Mississippi Devastation Resembles War Zone

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Commentator Leroy Sievers is volunteering for the Red Cross in Biloxi, Miss., delivering food to people who are getting their first assistance post-Katrina. He shares some observations about his experience.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of our commentators is in Biloxi as a Red Cross volunteer. He's Leroy Sievers, a former executive producer of "Nightline."

LEROY SIEVERS:

One of the first things you'll hear in a disaster like this one is that old cliche, `It looks like a war zone.' Well, I've covered 14 wars and I've never seen destruction like what I've seen in Biloxi. Seeing it in person is so different than seeing it on TV.

There are bare foundations; the houses are completely gone. There are houses that look like they survived relatively intact, except they're in the middle of the street. Then there's the big tractor-trailer wedged between two houses. I still can't figure out how that happened. And there's still too many places where the smell of death is overpowering. I do remember that from real war zones.

There are piles of debris out by the side of the road. These houses were all flooded by more than seven feet of water. But what you really see in those piles are people's lives--photo albums, wedding pictures, Christmas decorations, keepsakes, furniture, all the things we treasure over time, all destroyed.

I'm down in Biloxi as a volunteer with the Red Cross. Now the Red Cross is a huge, cumbersome bureaucracy. It's like an army that's trying to fight a war, but with soldiers, the volunteers like me, who enlisted after the fighting started. Every day, three of us load up our truck with a couple of hundred hot meals, and then we just cruise our territory, feeding anyone who's hungry.

One of the things we've realized is that the survivors crave variety. After a while, living in the heat and humidity with only warm water to drink gets really old. So we started to scrounge for them. Juice is great if you can find it, Gatorade even better. Sweet rolls were a big hit, and we found some toys that had been donated. We gave those to the kids, who really can't understand what happened here.

We've gotten to know some of the people on the route; one man, confined to a wheelchair, who told us he'd survived by climbing up on the kitchen counter as the water rose. His wife was outside standing on a fence. Miraculously, both survived. There's Michael, who is living in his car in what's left of his front yard. Actually, he was just sitting in his car, still in shock days after the storm. One day we didn't see either of them. We feared the worst, but hoped that someone came to take them somewhere else.

I can't tell you how many times people have refused food, saying there must be others who need it more, and this from people who have lost everything. There was a cop who helped us give out meals in Jackson. He knew that local inmates were doing cleanup and he was worried about them, so he made sure he had enough meals to feed them, too. And Dave from New Orleans; he was pretty sure his apartment survived--it was on the third floor--so he just showed up to help us out as well.

There's one story that haunts me. The uncle of one of my teammates is a doctor in Gulfport, right next to Biloxi. He told her some of the ambulance drivers there were certain they were going to die in the storm, so they tattooed their Social Security numbers on their arms to make it easier to identify their bodies. They were rescued by the Coast Guard and survived.

Every day I give these people hot meals, and every day they give me something I never expected to find in the midst of all this destruction: They give me hope. And besides, a woman kissed me on the cheek the other day when I gave her a hot meal. What better pay could a volunteer ask for?

INSKEEP: Commentator Leroy Sievers is a journalist now working as a Red Cross volunteer in Biloxi, Mississippi.

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