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As recovery lags in Gulf, spirits sag, too

In pockets of Mississippi's coast, Katrina survivors battle the foe of despair.

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When he peered out of his FEMA trailer at the frame of a new house in his front yard, Tony Dixon didn't see, as others might, a symbol of progress on the battered Mississippi coast.

Instead, Mr. Dixon claims, the frame became a taunt – a daily reminder that "corrupt" recovery coordinators kept diverting building supplies from his project to rebuild homes for their buddies. The former firefighter says his frustration boiled over one day last month in a bizarre one-man protest: He used his truck to yank the wood frame off its pilings and then set fire to the rubble, standing off with police until the flames died down.

"Normally I'm an easygoing person, but it got to where I just said, 'Enough of this mess,' " says Dixon.

Officials deny any conspiracy to sideline the project, and Dixon now faces arson charges. But his bonfire suggests that hope and patience are wearing thin for some Katrina survivors on the Mississippi coast, where promising starts and glimmers of normalcy are dogged by slow federal relief, waning volunteerism, and even the quirks of residents themselves.

"There's a growing gap between the ones who have been on the road to recovery and a significant group – perhaps 20 to 30 percent – who don't see the light at the end of the tunnel," says Ray Scurfield, director of the Katrina Research Center at the University of Southern Mississippi in Long Beach. Lack of progress compared with others, he adds, is "becoming more unsettling to the group that still feels stuck."

Here in Pearlington, called Katrina's "forgotten town" by many familiar with its plight, as many as one-third of the storm's survivors are experiencing a dull sense of despair, experts say. For them, signs of progress elsewhere only add to a feeling of isolation.

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