Gulfport's fire chief says the blaze that destroyed a vacant building downtown should serve as a warning to a bigger problem.
Fire Chief Pat Sullivan is worried about the combination of transients and storm damaged structures. And a cold weather forecast increases the danger.
"We actually found bedding and beds where they had set up home," said Fire Chief Pat Sullivan, pointing to the back of a burned out vacant building on Highway 49.
The chief says transients probably sparked the blaze that destroyed the building. And with many buildings now vacant and open, "The potential for catastrophic loss is great."
He's grateful no firefighter was injured battling the blaze. With extreme cold on the way, Sullivan is concerned about people seeking shelter.
"And folks need to be secure. They need a place to get out of the elements. And when they see a place open, it's an invitation. When that building's not secure, it's an invitation," he said.
It was an invitation for near disaster when fire threatened the flooring business next door.
"So cold, that's the worst time when it's freezing, that they start the little fires and stuff," said Debra Price.
The owner of Baudier's Flooring say vacant buildings seem to be a magnet for transients.
"We've had lots of them around, lots of homeless people and stuff. The Humane Society, once they started building their building, there was a lot of them living over there," she said.
The Salvation Army has long offered temporary shelter for the homeless. Trouble is, the overnight facility in downtown Gulfport was damaged by Katrina and hasn't been open since the storm, leaving the homeless to seek shelter wherever they can.
Some stay beneath the overhang of a vacant building next door.
"I own the shop across the street, so therefore I'm looking at it. Thirty degrees at night and they're just walking the street. There's no where for them to go," said salon owner Theresa Evans.
It's a concern echoed by the chief.
"What do we do about the transient problem? I don't know. I think it needs to be a community wide discussion," said Chief Sullivan.
Before the storm, the Salvation Army shelter in Gulfport could accommodate about 60 people. The organization is awaiting an insurance settlement before making repairs.