Standing on the roof of their demolished home, which had landed in a neighboring lot, Bobby Underwood consoled his wife, Darlene, after the discovery of their seven-year-old dog found dead in the rubble. They lived in Waveland, Mississippi for the past 25 years. Photo by Carolyn Cole/ Los Angeles Times.
Imagine if you woke up one day and your entire house was gone. It could be a large house in a lovely colonial town, such as the place where I live. It could be a New York high-rise apartment, a quaint townhouse in Georgetown, or an address in any American suburb. Just picture it disappearing, leaving only a concrete foundation slab. With it would vanish everything you owned: Every single thing. All your pictures, your family records, your clothes, your books, your music collections. Your appliances would be gone and also your car. If you were smart enough to keep valuables in a lock-box that, too, would be missing. Your most precious objects would have been no safer in a bank vault, for that, too, would cease to exist.
It is impossible to exaggerate the devastation I encountered in 10 days on the Mississippi Gulf Coast immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Whatever you think you have seen in television footage or in newspaper pictures is only a pale shadow. George Bass, the fire chief of a coast town called Long Beach, told me, “I just tell people they haven’t really seen it until they come down here and wrap their own eyeballs around it.”
Along with at least six other small towns along the Gulf in Mississippi, Long Beach lost its fire and police departments, city hall, post office, library and schools—in short, the entire infrastructure. The roads crumpled. All of these towns lost at least half of their homes. In most of these seaside communities, the figure was closer to 80 to 90 percent. “This is our new reality,” Bass said, barely a week after Katrina sent a 34-foot storm surge across the coast highway and into these towns. “We are only just starting to adjust to this landscape ourselves.”
I met family after family, digging through the dirt on what used to be their home sites. They were looking for even the smallest material evidence of their former lives. One woman in Waveland crowed with joy when she uncovered an intact teacup. Another walked in a daze through the empty lot where she and her husband had renovated their dream house in Biloxi, overlooking the sea. She kept wondering how a whole kitchen could fly away—and after it flew, where did it go? This woman freely admitted she was on heavy medication. The shock of losing it all was just too much.
Time and again, I heard every Katrina cliché. This was the end of the world, people said—and from their perspective, they were right. It was Armageddon. It was a nuclear holocaust, wrought not by man but by nature. And yet, within this overwhelming destruction, there was an astonishing and unending spirit of resilience. I never once heard anyone say “poor me.” Many people raged at FEMA—as well they should have—and some were less than kind on the subject of their insurance companies. But not one of the hundreds of people I talked with ranted at nature. For most of them, it was too soon to talk about whether they would rebuild—but not too soon to ask about other communities. They were cut off: Cell-phone coverage was sporadic at best and most had no electricity. Rather than wallowing in how bad it was for them—and it was bad, trust me—they wanted to know how other towns were faring.
As they sifted through the remnants of their lives, many people came across photographs of people they had never met. Instead of tossing them, they carried these pictures to the side of the road and propped them against whatever large object they could find—a kitchen cabinet, perhaps. A woman in Bay St. Louis likened these small displays to roadside shrines and explained that the idea was that if people drove or walked by, they might spot the image of one of their loved ones.
It was beastly, beastly hot in Mississippi. I know that is a redundancy: Mississippi and heat. But I was born in California’s Central Valley, and I spent much of my childhood in Washington, D.C.—another hot place. The Gulf Coast, post-Katrina, was so much hotter. And let’s not even talk about the smell from all the mountains of dead and rotting and mildewed detritus. In the rural community of Escatawpa, about 15 miles inland, one woman compared the aroma to—well, it was a graphic medical analogy and let’s just leave it at that.
I wore my trusty Los Angeles Times hat and slathered myself constantly with industrial strength sun block. But in that heat, the lotion rolled right off. I bring this up because on so many occasions, the people I was interviewing stopped their digging to express concern for my well-being. Here they were, camping out in tents on their former home sites and going through what has to have been one of the most traumatic exercises anyone can endure. “You look like you could use some water,” they would say. “Can I get you some?” My reaction was to race back to the cooler in my car and reply, “No, I’m getting you some.”
Seven-year-old Dillion Chancey is exhausted after four days during which he and his parents rode out the hurricane in Biloxi, Mississippi, where they lost everything they had. Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times.
Telling Their Stories
In the face of Katrina’s horror, I found people surprisingly eager to tell their stories. In their terrible situation, I might have been inclined to tell a nosy journalist to buzz off. But instead they opened their hearts. I heard amazing stories about people who survived by swimming for 13 hours. One couple, with their seven-year-old, said they held hands and prayed before leaping into the roiling waters around their house in Biloxi. Along with their stamina and self-sufficiency, their survival saga surely would have earned them a ticket to the White House if only they had bothered to get married sometime during their 20 years together.
I lost track of how many notebooks I filled up—a dozen, at least. Late one afternoon in Pass Christian, I listened spellbound to yet another breathtaking Katrina odyssey. The 56-year-old woman I was interviewing kept right on digging, using heavy gloves and a small rake, while she led me on a little neighborhood tour of personal heroism—her own, and that of everyone around her. Finally I stopped her. Her quotes were almost too good to believe.
“How come everybody around here sounds like Faulkner?” I asked.
“Oh, Faulkner,” she replied. “He never wrote anything. He just listened.”
In the crush of attention on New Orleans, much of the national media have overlooked the damage Katrina inflicted on Mississippi. Much remains to be written—and much listening remains to be done.
Elizabeth Mehren, New England bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of three books.