Hurricane has gone, as has familiar landscape of Biloxi

Katrina's Wake

September 02, 2005|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BILOXI, Miss. - As they struggle back into town or strike out from their shelters to look for supplies, people born and raised here are learning the landscape again.

Wandering beneath beheaded palm trees, they note Spanish mansions, and point out the drowned pier and upended pinball machines on the beach.

They scavenge the remains of a tourist trap on Highway 90, targeting casino-themed Biloxi mugs as though their hometown were someplace they had never been before.

And in a sense, it is.

Residents here are as altered as their surroundings. On Monday, Hurricane Katrina re-ordered their priorities as well as their floor plans, and many say they'll never again think the same way about food and water, work and family, and, most of all, the place they call home.

By yesterday morning, Anne Coleman was back to work cleaning up an office building that had been halved like a peach.

She works at a company that helps credit card addicts kick the habit. Of course, her vast collection of cut-up Visas and MasterCards had survived the hurricane - two huge containers of indestructible plastic.

Usually catastrophe is what makes credit addicts of people, she said. A baby dies, so the mother buys 50 pairs of shoes for comfort. A husband leaves, and the wife then spends $10,000 she doesn't have on breast implants.

"Katrina was a different kind of catastrophe," Coleman said.

Not only are the cards worthless in a town without power, but people's sense of the importance of property has changed.

"Possessions will seem different now," she said. "You spend all you've got for possessions, and then this."

Imelda Duvane, owner of the International Food Mart in downtown Biloxi, used to cater to a particular clientele: the Filipino workers at the beachfront casinos.

But since the storm, hers has been one of the few food stores open for business, and ordinary Mississippians whose idea of delicious is country-fried steak or gumbo have been snapping up such delicacies as shrimp-flavored crackers, sardines drenched in tomato sauce and sweet coconut gel.

About the only thing that has had no takers is the fuchsia-dyed duck eggs, despite the fact that she has explained to customers that they're good for the libido.

What's more, her customers seem to like this food, and even after the Winn-Dixie opens up again, "I think they'll be back for more," she said.

All her life, Gwenester Malone has hated water. As a toddler taking baths, as a little girl who never learned how to swim and never more than on Monday afternoon, as the Gulf of Mexico swamped her living room and she and her husband prepared to float to safety on a pair of unhinged wooden doors.

But three days later, in the shelter at a local middle school, water was all she thought about in the 95-degree heat. She bent beneath an open faucet and let it flow over her face, grinning with exquisite pleasure. And she gulped down every drop she could get her hands on.

"I still don't like the water," she said, "but I need it."

Before the storm, Lee Jordan worried a lot about his mailbox, which was shaped like a race car and which neighborhood punks liked to vandalize. On a huge piece of plywood he spray-painted a sign that read: "Mailboxes can't fight back, you SOBs, try me instead."

But Katrina did worse to his neighborhood than kids had ever done with their baseball bats. Suddenly he felt afraid for more than his mailbox and he made a simpler sign: "Looter beware."

His mailbox was destroyed.

Until yesterday morning, Cathy Guthrie wasn't sure whether her mother was alive.

Although she begged her to take shelter from the hurricane, the older woman insisted on staying put in the house her own father had built, a Biloxi rancher. "He built it so strong," said her mother, Ada McBryde.

She weathered the storm in her attic, armed with a screwdriver and hammer that she had considered using to tear through her father's roof, if she hadn't been so sure that the wind would do the job for her.

When Guthrie arrived, the house was mostly intact, and her mother looked exactly the same, smile neatly outlined with coral lipstick even as she tugged mammoth tree limbs off her lawn.

"But she's completely changed," Guthrie said. "She's selling the house."

Two years ago, when her parents moved from a tidy brick Biloxi home to a mobile home park, 17-year-old Chanel Cate pouted for a week. "There's no space in a trailer," she wailed. "And my friends say it's trashy."

She returned with her family from their storm refuge in Panama City, Fla., before dawn yesterday morning. The headlights of their car illuminated a destroyed world.

She passed the shells of her friends' homes and the ruined mansions. Suddenly, nothing in the world seemed sweeter than that tiny trailer.

"I'll never complain about living in a trailer again," she swore to her mother. "Just let it be there."

It was.

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