GULFPORT, Miss. – More than the piles of debris lining streets, more than the sight of raw sewage floating amid the rubble, it’s the sickening smell of rotting chicken that hits you upon entering this coastal city.

At least 10 tons of decaying chicken, which were in containers on the dock and had been destined for Russia, have been buried beneath the rubble at the Port of Gulfport since Monday.

Authorities say the chicken as well as 1 million pounds of shrimp from a seafood distribution site in Biloxi, Miss., are a health hazard and need to be cleaned up.

“We must get control of this unsanitary situation or we have a major problem on our hands,” said Col. Joe Spraggins, director of the Harrison County Emergency Management Center in Gulfport.

Public health officials around the state are bracing for an onslaught of health problems as the fear of illnesses rises for those navigating among the ruins. Raw sewage poses the threat of cholera. Standing water could be a breeding ground for mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus.

“We have the potential for a crop of diseases we haven’t seen in years,” said Dr. Richard deShazo, head of the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “Cholera, typhoid, malaria are rare and highly unlikely, but that doesn’t mean we don’t look out for them.”

Throughout coastal Mississippi, health conditions deteriorated after the hurricane. For two days, residents were without bottled water so many drank from whatever source they could find, including broken water mains. Some said they used standing water for bathing and flushing their toilets.

By Thursday, truckloads of bottled water and ice were being distributed throughout the county.

The American Red Cross was handing out hot meals during lunchtime on Friday but many residents were unable to get to the distribution site because they had no transportation.

Many whose homes were still standing used barbecue grills and gas stoves to cook food left in freezers and refrigerators. Churches also emptied their freezers and delivered hot meals in some neighborhoods. By now, however, most perishable foods should have been thrown away.

Still, some residents said that they were not concerned about health issues. They just want a hot meal.

“When I get really, really hungry, I’m gonna go out there in the water and catch me some mullet and eat it,” Tony Olier, 46, said.

A friend told Olier that was not a good idea because the water is contaminated. He replied, “We’re in a survival mode right now. There are more important things to worry about than that.”

The unsanitary conditions have begun to take their toll on some residents. People along the highways can be seen pulling to the side of the road to throw up. Though signs telling people not to use the restrooms are posted on the walls inside the schools serving as shelters, people use them anyway. Volunteers carried buckets of waste from clogged toilets.

Thursday night, two toilets overflowed on the first floor of a shelter, spilling filthy water and fecal matter into the hallway where people were sleeping on the floor.

“Things are primitive out there and this is a huge situation,” said Liz Sharlot, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Public Health based in Jackson. “It’s impossible to have such catastrophic conditions and not have illness. All we can do is prepare for it.”

Biloxi’s two major hospitals were crippled by a lack of electricity and water. However, at Biloxi Regional Medical Center, the staff had set up a triage unit in the parking lot near the emergency room and was handing out penicillin and other medication free of charge.

In several homes, boxes of apples and oranges sat on soggy, mud-covered floors. Much of the fruit was beginning to decay from the extreme heat in the houses, which have no electricity and thus no air conditioning.

While water pressure was restored to some areas of Biloxi on Friday, officials said that could create a further health hazard. Residents who have no access to televisions and radios have not heard repeated orders from health officials to boil water before using it.

With temperatures soaring well into the 90s, public health officials also are worried about storm victims and workers becoming dehydrated.

The state has 400 public health nurses stationed along the Gulf Coast. About 50 of them are in shelters designated for people who were ill before the storm. The bulk of the other nurses are being sent out to take care of those suffering from storm-related illnesses, including people who have gotten carbon-monoxide poisoning from not using generators properly.

“We’ve even dealt with people who have been bitten by snakes or stung by bees while removing debris,” said Sharlot.

The state has sent 2,000 tetanus vaccines down to the coast and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has promised to replenish the stash, Sharlot said. Rescue workers were being inoculated for hepatitis A and tetanus.

With thousands of people in various shelters around the state, health officials fear the cramped quarters also will become rife for transmitting communicable diseases.

At the Mississippi Coliseum, one of the state’s largest shelters for hurricane victims, doctors and nurses on Friday were on the lookout for signs of infectious diseases.

But as the shelter prepares to take in new evacuees from the gulf, doctors said they also are gearing up to deal with water and food-borne illnesses.

Up to now, the clinic, set up just yards from the Coliseum, has focused on patients who have illnesses such as diabetes.

“This is a region already known for its chronic health problems,” said Dr. Annette Low, one of the doctors helping with the clinic. “Mississippi has among the country’s highest rates of diabetes and obesity. Many of the evacuees have these types of problems.”

But other problems may be coming.

Along the gulf, officials continue to remove bodies from condemned homes and piles of rubble. Officials warned residents to be aware of dead animals as well as snakes and rodents that are roaming the neighborhoods. Stray dogs and cats were spotted throughout communities foraging for food and water. Officials said that eventually the animals would become disoriented and aggressive and have to be killed.

Though more than 900 portable toilets have been delivered in Harrison County, which includes Biloxi and Gulfport, few people appear to be using them.

Officials said they feared that people are continuing to use their home facilities, which could back up and cause serious sewage problems.

“Our entire sewer system is decimated,” said Biloxi city spokesman Vincent Creel. “No one has a restroom that works. From a public health standpoint we have a problem.”

(Glanton reported from Gulfport, Miss., Turner Trice from Jackson, Miss.)

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.