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Hurricane Katrina

'Nothing but sticks'

Fifty miles east of New Orleans, Katrina has wiped out the coastal town of Waveland, Miss., population 7,000.

Published September 3, 2005

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Multimedia: Continuing fallout
Storm Watch blog

WAVELAND, Miss. - City Hall is gone.

The post office is gone.

The restaurants, the condos, the houses. Gone, gone, gone.

In this coastal town of about 7,000 people, on a wide swath of land that stretches about a mile up from the Gulf of Mexico, almost everything south of the railroad tracks is gone.

And the great big homes right on the beach? There's hardly any debris. Hurricane Katrina sheared them off their foundations and swept the remnants somewhere between here and U.S. 90, about 3 miles north.

On Coleman Avenue, which was the main drag, Brian Mollere, 50, a lifelong Wavelander, has set up camp on the white-tiled slab that used to be his house. He has a white tent, a red wagon and a Chihuahua named Rocky. Mollere didn't leave for Katrina, and he's not leaving now.

"We don't know any other place," he said Thursday evening.

His buddy pointed up and down the street.

This was Waveland, Orville Ferrell said. "Right here. What you see."

Up and down Coleman, there were shreds of wind-whipped, water-logged clothes and pieces of plastic bags stuck to branches of downed trees, tattered sweaters in twisted bits of chain-link fence, pieces of toilets, piles of cinder blocks and wood, a gray Crown Victoria half-buried in mud, printers and couches and chairs and a glass vase that might have come from someone's living room.

Closer to the tracks, the old yellow-bricked Waveland School was still recognizable. So was the blue-roofed library.

After that, though, Coleman Avenue looks like a cross between a lumber yard and a garbage dump. "Nothing but sticks," said Doug Wagner, 32. He was coming down Coleman trying to find a cell phone signal closer to the beach.

He started pointing. "That was Rickey's Bar and Grill," he said. That was Dempsey's, a steak and catfish place, and Ashman Realty and Peterman's Grocery.

Ferrell walked over to an 8-by-12 steel beam. He said it was from the American Legion behind the post office. "You tell me," he said, "what bends that like that?"

This town, about 50 miles east of New Orleans, was the kind of place that still had a drugstore that wasn't a CVS, where the men call the women ma'am or miss, and where it's not unusual for someone to be born here and live and die here.

Mollere's uncle built the building he lived in. Ferrell's family has been here for 140 years. Storm stories are passed down from one generation to the next: the '47 hurricane, Betsy in '65, Camille in '69.

But nothing was quite like Katrina, they said.

The storm hit Monday morning. Power was out by 5, and the eye hit about 9. No one could get to Waveland on Tuesday. On Wednesday, most of the streets still weren't passable.

By Thursday, though, when the first search-and-rescue crews reached the area south of the tracks, the magnitude of the disaster began to show itself.

The tally of confirmed dead in Hancock County was 22 Thursday night. It's a number that seems impossibly low.

On the drive in on Thursday, on Interstate 10 and State Road 603, more than three days after the storm, there was a refrigerator on the interstate, a shed in the breakdown lane on 603, cars flipped over and on their sides, all sorts of boats and RVs flung into deep, soggy ditches on the side of the road.

There's a developing tent city in the Kmart parking lot.

People are pushing shopping carts up and down U.S. 90.

Across Highway 90, though, then across the tracks, the devastation grows: whole hunks of houses thrown about, a roof here, a buckled wall there. And then it gets really bad.

On Sunday, Henry DeValle, 58, a retired postal carrier-turned-local cop, went door to door south of the tracks with other officers, basically telling people to leave or die.

On Monday, he said, he was in water for close to seven hours all the way up at the police station on Highway 90, hanging onto the roof of the generator shack to keep from getting carried north at first, then south, when all the water started to pull back toward the gulf.

On Thursday, he was helping a cleanup crew of 30 deputies from Florida's Orange County who arrived here late Wednesday. The group was looking for guns, DeValle said, so people wouldn't find them in any potential looting.

"But mainly bodies," DeValle said. "That's what we're after. We'll find some of them when they start to smell, which is a horrible way to say it, but . . .."

By Friday morning, search-and-rescue teams were here from Fort Payne, Ala.; Montgomery County, Md.; and four counties in Florida.

Camouflage-colored Humvees carrying military police rolled slowly around the streets.

Power trucks were mobilizing: Mississippi Power, Georgia Power, Southern Power out of Atlanta.

Chainsaws buzzed in the distance.

Yellow backhoes and front-end loaders started to push all the stuff into big piles.

A red and white Red Cross helicopter flew overhead.

Down on the ground, a pack of 13 geese waddled around the soggy grass, pecking at it for food, honking at each other and craning their necks to look around.

The water was still. The waves were soft.

A bearded man named Bill LaPrime, 66, came riding down Beach Boulevard on a red, child-sized bike. He introduced himself as Wild Bill.

He had his cell phone. He was getting a signal, he said, but no calls would go out. Busy, busy, always a busy signal.

"Nobody knows if I'm alive or dead," he said.

He spent the storm in Diamondhead, a town north and east of here, in a Ramada Inn that was evacuated. After that, he said, he just sat in his pickup.

"I said, "If I'm going to die, I'm going to die in my truck,' " he said. "But the good Lord spared me."

Then Wild Bill started to cry.

[Last modified September 3, 2005, 01:21:10]

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