EDITORS NOTE: Five years ago, members of the News-Democrat staff remembered their involvement in Hurricane Katrina. They had gone to Biloxi, Miss. to help publish The Biloxi Sun Herald newspaper and website in the aftermath of the hurricane.
Here are their recollections published five years ago ...
It was an off-white, canvas bag that said “U.S. Mint” and “nickels” on the outside. About the size of a bread bag.
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Curious, I opened the bag. It was all silver coins — silver dollars, silver half-dollars, silver dimes, everything.
The bag was amid a pile outside an apartment complex in New Orleans. The stuff was ready to be hauled away by a trash truck. I was working on a story about how landlords, unable to find their tenants in the weeks following the hurricane, were getting court permission to throw away the belongings left behind by renters. The apartments, still wet, muddy and getting moldy, had to be cleaned.
I showed the contents of the bag to the contractor hired by the apartment complex owner.
“I’ll take that,” he said. “We’ll make sure it gets back to them.”
The pile of belongings included many items with the names of the occupants. They apparently were a mother and her son. She had recently finished culinary school, and he had recently competed in the state wrestling tournament. Her degree from the school, and his trophies and medals from wrestling, were in the pile.
The pile practically told the life story of this woman and son. She liked classic rock, judging from her old LPs. He was getting interested in sex. The pile held a small book explaining the birds and the bees, the type of book a woman would give her son if there were no man in the house.
I’ve wondered many times: Why didn’t they come back for their things? ...
The sights and the smells from post-Katrina are unforgettable. Mostly the smells.
You know how you open your refrigerator, and you can tell something’s rotten, but you’re not sure what it is until you open the individual containers? That’s kind of what it was like. Except the containers, post-Katrina, were the whole refrigerators. They were all over the place, duct-taped shut and sitting along streets, waiting to be hauled away. ...
I rode along on some tearful bus trips. One day, residents of the lower Ninth Ward were bused through the area for the first time since the storm, to see what was left of their homes. In some cases, the whole home was gone. One man told me how he clung to the top of his house until an empty johnboat miraculously floated to him. He shared the leaky boat for three nights with two other men. They fended off rats that swam to the boat. They had no food. One more night, the man said, and the rats would have been eaten. ...
The lack of coordination was pretty clear, even weeks after the storm. I wrote a story about a huge, makeshift hospital being cobbled together with modular buildings on the parking lot of a Walmart. It was a massive undertaking, but it took me a day-and-a-half to figure out who was in charge of the project. ...
The people were incredible. Looking back, I can’t remember a single person who was rude, obnoxious or uncooperative. Everyone had a mission.
Five years later, my lasting image is of a 3-year-old girl clinging to my leg.
We worked 18-hour days at the Sun-Herald in Biloxi, Miss., for nearly two weeks when we had some time to do some good for the people we’d been covering. We loaded up canned goods, water and headed out late one afternoon.
No one seemed to need our offerings. We finally left the food at an intersection, sure someone would grab it, and headed back to the newspaper.
It was dusk when we passed a woman in a hospital gown, barefoot, walking through the weeds and roofing nails and glass and trash scattered by the storm. She left the hospital after being treated for a stab wound.
We took her to her dark house. Her young teen daughter came out carrying the woman’s wailing baby and followed by other children.
The 3-year-old clung to my leg. After five years, I still don’t know whether she was grateful we brought her mother home or just needed the security.
I wanted to take her home, raise her and send her to college. ...
I left behind another little girl to go to Biloxi.
I was going to miss my younger daughter’s 10th birthday. She wanted to pierce her ears, but we had not allowed her sister to do so until she was 12.
I drove her to the mall the afternoon before I left. ....
We drove to Biloxi in a rented sport-utility vehicle the day after the hurricane. Our colleagues already there were very short on supplies and wanted gasoline, beer and fresh fruit.
The Memphis Walmart was packed with firefighters and utility workers on their way south. Plenty of fruit and beer, but no gas cans. We used plastic buckets and duct tape.
The vehicle was packed, but we could smell the gas buried at the very back.
We hit another Walmart near Mobile and no one had thought to buy up their boat gas tanks. At 2 a.m. on that parking lot we poured the plastic buckets into two big marine tanks and watched for smokers.
When we arrived in Biloxi, we had trouble finding the paper and first hit the Beau Rivage casino area downtown: war zone, sand dunes in the road, power lines like tangled kite string, bored young National Guardsmen.
A young Biloxi policeman started trying to give us directions. He decided to guide us all the way to the paper.
We got a warm welcome after 21 hours on the road. The gas went first and helped get that day’s paper delivered. The beer disappeared in the hands of some pressmen. The fruit was a treat in the coming days as we discovered new ways to combine Spam, salsa and Velveeta. ...
The Biloxi reporters lost loved ones and homes but kept working. Their neighbors were scattered across the country and they counted on the website for news of who was lost, saved and the status of homes. For those who stayed, the printed stories told why only the local government and churches were offering relief.
One reporter kept hitching up her jeans late one night after filing a story for the web. Her home and belongings were gone. She was mourning her cats.
I gave her my belt. She hugged me.
I walked in the yard of a grand, antebellum house on Beach Boulevard in Biloxi, Miss., that stood there for more than 100 years, until - three weeks earlier - when it met Hurricane Katrina’s 27-foot storm surge.
I dodged gnarls of huge tree roots and overturned railcar-sized shipping containers the sea washed up and left behind. All that was left of the Beach Boulevard historic homes were foundations, driveways, sidewalks and some stubborn floor tiles.
But it wasn’t just the Beach Boulevard homes that were lost.
Rick Fayard, who was the Emergency Medical Services Director for Hancock County, just finished remodeling his Waveland, Miss., home when Katrina hit. It was destroyed by floodwater.
Fayard had been working long days coordinating the response. He invited me into his Federal Emergency Management Agency-provided trailer, offered me some coffee. He told me he felt lucky to get a trailer so quickly because he knew lots of people had it much tougher, but then his head dropped, his voice trailed off and he began to cry. I cried, too.
It wasn’t the only time. I saw a mother holding a baby, picking through piles of clothing donations dumped, then left uncovered in a parking lot. With the heat and the rain, I could imagine how those clothes smelled and she was going to dress her baby in them because it was all she had.
Then, my rented car had a flat tire. Storm debris, mostly uprooted roofing nails, was the scourge of tires. The local tire shops knew it, charging $30 or more to fix a flat.
The locals directed me to a metal hut, with a hand-painted sign that said “Tire Shop.” A man wearing coveralls came out, took the tire off, removed the nail, plugged the hole, replaced the tire and inflated it.
I took out my wallet. He asked for $5.
When I pressed him about the fee, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Ain’t no time to get rich. The way I see it, we were put here to help each other. Now, go on.”
The man, in his late 40s, wore a ripped, gray T-shirt, khaki pants and shower flip-flops. He sat on a wood crate, gazing at the dusty ground as if deep in thought. A sleeping-sized piece of flat cardboard and a rumpled blue blanket lay nearby.
By now, the fifth blazing hot day after Katrina hit, our response as an out-of-town news team was almost automatic. I set a six-pack of bottled water on the ground beside the man, who was deeply tanned and bearded. The photographer raised his lens. I got out my reporter’s notebook and said, “Excuse me, sir.”
His response set me back. “I don’t want to be interviewed,” he said firmly but without rancor, not looking away from the ground. I motioned to the photographer to respect the man’s privacy.
The man had staked out this small patch of ground near the edge of the Gulf of Mexico in an elevated part of downtown Biloxi that had been miraculously spared by the storm surge, a 27-foot high wall of sea water that elsewhere had washed away entire neighborhoods. If he turned to look, he would have seen a half-block long casino swept from its moorings and wrecked. It lay on the beach, mud-filled and silent.
On the drive back to the newsroom, the photographer asked, “Why didn’t he want help?” I didn’t know. But later that evening, as we newsfolks stood in line to get cheeseburgers cooked on an outdoor grill, a young woman suddenly burst into tears and walked off. I learned that wall of water tore apart her family’s home. There were others at the newspaper and throughout the ruined city who lost relatives to the storm. Some were still searching temporary field morgues for their loved one’s remains.
As the photographer and I worked on other stories during the ensuing days and the utter calamity and devastation of Katrina began to sink in, we realized that guy who didn’t want to talk didn’t owe us an explanation.
We’ve seen it many times on television - the unimaginable destruction caused by an earthquake in Haiti, a flood in Pakistan or a tornado in Kansas. But nothing can compare to the devastation I witnessed firsthand in Mississippi in the days following HurricaneKatrina.
It’s a sight I’ll never forget.
It was an assignment that was half mission of mercy, half opportunity of a lifetime for a journalist - helping our colleagues at the Sun Herald newspaper in Biloxi, Miss., in the days following Katrina.
I flew into Hattiesburg, Miss., rented a car and drove the remaining 100 miles to Biloxi. As I got closer, the damage got worse - highway signs and utility poles blown down and roofs ripped off houses and commercial buildings. But nothing prepared me for what I saw at the epicenter of the storm.
Huge piles of rubble where neighborhoods once stood. A floating casino on a barge that literally was lifted by the tidal surge and dropped 150 yards away on the other side of the coastal highway. A spray-painted sign on a garage door in nearby Pass Christian that simply read “Help!”
But as bad as the damage was, it was the impact the storm had on people’s lives that made the biggest impression.
The shrimp boats tossed about like toys in the canal. The new homeless standing in line for canned goods, bottled water and laundry detergent.
Or the woman at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church who, when invited by the priest to offer each other a sign of peace, turned to a woman behind her, clutched her hand and said, “I hope you’re all right. We lost everything.”
I arrived in Mississippi about six weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. While the structures that were destroyed can be rebuilt, the cultural landscape of the area will never be the same. Too many residents were forced to move away.
The people I photographed were always willing to talk and were never hostile, even though they were constantly bombarded with attention from the media.
There was a pervasive feeling of hopelessness and despair. It had been more than a month and residents were still waiting for their FEMA trailers to show up. Money was starting to run out as many people had to make mortgage payments on a slab of concrete that had been their home in addition to paying rent for an apartment. Residents felt betrayed and angered by what they perceived to be an apathetic and ambivalent government. Impeach Bush T-shirts were common.
Maybe that’s why this one woman stands out. She was living in the remnants of her home. She said she survived Hurricane Camille, she’d survived breast cancer and she’d survive Katrina.