Reporter’s notebook: A Gulf Coast wasteland
October 5, 2005
No matter how many images we had digested of the devastated Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, nothing could have prepared photographer Paul Conrad and me for our entry into Pearlington, Miss., Wednesday, Sept. 28.There are certain things you take for granted living in America. When you drive into a small town one month after a natural disaster, for example, you expect to see a massive, well-orchestrated cleanup under way, with crews using heavy equipment to load big bites of debris onto departing trucks. You expect to see people fixing their damaged homes or erecting new structures and new lives.Instead we found a community that remained a wasteland. Pearlington was essentially a landfill laced with bulldozer paths through the refuse and debris.Parts of town looked like Hiroshima, where the wind didn’t just blow buildings down but blew them apart. Nothing remained but wood splinters, shingles, bits of drywall and plywood. Cars, mattresses, refrigerators, pictures, chairs, sofas and countless tons of personal belongings were scattered, like a kid got sick of a dollhouse and heaved all the furnishings aside.When homes weren’t destroyed, they were swamped by floodwater and either broken up by strong currents or rotted. Pearlington is a working-class town where modest homes were sprinkled among towering oak, pine and cypress trees about five miles off the Mississippi Sound. The storm surge sent a 20- to 30-foot wall of muddy water charging up the Pearl River and cross-country.
Stagnant water the color of amber beer lined the shoulders of some dirt side streets. A moldy smell, like the one you got when you opened an old box in your parents’ attic, pervaded the town. Sometimes your nostrils caught an unidentifiable stench, something a little like death and a little like sewage.And everywhere there was that Mississippi mud that added insult to injury by making walking and driving a little more difficult.The town seemed deserted when we first got out of our rented truck to see what remained of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, rectory and parish center. We could hear the distant drone of construction equipment. Occasionally a construction trailer would pass by, hauling debris out or bringing supplies in.As we drove around town, we noticed more signs of life. The few people who we could see from the main drag had set up makeshift camps on their property. They did their best to keep some semblance of home by using tents and tarps. Home now resembled a hunters’ camp.As we would learn over the next few days, they were doing the only thing they could – waiting. They were waiting for a green light from insurance adjusters so they could scrap or rebuild their homes. They were waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deliver trailers where they could temporarily live. They were waiting for the overburdened Hancock County government to start cleaning more than just the roads. In some cases, they were waiting for someone to tell them how to proceed with their lives, how to get their feet back on the ground.
The only remaining center of Pearlington’s universe was the Charles Murphy Elementary School, where a new distribution center/medical clinic/shelter/cafeteria has been established. That’s where supplies from the Roaring Fork Valley and scores of other sites across the country were delivered and then distributed to people in need.The site was like a fairgrounds where people, both black and white, greeted one another like long-lost friends – or like people who had shared a catastrophe. But joy often succumbed to resignation or frustration at this gathering place. These were people who had endured deplorable conditions for a month and were facing an uncertain future.That night, when we camped at Hancock County’s Emergency Operations Center in nearby Kiln, I couldn’t help feeling we were witnessing the apocalypse, at least of South Mississippi. It was bleak. People were frustrated and grief-stricken. Pearlington’s recovery seemed like a lost cause.But in the following days, the Southern hospitality that defines so many of the people shined through. We met Joseph Runnels, an attorney with the state of Mississippi who was fielding citizen complaints about price-gouging for everything from gasoline to roof repairs.When Runnels heard that two guys from a newspaper in Colorado were trying to show why Pearlington needed their region’s help, he insisted we stay at his family’s home, 20 miles away in the town of Pass Christian. Their hospitality expanded the scope of our trip to South Mississippi. We toured the communities of Pass Christian, Waveland, Bay St. Louis and Diamondhead, and gained a whole new perspective on the destruction..
Pearlington was relatively rural, with homes spread out on a large, wooded lots. Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis, just 200 yards off the Mississippi Sound, were denser and more urbanized. Block after block was leveled in the commercial area of Pass Christian. Farther along the ironically named Scenic Road, grand antebellum homes were laid to waste.Everywhere we went we saw evidence of peculiar acts performed by the wind and floodwaters. Yachts were deposited in trees far from any water. The facade of a Comfort Inn was intact but the rooms, beds and interior walls were all missing. Concrete decking had been peeled off bridge foundations like the skin of a banana. Railroad tracks lay twisted like a roller coaster. Hands and heads had been torn off of religious statues. A tumbled tower of McDonald’s arches provided the only sign that a building, let alone a restaurant, once existed there.St. Paul’s Catholic parish in Pass Christian erected a banner in front of its gutted church that proclaimed “We will rebuild.” Below it someone left a pillow embroidered with the phrase, “I’d rather be in Paris.”
South Mississippi will bounce back. The level of activity by government crews and private contractors was significantly higher in the towns near Pearlington. But one month after Katrina struck, with debris still strewn across square miles of land, it’s difficult to envision the recovery.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.