Flyovers Show Wide Extent of Katrina's Damage

Robert Siegel talks with Coyt Bailey, helicopter pilot for Mercury Aviation, a company that is hired out by WLBT-TV in Jackson, Miss., about the devastation from the hurricane in Gulfport, Miss. He flew over the Gulf Cost of Mississippi Tuesday.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Katrina has moved on; it's now a tropical depression spinning over Indiana. But in Louisiana and Mississippi, the damage the storm did as a hurricane is being described as catastrophic.

SIEGEL: Preliminary damage estimates are coming in as high as $26 billion. More than two million people are without electricity and phone lines throughout Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. The American Red Cross says it has mobilized thousands of volunteers. Spokesman Bradley Hague says it is the largest single mobilization that the organization has done for any single natural disaster.

BLOCK: Search-and-rescue efforts by boats and helicopters have been under way all day throughout the region. In New Orleans, two levees have been breached, allowing water from Lake Pontchartrain to flood most of the city. The mayor says 80 percent of the city is under water.

SIEGEL: Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco says there is a shortage of necessities in New Orleans, such as drinkable water.

Governor KATHLEEN BLANCO (Democrat, Louisiana): There's no water. There was a 50-inch main that severed in the city. In many, many neighborhoods, there are no passable streets. You cannot drive on streets there's so much water on them. And there's no food to be had.

SIEGEL: Mississippi bore the brunt of the hurricane. Governor Haley Barbour spoke a short time ago to reporters in a conference call. He says he is shocked by the destruction of the cities along the coast: Gulfport, Biloxi and Bay Saint Louis.

Governor HALEY BARBOUR (Republican, Mississippi): It was worst than I anticipated. It was more widespread than I anticipated. It's just simply the totality of the destruction, so many places where a home had been and there was nothing but a slab that looked like it had been swept with a broom. Just nothing, nothing left, and it was block after block after block. And when you think it was going to run out and it be four or five damaged houses in three or four blocks, you thought, well, you kind of come to the end of it, then the next 15 blocks, there'd be nothing.

SIEGEL: There have been varying reports on the death toll. Governor Barbour says as many as 80 people have dead in one county alone. Homes and businesses were crushed; roads and bridges were washed away. Coyt Bailey is a helicopter pilot for WLBT television. He flew over the area today and he described what he saw.

Mr. COYT BAILEY (WLBT Helicopter Pilot): The port of Gulfport sits just south of Gulfport and juts out into the Gulf. And it--a large amount of goods come into that port, and there was a lot of containers, 18-wheeler containers, that were sitting in warehouses along the dock. And it had just destroyed all of the dock and washed all of those containers back into the downtown area. Everything that was within a quarter-mile of the beach has just either been leveled or destroyed or just consumed with water. It was just amazing.

Some of the casinos right there in the Gulfport area--they are floating casinos; they're actually out on the water. It had picked the casinos up and moved them back over Highway 90 and just dropped them on top of houses. And it was just staggering the damage that we saw.

SIEGEL: And the center, the downtown of the city itself?

Mr. BAILEY: It's suffered extensive damage. It looked like some of the buildings up to the second and third floors had a tremendous amount of damage, probably--I'm estimating--anywhere from a 15-foot to 30-foot storm surge coming through that area. So the first and second floors of every building were just gutted.

SIEGEL: Take us back a little bit here. For those of us who haven't been to Gulfport, Mississippi, in the best of times, what would you see from the air? What kind of a town is it? How big a place has been devastated by this storm?

Mr. BAILEY: It's one of the largest metropolitan areas in the state of Mississippi, and it's a fairly highly developed corridor that runs along the Gulf Coast along Highway 90. There's been a lot of gaming development, so there's a lot of casinos right along the coast there. And so it's a very developed area.

It's also a very historic area, and there's a lot of antebellum, old homes along the area. It's just a beautiful stretch of coastline. It's one of the longest highways that's along a white sand beach in the Gulf area, and it's just a--has been a beautiful stretch of coastline. And it's just been--it's not the same place it was two days ago.

SIEGEL: We heard a description of antebellum houses in Pascagoula just having been just washed away, just disappeared.

Mr. BAILEY: There was a long stretch of those homes between Long Beach and Gulfport. I was actually down there on business last Friday and drove along Highway 90 with no indication that this storm was on the way. And I looked at the same homes that I had seen just last Friday and there was nothing left but the foundation. And these were homes that have weathered, you know, dozens of hurricanes and they were no more.

SIEGEL: Of course, all of what used to be the walls of all of these houses and warehouses and structures doesn't just disappear. There must be a tremendous amount of debris all over the place.

Mr. BAILEY: The debris loads seem to be deposited about anywhere from a quarter-mile to a half-mile off the beach, and it was just tremendous. It covered homes and it looked like it was probably 10 feet to 15 feet deep of just boards and insulation and shingles and roofs and cars and casino parts. It was just a huge amount of debris scattered all the way along the coastline running east and west anywhere from, you know, about a half-mile in from the actual beach.

SIEGEL: Well, Coyt Bailey, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. BAILEY: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Coyt Bailey, helicopter pilot, speaking to us from Jackson, Mississippi. He flies for the local TV station, WLBT.

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