FIRST LADY WAS FIRST RESPONDER - AND A WHIRLWIND EVER SINCE

JEAN PRESCOTT


BILOXI - Marsha Barbour is the best ambassador her husband could have in Katrina-ravaged South Mississippi.

She has a gift for putting people at ease. Her handshake is firm, her smile is warm and her concern for the health and safety of Hurricane Katrina victims is genuine.

"I'm not sure the people we met that first day even knew who I was," she said last week on yet another visit to Biloxi, number 20-some-odd thus far.

"I mean, did you see what I looked like?" And she turned to her younger son, Reeves, and laughed (Sterling is the elder son). In truth, Barbour is an attractive woman who appears as comfortable in simple pants and a shirt as she does in an inaugural ball gown.

She was a Katrina first responder who climbed over debris, endured the blistering heat and sweated with the rest of us in the first hours after the storm abated. She was with the first wave of Mississippi Highway Patrol and National Guard who headed south from Hattiesburg the morning after Katrina.

"MHP had staged about 85 men and women there, about 100 Guard at Camp Shelby and another 170 on the ground here. I went to Hattiesburg just to thank them and be with them, and after a time, it became obvious that we weren't going to be able get out," she said, so she told her husband to take care of what he had to do, and she would do what she had to do.

On that Tuesday (Aug. 30), she and a couple of MBN (Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics) officers assigned to her, Lt. Col. Sam Owens and Agent Wade Parham, "got into Wade's pickup truck, and we just started to work one street at a time - handing out water, ice, baby formula, insulin.

"Insulin!" she exclaimed, a memory returning. "I told Haley, 'Let's get some insulin into Gulfport, Biloxi, Pass Christian, up to Kiln. But did you know there are different kinds of insulin? I didn't either, and the people who needed it - they didn't know what kind. They had lost everything."

The devastation is still shocking, she said, and the toll has been mostly emotional.

She shook her head back and forth when the subject was raised of God's retribution on the Coast, and she said, "We knew we'd hear some of that, and you do see God's wrath by day, but you also see His beauty by night. I remember the people who drove me around on looting patrol that first week, they must have thought I was crazy, because I'd ask them to stop, just stop and look up at the sky. The stars - you could see the Milky Way - it was something."

She's been most impressed, she said, with survivors. "Seeing the horrors they've seen and then seeing their courage. It gave me strength - and hope,just a lot of hope."

"She's been here 23 days out of 28," son Reeves added, "and I've only been here a few times, but something that really got to me was one of the MHP officers who came down with us, we stopped to talk with one of his friends, and he said, 'How's your house?' The other man said, 'It's a slab of concrete, but we'll be all right.' We'll be all right. It's that kind of mentality that's impressed me."

Barbour said she's been impressed, too, with Coast mayors, who she met with, "To tell them how proud we are of their courageousness and selflessness" but also to act as a conduit to the governor, because, "It's true. Haley and I only see each other in the evening, but usually I do have the last word, and while some of the concerns I see are small compared to what he has to deal with, he is open to any suggestions.

"Everything people need is here," she said. "We just have to get it to them."

As for Marsha Barbour's next big step, she said, "I don't ever have a plan. I'm just here to help with recovery and rebuilding. I've gotten to know the mayors and I try to get back to visit the people I saw that first week.

"My agenda has always been to facilitate what Haley stands for."

Clearly there is the need to end the cycle of poverty in Mississippi, she said, "But where do you attack it? In childhood? With unwed mothers? I say attack it everywhere," and the knowing smile that crosses her son's face speaks volumes for the first lady's determination.

Marsha Barbour, Mississippi's first lady and one of the first responders

Reeves Barbour
U.S. Department of Commerce
Washington, D.C. 20230
202/482-2499 tel.