Life and death make everything else unimportant

Mississippi Coast

Katrina's Wake

August 31, 2005|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

GULFPORT, Miss. - Breena Estorffe sat on her front porch near the beach, happy to escape the hot sun, and pondered which of her neighbors on 36th Avenue might be dead.

The elderly woman down the block was seen stumbling around in the rubble that Hurricane Katrina left behind, and so were the people in the yellow house across the street.

But other houses were reduced to splinters, and the pink apartment complex near the beach had vanished completely. The only movement there was of animals and rescue workers searching for survivors - or bodies.

"It's so awful, so much worse than anyone imagined," Estorffe said as police and firefighters with chainsaws picked through debris so thick the street was impassable even on foot. "You know there are more bodies in there, there has to be."

Life and death were all that were left on the Mississippi coast yesterday after a ravaging by Hurricane Katrina so fierce that public officials are calling it perhaps the most violent and costly in the state's history.

At least 100 dead

At least 100 people were known dead on the Mississippi coast alone, and the toll is expected to rise across the region as rescue teams reach areas of four states cut off by rubble and flooding.

"We are very, very worried that this is going to go a lot higher," said Joe Spraggins, civil defense director for Harrison County, which contains Biloxi and Gulfport. "We're just estimating but the number could go double or triple from what we're talking now."

When Katrina veered slightly east of New Orleans and roared ashore with 145-mph winds Monday, it created a monster storm surge that turned Gulfport's beachfront into a junkyard and left it strewn from horizon to horizon with the city's wreckage.

Nearby Biloxi suffered a similar thrashing, and authorities believe the western town of Bay St. Louis might have received worse.

Library and church

In Gulfport, Katrina chewed up furniture, computers, a piano - the everyday stuff of life - and spat it back onto the city's crumbling streets and beaches. In what was once the public library, wet books formed a mound of soggy pulp on top of broken walls.

At the First Presbyterian Church, the pews and the organ had washed out the front door along with the door itself.

Lydia Harper stood in the center of Highway 90, the main road along the water, and pointed to an empty space where the city's aquarium used to be, then to a pile of beams that was once a seafood market.

The shattered Copa Casino, now nestled close to a parking garage, used to be moored on a barge about 400 yards away, she said.

She didn't mention the Grand Casino, which split in half, or the President's Casino, which was still missing.

"I knew there would be a lot of damage, but I never imagined I would live to see anything like this," said Harper, 26.

"It's heartbreaking," said Harper's friend Michelle Wesley, 20. "There's nothing left."

There were smells. The wet plaster and drywall, smashed bananas from the Dole fruit distributor, rotting shrimp and meat that used to sit on the water's edge. The only thing overpowering them was natural gas, the smell of which scared away many of the city's scavengers.

A peculiarity of the destruction in Gulfport arose from the shipping containers that were smashed and heaved away from the city's shipping terminal, leaving a bizarre trail of debris.

Rolls of paper three and four feet thick were scattered among streets and buildings throughout the city. One street in Western Gulfport glowed yellow from hundreds of Mazola corn oil jugs. The casino parking lots were littered with rotting chunks of chicken.

Bags of dog food were another common sight. Given the dearth of food and fresh water, the dogs might have been the best-fed creatures in Gulfport yesterday.

David Burnett, a 48-year-old construction worker who watched Katrina from an emergency shelter in Gulfport, called his mother before the storm and told her he was in Pensacola, Fla. As he climbed over a stack of boards and a file cabinet on Highway 90 - a thoroughfare so littered it was indistinguishable from the beach - he said the lie no longer seemed harmless.

"I saw Pensacola after Ivan, and it was nothing like this," Burnett said. "This is a disaster, the big one."

Few buildings within blocks of the water were spared, whether stripped of their windows and furnishings or toppled altogether. The Hancock Bank Building was cordoned off with yellow tape and watched by a National Guard team to keep onlookers from being struck by shards of glass still shaking loose from its upper windows.

Police and military vehicles controlled much of the Mississippi coast, but the destruction was so complete they were overwhelmed, leaving many of the area's dangers unattended.

Tank blocks highway

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