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Rescuers pass dead to reach the living

BILOXI: Gone are lives and livelihoods, ripping the gambling-dependent economy to shreds.

Published August 30, 2005

BILOXI - Richard Wright saw it when the waters subsided. Coming downstairs from an attic where he rode out Katrina, his 90-year-old neighbor lay dead in the living room.

Joseph Waldrop saw it while walking. A man lay dead on Oak Street, he said. "The police covered him up and kept going."

Landon Williams saw it as he swam away from his apartment building, which crumbled with at least 30 tenants still trapped inside.

"You could hear the big pieces of wood cracking and breaking apart," he said.

Many of those who survived Katrina were the first to witness the death it brought to Mississippi's third-largest city and to the state's crippled gulf coast. On Tuesday, officials put the toll at more than 100 dead and said it easily could rise.

"We are very, very worried that this is going to go a lot higher," said Joe Spraggins, civil defense director for Harrison County, home to the casino-filled town of Biloxi, population 50,000.

"We're just estimating, but the number could go double or triple from what we're talking now."

The Sun Herald of Gulfport reported that hearses and trucks were lining up Tuesday morning as workers began to pull bodies from the rubble in a five-block area of East Biloxi.

The biggest known cluster of deaths from Katrina is thought to have been at the apartment building that collapsed before Williams' eyes.

The widening tragedy is a rude twist of fate for a city that has prospered for more than a dozen years from casino gaming, which proved to be Mississippi's salvation after the oil industry collapse ravaged its economy in the 1980s.

Casino revenues have fueled massive growth in jobs and property values, which in turn have lowered taxes and brought in more money for schools and city services. Visitors to Biloxi now number up to 12-million a year, compared to 1-million before the casinos arrived.

Mayor A.J. Holloway said in his state of the city address earlier this year that Biloxi enjoys a heady renaissance that rivals any period in its history.

Or at least it did.

On Tuesday, Holloway was calling Katrina "our tsunami."

In addition to taking lives, the storm took livelihoods, ripping the city's gambling-dependent economy to shreds.

Almost all of the Biloxi's waterfront casinos were destroyed by Katrina's 40-foot storm surge and winds topping 100 mph.

The storm lifted the Grand Casino barge from its spot on the Mississippi Sound and pushed it across Highway 90, where it was left teetering over the roadway.

From the air, a collapsed bridge next to the riverfront casinos appeared like a string of fallen dominoes.

The Palace Casino was sunk. The Casino Magic Biloxi, a 23-story tower with panoramic views of the Gulf Coast, was missing sections. Another gambling boat had become a wrecking ball, crumpling the Isle of Capri Casino Resort's pink parking garage.

The $235-million Hard Rock Biloxi Hotel, scheduled to open next month, seemed fine from the front. Its 112-foot sign shaped like a Peavey guitar was standing straight up.

But the rear of the hotel had caved and tumbled into the Gulf in a pile of rubble.

The sight brought tears to many residents as they strolled down the formerly bustling tourist thoroughfare and stopped to gape at the shells of twisting wires and broken pipes.

"This place was just beautiful. You could take a nap on the carpets and the chandeliers were out of this world," said resident Louise Ross of the Grand Casino. "They always said they didn't know if these casinos would hold up in a storm. I guess now they know."

Like hundreds who wandered Biloxi's streets in a daze early Tuesday morning, Ross said she'd lost everything. Her house was just a block away from where the Grand Casino came to rest after the storm.

Ross, 55, made it to safety before it was hit but now all she has left is a concrete slab and a small square of water soaked carpet to sleep on.

"We've just got to thank God for what we have left and take it day by day," she said.

A few blocks away, Mike Sekul searched a mountain of bricks, broken glass and splintered boards in his bare feet for a pair of shoes that might fit.

Sekul, 50, lost his shoes as Katrina's 20-foot high waters sucked him out of the window of his house. He and his wife managed to survive after they grabbed onto a small boat that floated by during the heaviest part of the storm.

"We just grabbed that sucker and held on for dear life," Sekul said. "But we lost everything else along the way."

Sekul and several others tried to scavenge clean water from the nearby Palace Casino but were turned away by Biloxi police officers who rushed in to guard what was left of the gambling hall.

Sporadic looting was reported across Biloxi early Tuesday as residents who braved the storm grabbed food supplies from bombed-out stores along Division Street.

Slot machines tumbled onto Biloxi's once scenic Casino Row, and some people examined them Tuesday to see if they still contained coins.

Aerial views showed the devastation even more. The storm surge ate up two city blocks of beachfront in Biloxi. A riverboat casino with a pink roof rested a block on land. What seemed to be a seaside apartment complex had been moved sideways.

Elsewhere, city blocks were tossed together in broken pieces like mixed salad. Oil or gasoline spilled from a refinery nearby into the water. The smell of fuel rose thickly several hundred feet into the air.

Ida Punzo rode out the storm with a friend and two neighbors in her 130-year-old home on the beachfront in Biloxi. The first two floors were almost gone, but she survived.

"It was a miracle," Punzo said. "This place is held together with God's spit. We're not supposed to be alive."

This report used information from Associated Press and Sun Herald in Gulfport.

[Last modified August 30, 2005, 21:44:02]

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