It’s been two months since Hurricane Katrina brought her wrath and forces to the Gulf Coast of the United States. In Israel, after a terrorist bombing of a restaurant, cafe, or night club, it is the general policy of the people to do everything possible to make sure the bombed site is open for business within a month or less. Then hundreds of people flock to the establishment to welcome it back to business, telling the world that we will not let terrorism change our lives and we are not afraid. Courage in the face of extremism and violence. So I was eager to see how US citizens were responding to this devastating natural disaster.
Leaving Mobile, Alabama, a town still struggling to pick up the pieces, I drove on Highway 90 towards New Orleans. I’d been told by several of the insurance agents, roofers, and construction workers that the highway was open all the way along the Gulf Coast from Alabama, through Mississippi, to Louisiana and New Orleans.
At first, only the occasional blue tarp roofed home or downed tree gave a hint of the dramatic force of Hurricane Katrina. As I passed through Pascagoula, Mississippi, evidence began to be more obvious. I turned into a neighborhood near the ocean off the highway to see how the homes had faired.
Whole subdivision neighborhoods were dressed in blue tarp covered roofs. The blue tarp manufacturing business is making a killing this year. Some roofs were only partially covered, a patch or two of blue. Others were fully draped, long 1×2 boards nailed down like vertical railings along the roof to hold down the plastic tarp.
In the front of the homes were huge piles of trash. Well, I use that term loosely. To us, the unexperienced, it’s trash. But to those living in those homes, it is the product of a lifetime of memories and savings. Refrigerators, pictures, desks, chairs, couches, mattresses, toys, stuffed animals, clothing, rugs, carpet, gowns, suits, books, CDs, radios, televisions, guitars, cribs, freezers, stoves, bird feeders, curtains, computer parts, bicycles, telephones, coats, baskets, coffee tables, lamps, and much, much more.
The piles were like little heaps, stacked in neat piles in front of a home close to the street next to the mailbox, or giant mountains covering the once neatly trimmed lawn and towering towards the sky.
On this very humid and hot early morning, already people were at work inside the homes with the banging of construction, ripping and tearing out sheetrock and insulation and flooring. Still, two or three people along each block sat in chairs on their front porches, looking out at the foggy morning, and probably wondering how they were going to make it through the day.
Most of the homes were either empty or lived in, and I did see a few FEMA and private trailers parked outside many homes.
Pascagoula had a population of 26,000 and fishing and tourism is a major industry. Located along the Pascagoula River, Pascagoula is more than just a landmark from the popular Ray Stevens song, “The Day the Squirrel Went Berserk in the First Self-Righteous Church in that Sleepy Little Town of Pascagoula”. It is home to the famous Mississippi Gulf Coast Blues and Heritage Festival that attracts some of the best in blues and jazz annually. It is also home to many fishing and wildlife expert guides who take tourists upriver to fish and see alligators and swamp creatures. Shrimping, fishing, and all kinds of seafood is caught and farmed throughout the area, bringing tons of money to the economy.
I heard on the radio that the shrimping and fishing is back and awesome, especially the shrimp as they were stirred up by the storms. Unfortunately, much of the infrastructure for harvesting the seafood crops was destroyed. Not just the boats but the warehouses and manufacturing plants that handled the seafood to prepare it for delivery to your nearest grocery store or restaurant. Over 30% of all seafood consumed in the United States comes from the Mississippi and Louisiana coastal areas, totally destroyed by Hurricanes Ivan, Katrina, and Rita, along with the lessor hurricanes in between.
As I moved on towards the beach between Pascagoula and Gautier to find more signs of destruction, I spotted vacant gas stations and grocery stores covered with cardboard boxes and clothing scattered across the parking lots. At first I thought this was left over debris from the storm, but then I saw huge handwritten signs requesting “No Dumping of Clothing” and “No More Clothes! Stop!” I could only assume that these were from boxes of donated clothes brought in by rescue services for those with nothing left and after two months of being picked through, this is what remains. A big mess. It looked worse than the annual sell everything sale at Nordstrom’s Outlets.
Everywhere you look, on street corners or along sidewalks, are small signs posting advertisements for roofers, insurance adjusters, cleaners, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, bulldozing, restoration, and more. These small signs on metal legs are poked into any bit of grass or dirt found close to the road, clustered together on street corners. They are colorful signs along the grey clutter of what remains of these communities.
I finally found more signs of cleaning up and restoration. I found a big scoop picking up huge piles of debris in one beach front neighborhood. The debris included metal roofing as well as furniture, and the detritus of the American life. Unlike most common garbage, metal roofing and siding, as well as desks, tables, chairs, bicycles, and more sturdy furnishings, don’t crush well, so it wasn’t long before the truck was “full”, leaving behind mountains of debris awaiting their return.
In one neighborhood, a piece of plywood greeted me with a warning that looters would be shot. A small American flag was stuck to the sign, as if lending some credibility to the fact that Americans have the right to bear arms and shoot other Americans.
Beyond the sign, I found a home close to the water undergoing massive reconstruction with workers pounding and sawing. Next to it was an older looking home crushed almost beyond recognition by falling trees. Dozens of cats, many gravid with pregnancy, sat on the tree stumps and crushed vehicles around the house, abandoned but not forgotten by their owners. I spied a few bowls of food on the ground. They all looked at me with a mixture of hope and fear. I got out of the car and most of them scattered, though one brave one came near me to sniff my outreached hand. When she found it empty, she turned away, tail in the air, and sauntered back to her compatriots.
At the end of the street must have been a beautiful home as I found the remains of a small swimming pool, but nothing remained of the rest of the home. Whether it had been cleared by bulldozers or by the storm surge I couldn’t tell. But little was left behind except the swimming pool.
Returning slowly through the blue roofed community, I turned once again west on Highway 90, crossing through more small towns not even on my map.
Traffic had picked up so it was hard to stop and photograph everything. And, honestly, it didn’t take long before I started to get used to seeing trees laying over homes and businesses, signs blown out, and roof steeples either blown off and sitting in the parking lot or tipped over crushing the church underneath. Having lived in a war zone, you learn to develop psychological calluses pretty quickly and they kicked in very fast on this trip across the devastated south.
According to the AAA Guidebook, Ocean Springs, Mississippi, had a population of 17,225 and an elevation of 22 feet above sea level. Well, that’s where the town of Ocean Springs sits. A good part of the community sat below that elevation. With a storm surge and waves from 10-30 feet, anything under 20 feet above sea level was smashed by the water.
Ocean Springs was famous as the first permanent settlement in the Mississippi Valley for Europeans. A sanatorium was developed in the town in the early 1800s to provide a vacation and rehabilitation center, taking advantage of the spring waters in the area. Later, Ocean Springs became an artists’ colony and visitors could stop in and see pottery, painting, wood carving, and other artisians at work. Few people stop in Ocean Springs any more, except for their festivals, though many birders flock the famous Gulf Islands National Seashore. Ocean Springs is just across the highway bridge from Biloxi, a casino mecca and destination for so many older Americans, with plenty of motels, hotels, and restaurants for the traveler.
I traveled on that highway towards Biloxi, not intending to stop in Ocean Springs, but was forced to. They lied. Highway 90 ends at Ocean Springs.
It doesn’t just end. It is destroyed. Crippled. Crunched. Smashed. Peeled. Battered. Bashed.
The storm surge and waves smashed into the eastern side of the long low bridge peeling off major sections of road from the bridge. Only the pilings remain, little sticks poking out of the sea. Closer to the beach, the bridge is twisted and torn, whole sections collapsed and others bend out of recognition. As I walked along the beach taking pictures, my mind went on auto pilot. Frame and snap, frame and snap. Think patterns. Think shapes. Zoom here, wide angle there. Look for the detail. But don’t look too closely. You might feel.
Something kept bugging me. I was seriously in professional photographer mode, though. Don’t think, just trust your instincts and shoot. But there was this nagging feeling that slowly became an itch. I was seeing something that I was missing.
Then I found it. Hidden in the dark water-stained pylons of the remains of the bridge was the upended remains of a car. The back wheels poked out of the water, the smashed remains mostly undersea. It was dark and rusted, though it didn’t look old. Much of the body was gone, leaving the tires and undercarriage.
Had this been there before the storm? Had it once driven off the bridge and now was washed up against the beach? Or was it one of the cars parked along the beach front that was shoved here, and battered and thrashed, by the storm surge and waves? I don’t know, but the wheels poking out from the water, barely visible, started to break down my newly formed wall of resistance. I stiffed my backbone, braced myself, and focused my attention back on the crumpled bridge through the camera lens.
Watching three teeenagers walk across the damaged end of the bridge with little caution, I bravely crawled over the barrier and stepped onto the bridge. The first thing that hit me was the huge amound of litter on the bridge. It looked like trash and mud had gathered along the barrier separating the east and west traffic.
As I stepped closer, I discovered the black and white blobs were not litter but pieces of asphalt. The waves had literally peeled the numerous layers of pavement off the road where a break in the highway had exposed the edges, and flung whole meter square patches of pavement, with white line in tact, against the barrier wall. It was now a patchwork quilt of road repairs shifted from their original locations.
A cement and steel reinformed bridge is solid. It is meant to endure massive loads, stresses, and battering waves. In the face of the eastern wall edge of Hurricane Katrina, it endured forces beyond any engineer’s nightmares. Water from all sides tore at the bridge’s foundations and supports. If the bridge’s road had been lined with frequent open grids, creating spaces in the road for water to flow through, then the damage might not have been so bad. But with only a wall to push again, the bridge caved, raised, and collapsed under the water pressure.
The folds in the road were interesting, as were the tangles of cement and rebarb, so I aimed my camera at them, focusing on the patterns. When I had my fill of the damaged bridge, the fog had cleared and now I could see across to the other side of the bridge.
There sat two huge casinos near the bridge. And sat is the appropriate word. One was once floating, but now rested inland, tilted at an angle. The other looked like some judo monster had whacked the center of the casino/hotel. Half looked normal, but the other looked like it had dropped a good 20 feet and leaned to one side, cleavered by mother nature.
According to reports, the highest ever reported storm surge in the United States was measured at 30 feet (10 meters) in Biloxi, Mississippi, during Hurricane Katrina, and Ocean Springs is across the bay from Biloxi.
My small digital camera does amazing zooms, so I was able to photograph the casinos across over a mile of bridge and open bay, but the real telling story of the destruction of Biloxi comes later in my story.
A police car drove by on the service road that rounded the waterfront point, ignoring me on the broken highway remains, but I thought it was a good warning to get off the bridge and on with my explorations.
As I started to step back into my car, I spotted a handwritten sign above the car. It said, “Welcome Members and Guests of the Ocean Springs Yacht Club. We are currently undergoing remodeling due to Hurricane Katrina. Please contact us below for information to let us know how everyone is…”
At first I laughed. “Undergoing remodeling”, right! But then I thought, “Ah, here’s hope!” I was excited to think that indeed they were remodeling, working hard and fast to fix things up and return to normal. This was a good sign.
I pulled away and rounded the point and saw what was left of the Ocean Springs Yacht Club Apartments.
This once gated community now had a long black rod iron gate twisted and torqued and strewn along the driveway. While I found the remanants of the swimming pool with its pretty blue tile glimmering in the early morning light, nothing remained of the office buildings and apartments. Oh, except for the metal stairs leading up to nothing.
Two whole blocks of the apartment complex were destroyed.
Now, I need to correct my language for you. Destroyed seems to mean ruined beyond recognition. Maybe damaged and ripped aparted. But in this case, massive destruction is a better term to use.
Let me explain better what I saw and you can come up with better terms to relate in fewer words to the damage.
The massive waves and storm surge smashed into any buildings along the sea front. Driven by winds exceeding 150 mph and rising to 30 feet above sea level, I haven’t been able to track down a measurement of the actual force, but it has been equated with the blast force of an atomic bomb.
In other words, nothing could stand in its path unless it was rooted so deep into the ground that the best the thing could do was lean or be bent, or there were enough holes in the structure that wind and water would pass through it, never finding enough resistance to push against.
Homes, garages, signs, and apartment buildings, any solid structures have no chance against such forces.
This is what happens. It’s kind of a domino effect. The water smashes into the first buildings it encounters. What isn’t destroyed instantly from the blasting force of water is pushed backwards into the building behind it. What isn’t crushed and smashed to bits there, continues with the inland movement and smashes into the structure behind it. This continues until the force of the wave and surge peaks, or it meets a stronger resistance.
What remains is a totally clear foundation of the first building, and a partially or totally cleared foundation for the second, and a smashed remains of the third and possibly fourth structure. But the fifth, sixth, and beyond building is still standing, and might even be liveable with only slight roof damage.
The homes beyond the beach front are protected by their neighbors who bore the brunt of the storm’s force. Unfortunately, any homes between the first and last have become a punching bag for the storm surge’s path.
The force of the storm surge is not to be dismissed lightly. Not only did it damage the entire coast line of Mississippi, it reached across into Alabama and Florida. Mobile, Alabama, my current temporary home, experienced the highest ever locally recorded storm surge and flooding, destroying whole neighborhoods along the sea and rivers. The force of Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge was felt for several hundred miles along the coast.
The challenge for me, the photographer, was how to photograph what isn’t there. Looking at the slab of grey cement building foundation, there wasn’t much to fill the camera viewfinder with. I did the best I could, but turned to more human interest images.
Amid the rubble below the remains of a steel reinforced first floor structure, I tried to find something familiar. Bricks and cement blocks were strewn among wiring, refridgerators, ovens, and tangled remains of stairs and bathtubs. Small sections of pretty tiled floor remained. I know people had been through the rubble in the past two months as I found a computer high on a cement slab, an unbroken tea cup and saucer and coffee mug sitting beside it. Vacuum cleaners were unburied and sitting upright. Still, amid the random clutter, the eye would rest on the familar, a toilet sitting inside a white porcelain bath tub, a dress on a hanger, a pair of matched shoes sitting side by side, a file cabinet with a drawer open as if someone had turned away for a moment to reach for the next paper to file, an office chair laying on its side, a telephone with the receiver in place but the wires stripped, all the signs of lives lived with the amazing volume of things we accummulate, their presence taken for granted.
I moved out of the rubble of the apartment complex and up the next neighborhood street. I drove around two power company trucks, still laying and installing power lines to the area.
I spotted two FEMA trailers parked in the rubble of two homes. Nothing was left of the homes sitting on a slight ridge that once overlooked the destroyed apartment complex, except for a few twisted bits of remains and the white FEMA trailers. Both trailers had long wheelchair ramps installed and on one, a couple was having breakfast. I watched as the old woman reached over and fussed with the old man’s collar as he leaned forward in his wheel chair on their new trailer deck. A bit of normalcy amongst tons of debris and disaster.
A sign on tree outside of a home that was nothing more than a roof sitting on the ground now, read, “People Tress Okay – House Gone” with the address. A powerful message that breaks your heart. A whole family’s life summed up – we’re okay, house gone. So sad.
For the few houses four to eight houses away from the shoreline that survived, mountains of debris fill their lawns and driveways. You can barely see the houses behind some of the piles.
The air is filled with the stench of sea water, mold, and burning wood, along with an oil smell that seems to have no source but is pervasive. While it is illegal in much of the southern United States to burn wood, and I can’t see the smoke, I can smell the stink of wood burning, pressed down on the community with the low lying clouds and humidity, brought by the first rainfall of any consequences the area has since since Hurricane Rita passed to the west. I feel the smell actually sticking to my skin in the growing humid heat of the day.
Many homes in this area suffered from what I called the chop block effect. Remember that children’s game where we would stack up blocks and then hit a block from out of the middle and hope that our skill with the strike would leave the blocks standing. Similar to the trick of pulling the table cloth out from under the dishes with success.
The storm surge came roaring through so fast, gathering debris as it plowed through, that whole homes were knocked out from under their roofs to smash into their neighbors home. With nothing left to support the roof, it collapsed onto the cleared ground below. At least, that is what it looked like.
As you observe this domino effect of the storm surge, you begin to recognize that the bits and pieces laying on this house are actually from house number 2 in the line, or this part looks like it’s from house number 3 or 4. You begin to mentally reconstruct the destroyed homes from the jumble of timber and windows like putting together a puzzle that is 4 square blocks in size.
A bright spot of color caught my eye and I stopped. Someone had found an orange plastic pumpkin head, the kind children use to collect their candy in like a basket. They’d placed it in all that was left of the house, one wall with a broken window. It made me smile to see this little fun in the middle of the sadness.
When you stop and really look around, there are moments of smiles in the worst of situations. Even in war, people can find humor, even though it is often gruesome humor, it can still strike you as funny and make you laugh. It is necessary for our survival to laugh, so we take it where and when we can find it.
I found that the storm had twisted and twirled plastic sheets and curtains into tangles in the trees and one yard featured an amazing artistic sculpture from the wreckage. The colors of red fabric mixed with the draping effect of curtains or blankets, with a small hat in the tangle of trees was an incredible structure of art. Even in destruction, you can find a twisted sense of beauty.
Then I found the photo album.
The images were not even recognizable, washed off the photographic paper under the protective plastic cover in the cheap wire bound photo album. They were a blur of red and brownish tones but I could just make out a person in the upper left corner.
This weakens my wall of protected emotions, but it is also an image I expected to see. What broke down the barriers though was what I found next in the debris.
Two old record albums shattered in pieces lay in the mud and dead leaves. I could just make out the label on one of them. Columbia Odyssey, a recording brand I was familiar with from my childhood. Columbia, one of the oldest recording companies, produced a series of “cheap” records in the 1960s under the Odyssey label. They would often include multiple pop artists of the time.
Seeing these two broken records reminded me of the magic of music my mother filled my life with. I was taught from day one that the handling of records was something precious and critically important. NEVER touch the tracks of the album, only the edges and only with washed and inspected hands. She’d carefully set the needle on the album and our little home would be filled with the sounds of Elvis, Patsy Cline, Julie Andrews, The Kingston Trio, The Brothers Four, Rosemary Clooney, and dancing Broadway Musicals. When I was little, we’d dance around the living room, dressed up in thrift shop costumes, but later years found my dancing regulated to the privacy of my own bedroom and the stage. With the music of these popular records, we would dance out of our small, frightened lives into worlds of fantasy where a teacher could become a queen and a nanny was a magical witch. We’d polka around the prairies of Oklahoma, and march to the tune of 76 trombones, then cry with loss and grieving from Carousel.
Records are now replaced by CDs, which are being replaced by MP3 and digital music, but the memory of knowing exactly where the skips were on the record, and being ready for them, fills my memories. I remember putting pennies carefully balanced on the needle arm to force the needle not to skip, and even sitting with my father listening to hours of Bill Cosby stories, memorized with the skips in the stories.
The sounds of the scratchy records we brought by the bag full from the thrift shops filled my ears and tears poured. I pulled myself together to photograph these broken records in the mud, and knew that the storm surge of emotion from Hurricane Katrina was now smashing into me.