Gulfport Takes Stock of Disaster

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Melissa Block reports from Gulfport, Miss., on the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and on the efforts to help those whose homes have been destroyed.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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

There were chaotic scenes today in New Orleans. Four days after Hurricane Katrina, thousands of people are still stranded in the city waiting to be evacuated. We'll have more from New Orleans in a moment. First, though, to another of the cities hardest hit by the colleague. My colleague Melissa Block is in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, hey, the line starts back here, man.

MELISSA BLOCK reporting:

In Gulfport today, a drop of relief came on the back of two semi trucks, one with gallon jugs of drinking water; the other with bags of ice. A desperately hot crowd lined up into the distance outside Milner Stadium.

Unidentified Man #2: One per person. One per person.

Unidentified Man #3: OK.

BLOCK: Gulfport policeman Walter Griffin was part of a security force standing guard with M-16s.

Mr. WALTER GRIFFIN (Gulfport Police): Once we run through all of this, we don't know when the next supply is going to come in. Right now, as it stands, we're able to control the crowds. We just ask that, if there's any way possible, tell the people when they get here to be patient--we're all doing all that we can--and be ready to volunteer to help us get this stuff off the trucks 'cause we can't do crowd control and get the stuff off the trucks as well.

BLOCK: There's a pretty large police presence here. I mean, you must have been worried about things getting out of control.

Mr. GRIFFIN: It's been happening. It's been happening. So we try to show a strong force to ward off any problems happening.

BLOCK: Sandrill Green(ph) waited patiently with her aunt and daughter and five-month-old grandson, Michael(ph), who wore only a diaper in the hot sun. They rode out the hurricane and watched helplessly as the water in the house where they sought refuge rose higher and higher.

Ms. SANDRILL GREEN: The water just kept rising, so we got the table and we put the couch on top of the table, and we put chairs on top of the couch and--trying to keep him dry up...

BLOCK: The baby.

Ms. GREEN: Mm-hmm, up on top of the cabinet, right in between the cabinet and the ceiling trying to--the baby...

BLOCK: The baby was on top of the cabinet next to the ceiling.

Ms. GREEN: Yes, trying to keep him dry. It was really bad. And then it just so happened we seen a man in the yard, and he came back with a boat and got us out. And they opened up a church that was over there, and they let us in. And we didn't have anything, nothing.

BLOCK: The relief effort here is only beginning. Word of supplies spreads by word of mouth. It's haphazard at best. Long lines have formed outside the few stores that have managed to open. There's still no power here, no running water.

(Soundbite of children playing)

BLOCK: The playground at Central Elementary School provides a small distraction for the children, who've taken shelter here with their families. Hundreds of evacuees are sleeping on the floor or on chairs; some in their cars, with windshields and windows blown out by the storm, covered now by bedspreads or towels. The Red Cross is providing some food and water. The bathrooms are overflowing. No one's had a shower for days. Kathleen Leedham(ph) has children and grandchildren with her, but she has no idea what's happened to her daughter, Lauren Clark, who headed off for St. Martin's east of Gulfport as the storm approached.

Ms. KATHLEEN LEEDHAM: She's--I've lost her, and I can't find her. And there's nobody here who can help you.

BLOCK: That's got to be a terrifying thing.

Ms. LEEDHAM: It is. It's terrible. They have a line for you to call so you can tell your loved ones that you're OK, but you can't get a phone to call the line list.

BLOCK: Ms. Leedham's home has been destroyed, along with so many others, not to mention the casinos that employed thousands of people in Gulfport. The future for this community is hard to fathom.

Ms. LEEDHAM: There are not going to be jobs here for people. I don't know how people are going to survive. It's like this storm took this town back 30 years when there was nothing here before, except people, and that's what it's like now.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

BLOCK: Down on the waterfront the scale of the destruction is surreal: dozens of container trucks flipped around like Tonka toys and dismembered; mountains of debris--wheelchairs, computers, tables, plywood, traffic lights--in chaotic piles; and this--an enormous pink building in tatters, the Copa Casino, which was floating a half-mile away in the Gulf before Katrina churned it into the parking lot. We found Michael Underwood staring with some shock at these debris piles. He's in from Vandiver, Alabama. He's one of an army of haulers who'll be trying to cart away these tons of debris.

Mr. MICHAEL UNDERWOOD: We've got three ...(unintelligible) dump trucks and a tractor, and we're hauling all the debris that Katrina brought in.

BLOCK: I guess what I'm trying to figure out is how you even know where to start with something like this.

Mr. UNDERWOOD: Just start in the front, work to the back. That's--there's just so much in here you can't start in the back 'cause you can't get through to nothing.

Mr. RYAN SMITHIE(ph): (To dog) Savannah(ph), come on. (Whistles)

BLOCK: Ryan Smithie and his golden Lab Savannah are a search-and-rescue team, part of a FEMA squad in from Florida. The dog had just cut her paw when she landed on a window of a destroyed house.

Mr. SMITHIE: We were just cutting through the glass. It caught her a little bit.

(Soundbite of panting)

Mr. SMITHIE: We need to put--bandage it. She'll be all right. She'll be good to go.

BLOCK: These search-and-rescue teams are going from house to house, and in this neighborhood, around 43rd Avenue, it's hard to tell where one house starts and another stops. Many are collapsed into piles of plywood, shingles, aluminum siding.

Mr. SMITHIE: Well, I've got the canine. We'll basically look for structures with a little bit more damage and that, where it looks like there may be a chance of survivors. It'll be too hard for our crews to go into, and we'll basically send the dog in, let them see what they can find, see if they come up with any kind of scent in there. And if they start alerting, then we'll bring the other crews in.

(Soundbite of panting)

BLOCK: They'll spray-paint markings on the houses where they've found victims, if they can get to them.

Mr. DAVE DORSET(ph) (Search and Rescue): The debris pile is so thick, we're not finding them. They're underneath 10 feet of this.

BLOCK: Dave Dorset is also in doing search and rescue from Florida.

Mr. DORSET: There's one that's buried underneath a barge. Well, the barge is hundreds of tons. How--we're not going to move that, but we--I did extricate three walking wounded.

BLOCK: Well, where were they? I mean, were they...

Mr. DORSET: They were just in the debris pile. As we're walking through, we're talking, making noise. And I heard somebody groaning and found this old guy, and we dug him out and helped him out to a safe area.

BLOCK: That was Monday night. Three days later now you don't hear much talk of finding survivors, just many, many stories from people who have nowhere to go, people worried about family members they can't find, worried about looters and packs of dogs, worried about what will become of this community. Melissa Block, NPR News, Gulfport, Mississippi.

SIEGEL: You can tour a Gulfport family's home and read of their experience during and after the hurricane at our Web site, npr.org.

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