the way to the zoning office, they turned off the main road and crawled past the land. It was wide and swampy, covered in thick marsh grass and crooked trees.

“They even got palm trees,” Corey said. “We’ll make it the beach. All I need is a lawn mower.”

At the cluster of tan trailers that housed the county government, they parked near a sign that said “Planning and Zoning Permitting.” Inside, a faded paper American flag hung on the wall and an electronic box like the ones at the deli counter said that number 25 was next.

Brandy explained what they wanted. The girl behind the counter looked up the address. Zoning rules forbade trailers, she said.

Corey asked about a mobile home they had seen on property nearby.

“Because that’s a different zoning area,” the girl said.

Brandy rubbed her forehead. She started to cry.

“I just don’t understand,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” the girl said. “26!”

In the car, Corey gripped the wheel, his dragon tattoo flexing, his wedding band tarnished with dirt and sweat. He was thinking of land some friends had found out in the country. They said Brandy and Corey could share it, but it didn’t have city water.

“I’ll get a well,” he said quietly. “It’s $2,500.”

“I’m glad you got a whole bunch a money,” Brandy said.

“I’m glad you love livin' in a f—— FEMA trailer.”

“Mama,” Raven said softly, tapping Brandy’s shoulder.

Brandy looked out the window. “I’m so over it,” she said.

She sighed deeply, put her hands on her head, then reached over and laid one on Corey’s knee. Corey stared straight ahead, his blue Oakleys shading his eyes, the muscles of his jaw working.

When they got to the trailer, Brandy put the dog on a leash and led Raven up to the lake. She carried the bag of Bunny bread that had been infested with flies, and they fed the whole loaf to the ducks.

The next day was April 27, a sunny Thursday. Brandy and Corey went to work. At Scenic Trails, laborers carted away the carcass of a dog that someone had left to rot in a tent, spawning piles of maggots.

In Washington, a bipartisan panel of senators released a report arguing that FEMA’s response to Katrina had been so slipshod that the agency should be abolished. And President Bush made his 11th visit to the Gulf Coast, meeting with volunteers in Biloxi who were picking up debris, gutting houses and caring for the homeless litters born to pets abandoned during the storm. He cradled puppies, joked about his own dog, Barney, and posed for pictures.

At a BP station, he delivered a brief speech on the need for alternative energy. When he finished, he turned to a man in a baseball cap standing near the gas pump and said: “It seems like everybody’s getting better down here.”

By May, Scenic Trails seemed to be emptying. The sheriff’s men had made some arrests and crime was down, but Brandy and Corey still wanted to get out. Rumor had it that FEMA was moving people into mobile homes closer to the coast.

A mobile home was more than three times the size of a trailer. When Brandy asked the FEMA man in the park whether they could get one, he suggested that she have another child. The bigger your family, the better your chances of moving.

One day, Brandy and Corey heard about a family of two moving into a mobile home, and the last of their patience evaporated. They drove to the FEMA office in Waveland, and Corey traded words with an employee.

“I don’t know how you people want us to do it!” he fumed.

Right then, he decided to pay a visit to his congressman. Gene Taylor was in Washington, but Kathy Holland was staffing his Bay St. Louis office, a trailer near the old train depot.

Motherhood and a career in human resources had made Holland a good listener. She kept a box of Kleenex near her desk, because lots of people cried. When a constituent complained, she filled out a form and sent it to FEMA, launching a formal congressional inquiry.

“My name ain’t s–,” Corey said when he met her. “You got more power than I got.”

Holland had seen lots of people like them, who tried everything and wound up at the congressman’s office exhausted and desperate. They told her what FEMA had given them for the contents of their two-bedroom apartment. Holland thought that just the basics - a sofa, beds, a TV - would add up to more than $1,600.

Knowing how self-reliant some of these people were, how reluctant to ask for help, she told them what she had told many others: Everyone understands that the whole world was destroyed here in Mississippi. The government has programs to help. It’s all right to use these programs now; there will be plenty of time later to give back.

“But we already give back,” Brandy said. “He volunteers for everything. He volunteers for Little League, for the fire department.”

They showed her Corey’s firefighter’s ID card.

Have you told anybody about that? Holland asked.

Brandy said they didn’t think it was important.

Holland explained that Corey was a first responder, and that meant something. The county’s emergency operations were strapped. She thought that he should have been moved long ago.

They left the office encouraged. Brandy photocopied their application for a bigger trailer, attached a copy of Corey’s firefighter card, and gave them to FEMA. A couple of mornings later, Corey was at work when his cell phone rang again and again. Three different people said they were putting his name on a list for a mobile home.

Sure, Corey said. Put me on the list. He was leery of people who promised things over the phone.

But this time the government’s machinery clicked smoothly into action. After struggling for five months to get out of Scenic Trails, Brandy and Corey had a mobile home in Lakeshore within a week.

The speed of it shocked them. They moved the last of their belongings out of Scenic Trails on a Sunday at the end of May. Corey Jr. piled clothes and blankets in the trunk of the car. Brandy sponged counters and tried to clean dust from the blinds over the kitchen window.

Their new place was simply furnished, with a refrigerator so big they couldn’t fill it. Brandy bought crystal angels at Dollar World, and Corey’s fire scanner chattered from the kitchen counter. Their first night there, they told the kids not to wake them. In the morning, they heard feet slapping the linoleum as Raven and Corey Jr. raced from one end to the other, stretching to fill the space.

On the opening day of Little League, the sky was a flawless blue and the air smelled of sawdust. Kids changed into fresh uniforms behind the unfinished plywood walls of the clubhouse.

Corey and Corey Jr. stood side by side in matching blue shirts that said “Spacewalks & Waterslides of Bay St. Louis.” They held caps to their chests as the national anthem played.

Waveland mayor Tommy Longo, a thickset, tired-looking man, threw out the first pitch. For months, he had objected to FEMA’s attempts to turn the ball field into a trailer park.

“We knew we needed a place for kids to have some kind of normalcy. We knew that even if the mind escapes for an hour from rocks and mud …” He paused. “I told them no, positively, and they couldn’t do it without our okay.”

Life seemed to be returning to normal, but Brandy and Corey weren’t sure how it had happened. Had FEMA been swayed by a word from Gene Taylor’s office, or was it simply that Brandy had dropped the congressman’s name in conversation with a FEMA worker at Scenic Trails? Had Corey’s firefighter ID convinced a bureaucrat to reward his service with better housing? Or had the agency simply realized its mistake in settling a first responder so far from the people he was trained to help?

Even the call from the vice president’s office all those months ago remained a mystery. Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott’s wife, Tricia, whose home was also destroyed in the storm, told a reporter that she had asked several Washington friends to donate Christmas gifts to Gulf Coast families. Some of those friends had connections to the vice president’s office. The office itself was never officially involved, Lott said, and the woman who called Brandy should not have mentioned whom she worked for. A church in Alabama was supposed to deliver the gifts, but no one seemed to know what had happened to the box meant for Brandy and Corey.

What Brandy and Corey knew was that they had escaped Scenic Trails. This time, things had worked in their favor. Next time, they might not.

“America is a great force for freedom and prosperity,” the president said in his State of the Union address in January. “Yet our greatness is not measured in power or luxuries, but by who we are and how we treat one another. So we strive to be a compassionate, decent, hopeful society.”

He went on: “A hopeful society comes to the aid of fellow citizens in times of suffering and emergency - and stays at it until they’re back on their feet.”

Still on their knees, not begging but struggling to rise, Brandy and Corey recognized their rescuer.

“It wasn’t the government,” Corey said. “It was me.”

He talked about looking for a job where he wouldn’t have to pay taxes, though he didn’t want to break the law. He was entwined with the government in ways he couldn’t escape, and the only way he knew to separate himself was, as he put it: “Get up and go to work and try to save money.” He still wanted a house of his own someday, a small place with a porch and a porch swing that creaked in the breeze.1


In February 2006, Times staff writer Vanessa Gezari and photographer Kathleen Flynn spent several days exploring Scenic Trails, a private trailer park in rural Hancock County, Miss., where the Federal Emergency Management Agency housed hundreds of hurricane survivors. They returned to Mississippi three times over the next five months to chronicle the lives of Brandy and Corey Tomasich.

The story is based on interviews with Scenic Trails residents, park owners and staff, police, aid workers and government officials in Mississippi and Washington, as well as court and property records, letters and government documents. Most scenes were witnessed by the reporter with the following exceptions:

The scene in which David Hudson Jr. finds the dead body in the trailer was reconstructed from interviews with David and police. Brandy and Corey’s visit to Taylor’s office was based on interviews with Brandy, Corey and Kathy Holland, the constituent liaison who talked to them.

The account of the phone call from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office was based on Brandy’s recollection. A spokesman for Sen. Trent Lott provided a copy of the letter Brandy had sent to his office, which was identical to the letter she sent to the vice president. Tricia Lott supplied details about the charity the Tomasiches were meant to receive and clarified the role of the vice president’s office. A spokesman for Cheney said the office’s director of correspondence could not recall receiving Brandy’s letter.

Brandy and Corey finally got through to the Salvation Army, which this spring launched a $155-million long-term recovery program that includes an initiative to help low-income hurricane survivors buy homes. They scheduled an appointment for the end of this month.

  1. 1. Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.  

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