Mississippi Death Toll Hits 126

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- Mississippi residents were aching for assistance, many without food, water, electricity, or gasoline, as the number of dead kept piling up faster than they could be identified.

Sheriffs and other officials listed the total number of deaths at 126, but Gov. Haley Barbour warns that number will continue to climb.

''I slept in a bed last night and took a shower this morning,'' Barbour said Thursday. ''Which puts me ahead of thousands and thousands of people who are tired and hungry and dirty and scared. ... Sometimes I'm scared too, but we are going to hitch up our britches and we're going to get this done.''

Rescue teams spread out into a sea of rubble in the southernmost counties to search for the living, their efforts complicated at one point by the threat of a thunderstorm.

All along the state's 90-mile coast, other emergency workers performed the grisly task of retrieving corpses, some of them lying on streets and amid the ruins of obliterated homes that stretch back blocks from the beach.

Barbour said it will be difficult to determine an accurate number of fatalities until the search and rescue efforts can be completed.

''Thousands of people have been rescued,'' Barbour said. ''Thousands of people have been found and returned to some place where they could pick up their lives ... We don't know how many fatalities there are, the official count is really meaningless.''

Adding to the misery were tons of rotting shrimp and chicken, blown from their containers at a shipping dock and dumped into the water and onto the tattered landscape.

The entire state of Mississippi is hurting. Even to its northern borders, growing numbers of local residents and stranded evacuees waited in long lines, sometimes for hours, to pay upward of $3 a gallon for gasoline. Many station owners stretched yellow tape across the pumps when supplies ran dry, then turned away lines of motorists stretching back blocks.

Barbour said ''a very significant supply of fuel'' was brought into Mississippi Thursday, and the state had identified two more supplies that could be brought in. He said people should not panic about a fuel shortage.

American Red Cross President and CEO Marsha J. Evans, appearing at the briefing with Barbour, said: ''We will be with the people of Mississippi for as long as it takes.''

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has bought a building on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and plans to keep a presence there at least three years to help with hurricane recovery, said Joe Spraggins, Harrison County Civil Defense director.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency reported 881,889 homes or businesses were still without electricity Thursday. The Electric Power Associations of Mississippi reported that less than half of their customers were without power. Entergy, which serves the western part of the state, said that they managed to cut the total number of outages nearly in half by Thursday night to 152,655, down from more than 300,000 immediately after the hurricane.

At one point Thursday afternoon, the threat of thunderstorms forced a temporary halt to urban search and rescue operations in parts of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, said James Shebl, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In a shelter in Bay St. Louis, fuel was running low for the generator, there were no nurses, and paramedics had evacuated one woman who suffered from seizures and a boy shaking from dehydration. Medicine was running low. Nursing mothers were anxious that their babies were becoming overheated or ill.

''They are crying, they are cranky, they can't keep down their food,'' said Amy Gregoire, a 22-year-old mother from nearby Lake Shore.

Spraggins said crews are trying to clean up the 40 tons of chicken and a million pounds of shrimp as quickly as possible because of the health threat.

''We're just trying to get them all up because we want to stop another problem,'' Spraggins said.

Long Beach Fire Chief George Bass said search and rescue efforts were in full swing. He said on Monday, crews rescued a 70-year-old woman who had been in her attic when the house collapsed. On Wednesday, they reached an 80-year-old man under 12 feet of debris. There was no immediate word on their condition.

Bass said similar kinds of rescues are happening all along the coast.

On Wednesday, crews began retrieving bodies in Waveland. Using pickup trucks they commandeered, police and others picked up bodies inside homes and even one from a sidewalk.

Police patrolman John Saltarelli: ''All we've been told is that there are bodies lying around and we can't get to them all.''

Search and rescue crews were still working their ways to areas west of Waveland and to Clermont Harbor

In Waveland, a woman's body was laid out on a sidewalk in front of a single-story brick apartment complex. A flower-patterned curtain covered her body, her arms outstretched. Her face was contorted. Police didn't know her name. Someone anonymously called police and told them where to find her.

At gas stations across Mississippi, people waited for hours to pay $3 a gallon or more as fears set in about dwindling supplies.

The Mississippi Attorney General's office is investigating complaints of gas selling for as much as $6 a gallon in three or four places in the state, Assistant Attorney General Jacob Ray said Thursday. He did not say where those places were.

Gas lines were more than a quarter-mile long at some stations in central Mississippi.

In the Jackson suburb of Ridgeland, Shundra Mack waited in line almost two hours outside Mac's Gas. The station limited customers to a $20 purchase. The line was so long that those at the back couldn't even see the station.

''It's a disaster. It's like real chaos,'' said Mack, 31. ''I want someone to pinch me. I want wake up.''

Ray said with some refineries shut down because of Katrina, $3 a gallon ''was not an outrageous price.''

Mississippi Development Authority spokesman Scott Hamilton said state officials believe the gasoline situation is temporary.

''As fuel distribution develops the next few days, this should improve,'' Hamilton said. ''The flow of gasoline and more gas stations getting electricity should improve the situation.''

Ray said the attorney general's office is investigating complaints about ice being sold for $10 a bag.

Associated Press writers Cain Burdeau in Bay St. Louis, Holbrook Mohr in Gulfport and Valerie Bauman in Ridgeland contributed to this report.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press