"They said I needed to get out, and that's what I did," said Tony Porter, who says he owned a photo and camera repair shop not too far off the northeast section of Magazine Street in New Orleans. Porter, who was passing through Jackson on the way to a friend's house in Memphis, speaks of his small, young business in the past tense as he sits at a Phillips 66 gas station in North Jackson.
He had been sitting in a car line for well over an hour, waiting for the half-mile tally of expectant drivers to shrink enough for him to have his own turn at the gas pump.
"I haven't been able to reach any of my friends back there who stayed," Porter said. "Their cell phones don't seem to work anymore, and I don't think the land lines are working, either. I'm really worried about them."
Porter chokes back a tear when he confesses that he knows his embryonic business, only five months old, is standing underwater. "I've heard the news. When that levee broke, I knew it was going to be bad, but I didn't ever expect to see pictures like what I've seen," he said.
The New Orleans man is one of the countless refugees fleeing the picturesque city, with its sprawling live oak trees, ancient architecture, seductive atmosphere and macabre history. All of that lies beneath the waters of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain now. Last Tuesday, after Hurricane Katrina moseyed slowly past with its 145-mph winds, sections of two levees burst, spilling water into the streets, flooding sewer systems and inundating an estimated 80 percent of the city in disease-ridden brackish water. The water went where gravity took it. Much of the city lies below sea level.
"I don't think there's anything there to go home to anymore," Porter said, wiping his eyes. "I don't think home is there anymore."
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin predicted that deaths might number in the thousands. "We know there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water, and other people dead in attics," Nagin told the Associated Press, adding when prodded that deaths could be: "Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands."
"I thought we'd gotten away from the worst of it," Porter said, wiping a sweaty head in the Jackson heat. "A lot of my friends said they weren't even leaving, since it didn't look like it was coming straight for us. It didn't really hit us, head on. Not really. I'm afraid most of them might still be down there trying to get out. I can't talk to them. I'm going crazy."
Gov. Haley Barbour spoke about the tragedy Tuesday from the National Guard Facility on Riverside. With eyes watering, Barbour, fresh from a visit to the region, spoke solemnly of washed-out highways and devastated areas extending as far inland as the CSX railroad tracks, a rail line that even the terrific devastation of 1969's Camille did not reach. Barbour also spoke of whole towns further inland swept away by monster wind gusts into nothingness.
"There is no description for the amount of destruction this hurricane has done," Barbour said. "It may take this state years to recover." When asked how Barbour managed to stave off emotion at the Aug. 30 press conference, Barbour said: "Well, you gotta put your best foot forward. You just gottaÉ" and then his words trailed off into uncertainty.
Whole-scale destruction engulfed beachfront property that only days ago offered a high-end view of the ocean that ultimately destroyed them. Casinos, floating just off the Coast on Legislature-stipulated barges, were carried inland by the enormous swell of Katrina and deposited either on or across U.S. 90.
Treasure Bay's pirate ship is now beached like a sunken husk. Grand Casino Biloxi washed across U.S. 90. The Copa Casino barge in Gulfport now sits beside a parking garage. Even the western Grand Casino barge is blocking U.S. 90.
Mere days ago, an enormous rally sporting more than 3,000 concerned residents, legislators, business representatives and conservationists filled the Biloxi Coliseum, demanding that gas drilling be restricted within 12 nautical miles of the Mississippi Barrier Islands, for fear of cutting the astounding view with drilling rigs. Their concerns, and the desires of the oil companies to pull an estimated $250 million from the Barrier Islands, are all put on a very severe hold this week.
"We don't even know if the Barrier Islands survived this thing," said Louis Miller, director of the Mississippi Sierra Club. "Camille, when it came through, it cut Ship Island in two. I'm curious as to how much damage this damn thing did. It was such a big storm. I'm dumbfounded by it."
Fear and anger are following the sense of awe in some cases. The editorial board at the Sun-Herald, in Biloxi, fears that help may not be arriving for the Gulf city in adequate time.
"Whatever plans that were in place to deal with such a natural disaster have proven inadequate. Perhaps destruction on this scale could not have been adequately prepared for," The (Biloxi) Sun-Herald wrote in a desperate editorial posted online Wednesday, asking "why hasn't every able-bodied member of the armed forces in South Mississippi been pressed into service."
"We need the president to back up his declaration of a disaster with a declaration of every man and woman under his command will do whatever is necessary to deal with that disaster. We need the governor to provide whatever assistance is at his command," the editorial board pled.
Barbour insists, however, that the governor's office and the state of Mississippi, along with other states, are doing all they can considering the amount of destruction.
"This is the worst natural disaster in the history of the country," Barbour said at an Aug. 31 press conference, explaining that search-and-rescue procedures, by nature, are slow. "(Search and rescue teams) have not been able to get into every house. In some rural areas, they haven't even been able to get into those vicinities, but search and rescue is going on night and day all over the Coast. É We have a problem with our inability to communicate, but every pile of debris is being searched and it's going on all over the coast." He said he would probably be telling Mississippians to be patient regarding relief and repairs for the rest of his term.
Damage from the storm easily reached the city of Jackson, with downed power lines initially knocking out more than 92 percent of the city's electricity.
Jackson Mayor Frank Melton told the media Wednesday that he estimated costs for cleanup and repairs to run well into the millions of dollars. Melton set a midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew in the city, saying it would remain in effect until he felt comfortable all the city streets were clear of debris and downed wires.
Tempers flared frequently at gas pumps. Most stations have gasoline, but only a few citywide had the electricity to pump it up out of the ground. Lines at some stations stretched into the distance.
"They need to be making these motherf**kers have a 10-gallon gas limit," shouted Jay Fulman, who sat in the 90-plus degree heat at a Conoco station on Lakeland Drive. "I don't know why they don't make them do that, because this don't make no sense!"
"I'm afraid that any casualties we have from Hurricane Katrina might come from rage," said Council President Marshand Crisler. "There's a lot of hot tempers going on, with the long gas lines and the power outages, but I'm confident that the power situation is going to be up and running in a relatively short period of time. It seems like they're working fairly fast."
See the JFP's KatrinaBlog here.
Frank Melton also said he could take in 25 families at his Jackson home. Does anyone know how many- if any- Melton has taken in? Just curious.
How would anyone know? They are locking mediaóand not just usóout of city disaster briefing meetings. And from my understanding, Mr. Melton is not attending those meetings.
And it's great that Mr. Melton is taking in some families, but there is a whole city out here waiting to be led and told exactly what is going on. Where is the leadership? Where is the coordination? Where is MY phone ringing off the hook from people who have no idea how to get food and such to local refugees who need it? (No, don't tell us to go on the Red Cross Web site). Why are people calling US to try to confirm what is true and what isn't about all the rumors swirling about the gas shortages? Could it be because the city is not treating other citizens any better than it is treating us?
Mr. Melton needs to get organized, pay attention, attend meetings, open them to the public and coordinate the information this capital city needs right now.
And that is the friggin' bottom line.
I am so angry and sad by the lack of leadership here with Melton, Barbour, Bush. You are right, it is chaotic. I just took supplies to Ascension Lutheran Church for the coast. But it is just unfathomable that Bush has ignored the pleas for help from Louisiana and the gulf coast. Where's pork chop Barbour? Why are babies dying of dehydration? That is what is happening.
We need to create our own leadership somehow - and deal with these lousy politicians later.
I knew you would be on the job, by the way. Thank goodness for JFP!
I am going to call the mayor's office (Melton) tomorrow and ask why the media is being excluded from city disaster briefings. This is an outrage.
One of the things getting under my skin is price gouging. I think there should be a boycott of those businesses.
Another thing is definitely the treatment of those still in New Orleans. It is a complete disgrace. I felt like I was watching footage from Sudan.