Mississippi Coast report

Here's some of the raw reporting I did for People magazine from the Mississippi coast. I'll try and post photographs and perhaps audio files when I figure out how to. | Read entire story.
KATRINA PHOTOS | When I got the call Wednesday, I agreed to help cover the hurricane with the stipulation I go to Mississippi. I was listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR the day before and a caller who had a relative in Waveland complained she’d heard zero coverage about the area, which was in Katrina’s bulls-eye.

Jackson, 160 miles inland, was still reeling from the effects Weds night. Power was out in most place, there was a boil water alert and gas stations were all closed. I’m glad the guy at the rental car agency at the airport recommended I buy a full tank of gas now. The Hilton was full with an exceptional number of guests with dogs, walking them outside in the bushes, around the hallways, and in the elevators.

US 49 from Hattiesburg to the coast was officially closed Thursday morning but I went anyhow, arriving in Hattiesburg only a few hours after the road opened. I drove around Hattiesburg and the damage was as severe as any coastal town I’d seen, even though Hattiesburg is 60 miles inland. Power was out, poles knocked down, property damage severe. Three gas stations had just opened with lines several miles long and highway patrol guarding the stations. I awaited at one station with a short line until I heard that the scheduled fuel delivery was just a rumor.I backtracked to a station where I only had to wait an hour and a half to buy the $20 maximum—eight gallons at $2.49. The pump attendant said he’d waited 5 hours in line that morning and paid $3.99 a gallon. Folks were calm but there was tension in the air. An armed security guard manned the store’s door, allowing only a few folks in at a time. I heard one lady behind the counter say they were about to run out of gas.


Although US 49 was open, there were still trees and power lines on the pavement I had to dodge. The only other vehicles headed south were power company caravans, fire trucks, police, search and rescue teams.

I drove straight to Biloxi to chase a story, the amount of debris and damage growing more intense by the mile, winding around boats in the road, more power lines, trash piles until I reached Mary L Micheal Seventh Grade School which had become a refugee center. The new residents were largely African-American with a strong Vietnamese-American contingent tied to Biloxi’s shrimp fleet and a smattering of Anglo-Americans. Everyone had already staked out a spot to sleep on the hallway floor with huge fans powered by generators blowing a hot, humid breeze down the hall.

No one complained, although no one seemed to know what to do either. Everyone was waiting, and when approached by a stranger were eager to share their personal story of surviving the hurricane and the unprecedented storm surge that came with it. Media and FEMA officials were nowhere in sight. I had to use the rest room which was already overflowing with since there was no water pressure, much less water. These were truly the dispossessed.

Yet no one complained loudly, no one lost their cool.

I spent two nights on the floor of the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport, which had become the emergency management center for the county, finding a spot the first night behind the dais where the Board of Supervisors normally make county decisions. No one seemed to mind. We slept where we could. The funeral home around the corner became the county’s coroner center. Out front in the street, several tractor-trailer trucks idled. Each was full of bodies.

For two days, I took Navy baths with hand wipes. I was glad to get a burger or cheese sandwich from the relief workers who’d come in from Outback Steakhouses in the Texas. I was happy to drink hot coffee, nevermind powdered creamer wasn’t on the menu.. Cell service was spotty, on for a few hours, then off indefinitely, which is why I couldn’t find my shooter, Marc Asnin, the first day. Instead of sticking around Gulfport, he drove 150 miles each night to Pensacola, Florida, where gas was plentiful and the late summer crowds were focused on the beach, not disaster.

Communications, on which we are so reliant in our profession, was next to non-existent. I tried to remember how journalism was done in the old days, before computers, cell phones, and modems.

At one point, I had to borrow a satellite phone from a reporter from the Baltimore Sun to let the bureau know I was OK. No cell service, no internet, having to calculate decisions based on using as little fuel as possible became the norm. Marc was a real pro when we finally did hook up. He’d taken cover under a truck with a fireman when the first tower of the World Trade Center imploded on 9/11. That was bad, he said. This was worse. Especially when we got to where the eye of the hurricane came ashore around Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Lakeshore, just east of the Louisiana line. There, the shock had yet to wear off five days after the fact. While recovery efforts seemed to be making an impact in Gulfport and Biloxi, help was arriving painfully slow in these towns on the western Mississippi coast.

To the person, everyone I approached was glad to talk. Mississippi folks are born storytellers—that’s why there’s such a deep tradition of bluesmen and writers—and every one had quite a story to tell.

The smells are still sharp in my mind. The dead leaves around the courthouse that lent a scent of fall to the scene early in the morning, when the search and rescue teams were preparing to leave. Too often though, the smells were foul, so rotten and vomit-inducing that it transcended sewage and rot. This was far more severe. Marc’s assistant summed it up as we followed some Army engineers clearing a debris strewn street in Waveland as we tiptoed around black muck that stuck to our boots. “That’s the stench of death.” He was right.

The resilience of the people gave me hope, considering most had lost everything. Call them crazy, stupid, or ignorant, but these Mississippians have such a strong sense of place, they’re not about to leave. This is their home. At least here, they’re not strangers.
Marc made sure I got back to the real world by giving me five gallons of gas from several cans he’d bought before coming to Mississippi. On the way out Saturday night, Hattiesburg seemed almost civilized, despite the obvious damage. Jackson was a veritable shining city on the hill, a modicum of progress, although what few gas stations were open had long lines and patrolmen just like down south. Every hotel room was booked. I got the next to the last room in Canton, 20 miles up the road. I made it out but what I saw and reported was still with me. The story was following me. The man checking into the hotel ahead of me had driven up from Pearlington, where I had been that day. He cussed FEMA, complaining his town wasn’t even on their disaster map, and no official had shown their face. He told his own story about using a pickaxe to break out of his attic and escape to his roof in order to survive. Like most everyone else, he lost most of his property. But he still had a plenty of heart.


Katrina may have wrecked havoc from Mobile to New Orleans, but nowhere was the destruction so thorough as the remote towns of the western Mississippi coast. While rebuilding efforts were well underway in Gulfport, Biloxi, Mobile, and New Orleans five days after the storm blew in, the residents of Hancock County including the small towns of Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Pearlington where the eye of the hurricane passed overhead were still in a state of shock. This once-pastoral landscape of lowlands, bays, estuaries, and Piney Woods was clearly ground zero, as if God dumped a box of wooden matches in the sand. No manmade structure escaped damage.

Cars littered the roadside. Boats were tilted in parking lots. Houses were crushed, twisted, and ripped apart. Pine trees were snapped in two and lifted whole out of the ground, their rootballs intact.

Help was coming, but in a slow trickle at best, and the frustration was mounting. At a press conference in a courtroom of the Hancock County Courthouse, which had become the area’s Emergency Operations Center, Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre (yes, he’s a cousin of Brett Favre) told a press conference attended by three local reporters that he understood people breaking into stores and businesses if they needed food, water, or medical supplies. “We have had situations were people have broken into businesses for reasons of survival. I understand that, but not if they’re carrying out televisions or jewelry. Do not go in people’s houses. That will not be tolerated by neither the homeowner nor the officials.” One proprietor of a convenience store in Bay Shores was literally giving his store away. As one refugee from Pearlington told me at a motel in Canton, almost two hundred miles north of the coast, “We weren’t even on FEMA’s map.”

Any survivors in southern Hancock County who managed to ride out the storm and live had a harrowing personal story to tell.

More Eddie Favre at the press conference attended by three local media people: “Most of our people don’t have transportation and the ability to get there [to shelters]” Favre admitted frustration with the federal government’s reaction. “I don’t think anyone can be satisfied with the response.”
But he praised the locals. “We have have had so many people who have lost everything and they still want to help. Our people are taking care of ourselves and taking care of our neighbors.”

Desperation had grown to the point that Favre had to issue a health advisory. “Some people are using the bay to clean up. We recommend do not use the bay. The bay is contaminated.”

More Favre: “It has totally destroyed any economy we had.” Still, he projected optimism. “People may have lost a house, but they still have a home. People will rebuild. There’s going to have to be some things done that have never done before.”

“We’re still missing people.“We’ve had rumors martial law has been declared. That’s not the case. We still have strict law enforcement to protect people who are still here. The next rumor is we’ll have mandatory evacuation. There is no mandatory evacuation. But we do ask if people can leave, they should do so. Give us a few days, we’ll have water running.”

“There are areas along the beachfront where there are no longer houses. The bayous are silted in. We’re not looking for airconditioning or things that make life easier. We’re looking for barebones essentials. None of us have gone through anything like this.

Hancock County EMA director Brian “Hootie” Adam put it as plain as day: “Hancock County was in the bulls-eye.”

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