God's Country: Katrina Sows Uncertainty In The Eye of The Storm | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

God's Country: Katrina Sows Uncertainty In The Eye of The Storm


This story appeared five years ago in the days after Hurricane Katrina as many Gulf Coast residents sat waiting for help

Brian Moliere thought he could ride out the storm. He had before, even during Hurricane Camille, the big one. Like too many other Coast residents, when he heard Katrina was hurling toward his big house in his little town of Waveland, where he lives on Coleman Avenue about a block from the ocean, he figured he could just go upstairs into the attic and be above the high water mark.

Nothing could be worse than Camille. Besides, he swam out of that storm, as his family had been doing for years all the way back to the famous no-name storm of 1947. His mother, Jane, swam out of that one.

As Katrina approached, Moliere, 50, and his little ""fat Chihuahua," Rocky, 6, headed upstairs. His mother, in her 80s, had gone to stay with his brother on higher ground in Bay St. Louis, three miles east, the county seat of Hancock County.

"The wind started blowing," Moliere recalled nine days later, standing on the slab that used to be his house, amid mountains of rubble that could now pass for the Waveland junkyard. The sound was deafening, and the water started rising fast with a 30-foot surge brought in by the violent winds. Suddenly, he heard wood breaking apart down below him.

"It blew out the walls," he said. "So I started floating with my little dog." He wasn't really swimming, just trying to keep Rocky's head above the water. "I don't know how I held onto him," the tan, muscular survivor said, sipping from a can of beer.

"I was trying to find the quickest way to safety. It was terrible. I was right at the tree line. I was as high as that flagpole," he said, pointing. At one point, he was thrown into a tree, but bounced back into the water, unlike some of the bodies that were later found tangled in trees, barely recognizable as human, coated with mud.

The water carried Moliere 800 feet toward the railroad track at Central Avenue, he said, pointing past pile after pile of debris where the peppy Waveland business strip used to be. A coffee shop. An antiques store. A pottery shop. Everything in shards.

Days later, he was sleeping under a big tent on the slab, collecting whatever he could retrieve for his neighbors who came regularly to see what he had found. Several male friends kept vigil with him; they had lost their homes, too.

Moliere seemed lucky--except that, like many residents of Waveland and Bay St. Louis these days, there were more layers to his story. He just took his time to peel them away.

His mother, who was confined to a wheelchair, drowned when she couldn't get out of the Bay St. Louis house. "They swam out. She couldn't do it," Moliere said, seeming to swallow his pain in heavy gulps to keep from crying, tears glistening amid his tanned, weathered face.

The day before, he had buried her. "We lost everything: our homes, our cars, a whole way of life," he said, looking away.

'Nothing of Value Left'

Description usually comes easy to me. The most poignant and colorful paraphernalia tend to pop out from whatever scene is waiting to be brought to life.

Not on the Coast. Not now. There is no camera powerful enough or words descriptive enough. Waveland and Bay St. Louis, anywhere within probably 10 blocks or more of the ocean, looked like they were carpet-bombed and then flattened by a huge steamroller. The layers of destruction are many.

There was junk, and death, and rank odor, and sadness, and despair everywhere. Slabs and high-water marks, family photos floating in the ocean, cars in swimming pools, everything imaginable left tangled together in battered trees. As I drove and walked down street after street devoured by the wrath of Katrina, I looked for something, anything that said what needed to be said.

It was the wheelchairs. Everywhere I went, I saw a wheelchair. Some of the tools of assistance were in pristine shape, others mangled, some overturned, floating, hanging from a tree limb. They were in rich white neighborhoods, poor black ones. One was sitting on the second floor of St. Stanislaus College with a flattened SUV of some sort lodged into the floor just below it, the wall missing, recalling the image of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, ripped open to reveal its innards.

Driving through Waveland after leaving Moliere, every street between there and "the Bay," as Bay St. Louis is lovingly called, was totally annihilated. Some folks had propped family photos proudly in front of their former homes; others had spray-painted warnings against would-be looters: "Nothing of value left."

We passed the fenced Alcan Cable lot on Central Avenue where Moliere's friends had told us the troops were taking the bodies as they found them. Sure enough, there were five refrigerated tractor trailers lined up with signs like "Rent Me" and "Thermo King" on their ends. They sat in front of a row of camouflaged amphibious Army trucks, as I learned that day they're called. Inside the fenced lot, where troops were being housed, several Army guys were rinsing their t-shirts in a big tub and then hanging them over the fence to dry.

'Just Let Me Drown'

Isaac Davensborough's daughter and her husband live in a stucco house on the "high side" of Ballentine Street in Bay St. Louis, around the corner from where he was born on Caron Lane in 1937. "I'll be 60 in November if I live," Davensborough said, sitting in front of the house as the light faded on Sept. 7.

Davensborough, known as "Guitar Bo" when he performs with his wife "Miss Dee" at nightspots along the Coast, has lived in Bay St. Louis his entire life and doesn't plan to leave. "It's God's Country here," he said.

But Katrina challenged the faith of God's Country. Guitar Bo was one of the locals who had faith that he didn't have to leave because, after all, he hadn't left during Camille. "I figured it'd be the same," he said, sitting in front of several late-model vehicles, none of which work anymore due to floating amid the storm surge. "I've been in hurricanes here since '47."

The family--his daughters and their husbands, grandkids--had gathered on the "high ground" to weather the storm. Then the water started to rise.

"It was up to the rim," he said, pointing to a van in front of the house. "Then it was over the rim. We knew we had to do something." They decided to break into the attic. They had to chisel a hole in the ceiling to get through and then lift each other up. At one point, Guitar Bo didn't think he'd make it. "I told them, 'I'm pooped out. Just let me drown.'" But the family pulled him up anyway, then huddled together for hours in the hot attic, waiting for the water to recede.

In what would be a recurring theme from tragedy-weary victims on the Coast, the rest of the story didn't come until we'd talked for a while. First, I learned that Guitar Bo and Miss D's four-room shotgun house on Caron Avenue was completely flattened, like most of the houses on the majority-black streets, and the white ones, that butted up against the former riches of Beach Boulevard, where the rich, historic houses went down, too.

Katrina was an equal-opportunity tragedy.

Finally, Guitar Bo got around to mentioning that two of his cousins drowned during the hurricane, also on Caron. "We were lucky," he said, pointing to the sturdy salmon-colored stucco that stands in sharp contrast to the thin wooden houses lying in pieces all around him. He said the days since have been fairly peaceful, although he had seen the white kids the next street over looting, stealing bicycles.

Guitar Bo says it took a few days for help to start coming in, but then the National Guard came, and many church groups and such were offering free food and water. Farm Bureau Insurance, he said, is paying them about $8,000 for their losses.

Mostly, though, they'd heard rumors about what the authorities might do to help them. "Someone said the government might come through and bulldoze the houses. My wife said they might give us a place, but I'd prefer assistance," he said. "We don't want nothing no more than we had. ... We heard FEMA might give us something."

Guitar Bo said he's learned not to assume he's seen the worst. 'I tell you what, I'm not going to stay here no more for a hurricane. You're never too old to learn," he said.

'Hellhole of a Town'

After Katrina, Waveland native Barbara Ambrose started getting around by bicycle mostly, as many residents are doing. Now a Bay St. Louis resident--with family strewn from there to Slidell, La.--Ambrose seems a bit shell-shocked about what has happened to her home region.

"My mother lives in Slidell. Her house flooded. My son's house is gone. My daughter rented a house that got eight feet of water," she said.

Ambrose's family is safe, however; they evacuated Sunday morning about 6:30; they hadn't sensed urgency from authorities before that, she said. "We thought we'd see where it was going and then decide." However, a friend called and said, 'Get out. Get out now.' She said there was very little traffic on the highways when they left. The mandatory evacuation wasn't announced there, she said, until about 7 p.m. Sunday.

"I have friends who stayed and died," she said matter-of-factly, as if the news was old by then.

Her family came back Thursday to what she now calls "this hellhole of a town." They found everything covered with very dirty--maybe toxic--mud and people all over the place homeless and frustrated. "There is nowhere to live unless you find someone to take you in," she said, showing exasperation and anger. "We're not seeing a lot of help. We're isolated here."

Indeed, part of the Bay's charm is that it's hidden between the Bay of St. Louis and the west side of the Gulf Coast--a small hamlet of 8,000 or so people. Because it shared the eye of the storm with surrounding towns like Waveland and Lake Shore a bit farther to the west, it had limited routes in and out. The Bay Bridge was obliterated, as was Beach Boulevard. The roads from the north, including Highway 603, were dotted with debris and errant cars.

Such roadblocks seemed to keep much assistance and media coverage out of the area. Without phones, gas, homes, food and water, the people of this area were virtually stranded for several days. Very little help came in other than the private volunteers who determinedly figured out how to get into town, despite the obstacles. And there were ways in, distributed via message boards on the Biloxi Sun-Herald Web site. Still, it took days for the media to even figure out much was wrong in the small towns targeted by the direct eye of the storm.

This fact angers Bob Smith (last name changed by request). Smith works with Georgia Power doing line repair and was one of the early responders into Bay St. Louis. "We came in on 603 Tuesday," he said, while working on lines on Second Street near the St. Augustine Seminary and Grotto. "There were no National Guard, police, nothing when we came in." He added, while motioning toward the town with his head: "It just amazes me how they were neglected. The local authorities, that's where the help has been."

Friday, after the hurricane on Monday, was the first day Smith saw assistance in the area other than local ambulances and police. He is touched, he said, by how nice people have been during horrendous times, sharing with each other, regardless of race. "They're helping each other, black and white," he said. "It just amazes me."

Like many people on the Coast, Smith had tough words for FEMA's erratic behavior after the hurricane. "This is the main place the hurricane hit. Why didn't they start here first?"

As I talked to Ambrose, and then Smith, the rumor went through the neighborhood that a FEMA representative was going door to door to talk to residents, nine days after the storm. "FEMA was out here handing out flyers," Ambrose said. "With a phone number. Nice. People still have no phones." The flyers were distributed by a group of disgruntled Georgia firemen who had complained to the national media that they wanted to come south and help with emergency assistance, not hand out flyers.

The front of the flyer read: "Disaster Assistance Made Easy."

'We've Paid Our Taxes'

Susan Dahu was obsessed. She wanted FEMA to bring some sort of temporary housing to Bay St. Louis, and she wanted it then. As of Sept. 7, she and her family had been living in one of the temporary shelters, this one a senior citizen's center run by her sister, Arlene Johnson, since the storm had hit and they had to evacuate their trailer.

"We are trying to find a place to get our kids out of here," she said. "Our poor little town has been wiped slap off the face of the earth."

By then, Dahu had found the only spot on the grass where her cell phone would work--right next to the portable toilet-turned-shower--and she had camped there, dialing her phone over and over again. She was calling local, state, federal authorities--especially FEMA. Her question: "Who's going to help us get shelter?"

FEMA had trailers on their way in, she had heard--the day before, Sen. Trent Lott had dressed down the agency for not releasing them out of Atlanta--and she was trying to see where the damn things were. The forgotten towns had no temporary shelter more than a week after Katrina--no tents, trailers, campers, nothing--except for a makeshift "Camp Katrina" over in the K-Mart parking lot.

When asked if the Red Cross was there, she pointed to an empty lot across the street where a small camper was parked. Those campers were all over, she said, emphasizing that they had provided ample food and water since they had gotten there. But no shelter. As of Sept. 12, little had changed on that front, with FEMA scrambling to try to figure out where on the Coast to place temporary shelter.

Since the hurricane, Dahu's family had been collecting and distributing supplies in the center, even as the Red Cross had refused to set up shelters in Bay St. Louis or Waveland because the area is considered an unsafe flood zone. Locals were expected to get the 15 miles over to the nearest shelter at Kiln--but many simply had no way, or no gas, to get there.

Still, local residents took matters into their own hands, setting up non-sanctioned shelters like this one and the one in the Second Street Elementary School. Several residents broke into the Bay High School in desperation and set up a shelter there that housed some 1,200 people. But it was later closed due to unsanitary conditions. Still, the organizers say they had to commandeer their own shelter--because no one was helping put a roof over their heads for days.

Dahu wanted it to be clear that her family was not begging for hand-outs. "We're not asking for charity," she said. "We just want something to live in. We've paid our taxes all these years; it's time (for the government) to get off their asses and do what they ought to do. Right is right; wrong is wrong."

'Get Off Their Asses'

The four words--get off their asses--have been a common refrain in areas devastated by Katrina, where local authorities were overwhelmed and losing family members themselves and the state and federal governments were lethargic in their response. The world, by now, knows that Mayor Ray Nagin told the federal government to "get off their asses" and help New Orleans four days after the disaster. What is lesser known is that similar desperate cries for help were coming from the Mississippi Gulf Coast starting the day of the storm, when dead bodies were in trees and people stuck on rooftops.

And the help wasn-t any quicker coming in our state, either. In fact, little attention was paid to many areas along the Coast until the Sun-Herald wrote a desperate editorial, calling for the state and Washington to start responding, posted on its Web site with a headline screaming in all-caps: "MISSISSIPPI NEEDS HELP NOW." It started:

"The coastal communities of South Mississippi are desperately in need of an unprecedented relief effort. We understand that New Orleans also was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, but surely this nation has the resources to rescue both that metropolis and ours. Whatever plans that were in place to deal with such a natural disaster have proven inadequate." The paper said that essentials were missing. "We are not calling on the nation and the state to make life more comfortable in South Mississippi, we are calling on the nation and the state to make life here possible."

The paper said that "our reporters have yet to find evidence of a coordinated approach to relieve pain and hunger or to secure property and maintain order. People are hurting and people are being vandalized. Yet where is the National Guard, why hasn't every able-bodied member of the armed forces in South Mississippi been pressed into service? On Wednesday reporters listening to horrific stories of death and survival at the Biloxi Junior High School shelter looked north across Irish Hill Road and saw Air Force personnel playing basketball and performing calisthenics. "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."

Certainly, Gov. Haley Barbour toured parts of the Coast the day after, and he shed genuine tears over the devastation on the Coast. But neither his visibility, nor his close relationship with the Bush administration, translated into immediate help for the people in his state who needed it the most--or much-needed coordination. In fact, he has repeatedly praised President Bush and blamed the media for criticism of the response effort--even as people stuck without shelter on the Gulf Coast have cried out for help.

Mississippi Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, commends Barbour for "a pretty good job staying in front of the public and telling them what's going on." However, he said, the idea that Barbour was leading the way for immediate assistance for Coast residents is "a perception issue."

"Ask people down south; they still don't feel like they've seen the services they need," Moak said, pointing out that the needs of areas like Bay St. Louis and Waveland fell below the radar. And many rural counties still have gotten very little assistance, he said.

Water or Me

On Sept. 7, Hal & Mal's Restaurant owner Malcolm White, 54, stood in front of his home amid piles of destroyed belongings he had pulled out and piled on the ground--books, art, photos, a large television, his iMac with a tiny picture of his daughter, Mallory, stuck to the front. He was wearing a Jubilee! JAM muscle shirt, shorts and tall work boots to shield his feet from whatever might be lurking in the muck.

Like many Coast residents, White's problem is not that he lost his home; it's that when he returned to Bay St. Louis after the storm, he found a house full of muck--and a water line about four feet high throughout his house. And he does not have flood insurance.

"That is going to be the issue of whether people can rebuild," White said about the "wind or water" issue. That is, will insurance companies honor the hurricane coverage if the homes have water lines--indicating flooding that isn't covered in many of the policies, especially those several blocks from the waterfront, like White's home.

Inside the house, White continued his days-long chore of mopping out the four inches of mud he found when he returned. A photograph of late author Willie Morris hung on the wall behind his head in his guest room. "As usual, Willie oversaw the storm and is writing about it," he quipped. However, he added, he lost several pieces of cherished art, including a couple of Eudora Welty's photos.

White said he wasn't upset with disaster response since his return several days after Katrina, and he seemed a bit Zen about the mess he had found. However, he anticipates a rise in blood pressure if his insurance adjuster tries to tell him his house flooded without the help of wind and, thus, they cannot pay. "Well, talk to me after my insurance and FEMA requests are denied," he said.

At that point, White said, it is up to the federal government to intercede and help the people of the Coast rebuild and recoup their losses. "It's a lot to fathom that there could ever be a community here again," he said, "but anywhere that there's money and will, it can happen."

"Both are possible here," he added.

Barbara Ambrose isn't so optimistic. She said many people believe that the government is ignoring them on purpose.

"We're feeling that they don't really want people to stay here, that the conditions are so bad that they prefer that people leave." She does agree that the future of the area depends on elected officials.

"I think people expect government to take over," she said, shaking her head. "And a lot of people have just fallen through the cracks."

Previous Comments


White said, it is up to the federal government to intercede and help the people of the Coast rebuild and recoup their losses. I have a pretty cynical view of what might happen. The feds will probably let the middle-class Mississippians lose their homes and the rich, politically connected opportunists will take over and make a combo of Vegas and Clearwater Beach out of the gulf coast.


Rumors are already going around the Coast that FEMA are offering people bargain-basement prices for their land to sell for developers. Rumor.


Today, The Clarion-Ledger is running a story about the small towns on the Coastóbyb a Gannett News Service reporter. My understanding is that their main reporter on the Katrina beat has barely left the Jackson office, mostly reporting by phone. They've had some great photographs, though, from the Coast.

Todd Stauffer

BTW, that last post is by "ladd," not "todds." For some reason, I'm signed in on his account. Oops. ó Donna

Todd Stauffer

Leaving the Hattiesburg shelter by Cheri Herrboldt Tomorrow I'm leaving to return home. I am mentally and physically exhausted. All I can think of is having the opportunity to sleep. After spending the day at another Red Cross service center, I returned to Hattiesburg to "outprocess." Their question to me was, "Would you be willing to continue to do disaster relief with the Red Cross? Why or Why Not?" The Katrina relief response has been a massive effort. It takes an incredible number of volunteers and time to travel all over the Gulf area to provide residents with relief assistance. At times it has felt chaotic, unorganized, and crazy. The chaos and craziness comes from the intense need. However, when you see the devastation and hear the stories of this hurricane's survivors, one becomes compelled to help and respond in little and big ways - and it still feels that it's not enough. In serving, I have continued to learn about racial relations, power issues, entitlement, and hierarchy. I have learned once again how fragile our lives are, how to recognize each person's gifts, and how to lovingly serve those who are different from me politically, ethnically, spiritually, and racially. Yes, I would definitely do this again, if only to experience and understand the depth of love people are capable of giving and receiving. Cheri Herrboldt is a Red Cross volunteer chaplain from Hyattsville, Maryland, who spent two weeks at shelters in Mississippi.


There are hardly adequate words to describe the devastation, both physical and mental, that is endemic on the Coast. I live and work in Gulfport now - thankful that God has looked after me and my family. My house was damaged (I used to live on Second Street until April - that house is destroyed) but is certainly livable. My job has changed somewhat, instead of commuting to Stennis each day, I am doing my work in Gulfport - my wife likes that a lot... People are working to rebuild - I can't speak for everyone of course, but I believe the future of the Coast is bright - gonna take about 3 years for things to get settled and rebuilt, but come on down in 2008 and you will be impressed. I understand from the radio that we'll have a monorail down here (additional mass transit is long overdue in my opinion) and the main roads have traffic lights going up every day. Traffic is horrible, but manageable. Stores are opening back up - there are a few places to go eat out - but certainly not the variety of pre-storm times - that will take a long time... At any rate, things are looking up on the Coast - overall. There are personal tragedies in everyone's experience; but, I hope that focusing on the positive aspects of what can be achieved in rebuilding the Coast will remind us that the human spirit can be downtrodden and beat down, but invariably rises again and again, stronger than before.


Thanks for the update, Fielding, and glad you're OK. Welcome back. I hear you on the monorail; here's to hoping that the rebuilding will be even better, which includes more mass transit.


Would everyone who believes this latest FEMA crock o' crap please raise your hand? Note that Rep. Gene Taylor's hand is most certainly not in the air: The new Federal Emergency Management Agency director on Wednesday praised the prompt response by Mississippi and federal emergency officials to Hurricane Katrina. "We're so impressed with the state we're using it as a model (for future disasters)," said R. David Paulson, at a news conference in Jackson. "It was something we've not seen in a long time. There was a unified system and the sharing of information." Reached in Washington, 4th District U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor responded: "I hope he's not calling it a model when local responders have to loot grocery stores to get their food. ... It's certainly not a model." Taylor, the Democratic congressman who lost his Bay St. Louis home in the storm, said many people on the Coast remain upset with FEMA. "A heck of a lot of people have not seen a FEMA agent," he said. "When they call, the line is busy." Taylor found it incredulous FEMA officials passed out brochures with the toll-free number to people with no working phones, he said. "I hope he's not calling that a model. If so, he's as out of touch as the guy he replaced." Full story


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