Photo by Marisa Buchanan, NBC News
When I first heard this story, I thought it had to be an urban legend, but yesterday in Pass Christian, Miss., when police chief John Dubuisson showed me the bullet holes I knew it was true. On the day Katrina hit the chief and several officers went off to rescue some folks trapped by rising water. They got everyone out only to be cut off themselves by the storm surge.
The group sought shelter in the town's library. It's up on higher ground and in the shadow of city hall. As the streets outside raged like mountain rapids, they felt safe in the recently renovated structure. But that's when the flaw to their plan started to seep in.
Made it to Lakeshore, Miss.... Took some work. An aid worker literally had to talk us in. It's a one traffic light town. Not on many maps. It was responses to this blog that told us to get here. So you can't say we don't listen.
Town is poor, devastation's bad. We're near where the eye of Katrina landed. Folks here not standing around for FEMA handouts... Though as I type across from me the finishing touches are being made to a FEMA trailer-ville. It sits on the town little league field, so things are not looking too good for next season.
Anyway, town is a mess, but it's how they are getting out of it that's interesting... a saw mill and how it changed one man's life and is now changing the life of a town. This is going to get muddy...
Got to go.
Another day. It starts with a cup of coffee. It should start with the firing of a gun and the squealing of tires. We have a lot of ground to cover.
Yesterday was a real nail biter. Cross-checking information in the Katrina zone is time consuming. Most of it has to be done in person since no one is in their office anymore and phones can be tricky. Checkpoints slow you down. Some areas are said off limits without a government pass. We don't have a government pass so we have to talk our way in... that can take time.
Don't want to tell you how close Wednesday's Nightly spot came to being NASA's newest black hole.
We're driving on 90 West out of Biloxi... the true highway to hell.
It's a miracle the road is still open when everything around it is shattered, crushed and closed. Don't get me wrong, the highway has problems of its own. Many of the bridges are out or unsafe and four lanes often have to become just two, sometimes one. We're always skirting sink holes or places where the road is simply gone. Drive just one mile on this road and you will see the worst Katrina has to offer and never question why it costs so much or will take so long to rebuild. Instead, you'll wonder how can it be done at all.
I woke up about 3 a.m. wondering who was taking pictures in my room. Took a while to realize the source... the fire alarm. So I rolled over and went back to sleep. As Marisa mentions below, we were in Biloxi, where everything is not as it was given the scouring Katrina gave this gambling town. I felt the alarm, like everything else here, was broken and merely protesting the crime of nature committed against it.
We arrived after dark. It's a weird scene. The high-rise hotels blaze like space shuttles on launch pads and give the false impression they're fine. They're not. In fact, most aren't even open.
Given all the ruin you can see in the photos Marisa took from outside her hotel room window, you wonder how the hotel escaped. As you check-in, you realize it didn't. All the carpet of the ground floors is gone and we roll our bags across the cement slab. In some areas the walls and cement are cracked or holed. But once you board the elevator and head to the room it's as if nothing has happened at all.
Dinner is served in a large conference room. It's 10 bucks and a buffet. Good food, filling food, not great food. But given nothing else is open anywhere near, that bumps it up to some of the finest food around. There's a bar at the opposite end. The only way you know that is a guy standing behind a plastic counter. Domestic beer is $2, imports $3. It's not too busy.
There are lots of folks staying here and none are on vacation. Contractors mostly, laborers and emergency personnel. In the lobby, the sounding of heavy equipment at work pounds late into the night. It will be like this for a long time to come. These days in Biloxi it's about the only thing you can bet on.
If anyone was moved to want to help the schools mentioned in my story Tuesday on Nightly News, their greatest need is money, particularly tuition assistance for the students at both schools. Their parents lost everything and so did both schools. Financial aid is in short supply. Tuition for a student at St. Peter the Apostle is $200/month or $2,000/year.
Checks can go to:
St. Peter the Apostle Catholic School
1703 Telephone Rd.
Pascagoula, MS 39567
Contact person is Sister Bernadette Peters. The school's phones still don't work, so she's given me permission to publish her cell phone: (228) 327-4302.
Resurrection Catholic school
3704 Quinn Dr.
Pascagoula, MS 39581
Contact person is Principal Elizabeth Benefield. Her phone number is (228) 762-7207. You can also visit the school's Web site: www.rcseagles.com.
In addition to financial support, the schools need: Printer-copy paper, bookshelves, storage cabinets and craft paper.
Photo by Marsia Buchanan, NBC News
This is quickly turning into another day of sad and uplifting stories from the Katrina zone. There simply isn't enough time to tell them all.
This morning has been focused on the tale of two schools. One is mostly white, the other is mostly black. The African American school was nearly destroyed and the other school has taken them in. Both schools lost everything -- from books to blackboards. Even their school bus was swept up by the storm surge three miles inland here on the outskirts of Pascagoula, Miss.
They both need tuition assistance for their students. 98 percent of the teaching staff and student body lost their homes. I will blog later with direct addresses. As Marisa mentions below, both are Catholic elementary schools, if that matters. St. Peter the Apostle was started in the 1900s to educate the children of slaves. There are fears it may be too gone to save and the diocese is too broke to rebuild.
Before leaving Bayou La Batre, Ala. last evening a local fisherman had a talk with me. "Seeing as how you are a reasonably intelligent guy..." "Thank you," I said as he started in. "How come the EPA won't let us get our boats?"
I guess I blew his original take on me by saying, "I don't get your point." He went on to tell me there were over 50 large steel fishing boats sitting high and dry on marsh land where Katrina dropped them. One of them is a car hauler with a bunch of vehicles on board. Anyway, he says the only way to refloat the boats is to dig a canal out to where they now sit. "Makes sense," I thoght, because I had been wondering how you would get to them since they're so far from any water.
He finished by saying at a local town meeting the EPA showed up to say they weren't going to allow for any canal saying it would do too much harm to the ecosystem. The boats would simply have to stay where they were. "How is all that rusting steel out there going to help the ecosystem?" he asked. Once again pegging the intelligence meter, "I don't know," I replied.
And made a mental note to have chat with the EPA.
This morning we awake to a rare sight in the Katrina zone, grey skies. Most places haven't seen rain since Hurricane Rita. Each day has been wall-to-wall blue skies.
Firefighters welcome the rain. Things are too dry and with the piles of debris growing larger the fire hazard is huge.
But the rain is no fun for the thousands of families still sleeping in tents. And it does no good for the clothes. In town after town in this region clothing gathered by Americans all across the country for storm victims was just dumped on the ground in parking lots for folks to go through. Those clothes have now been out in the open for more than two months. Yet, people search them daily looking for their size or their children's sizes. The biggest frustration is looking for shoes. There are plenty of all different sizes but only one shoe. In the jumble they have become separated. Most people these days are looking for coats or sweaters to warm them from the cold and now also the rain.
We've covered about 100 miles on our road trip through Alabama today. Done six interviews and shot five tapes using three cameras... all of which now goes by satellite to our Chicago bureau. There they will edit it and then beam the finished product to New York and Nightly News.
So far the hardest part is figuring out what won't make it in to the spot. My story can only run 90 to 95 seconds. One part I wanted to get in but won't have time for came from Foley. The assistant manager of the Super 8, who I mentioned in an earlier post, sent us an e-mail telling of the good being done to help Katrina victims. But there has also been some bad. Her normal snowbird vacationers from up north have been calling asking if the crime rate in Foley has gone up as a result of all the evacuee. Laura Palmer says she gets furious over those calls. She blames them on the looting images out of New Orleans.
Our race through Alabama is over for today. Up in Chicago, for the edit team, it's only just begun.
More tomorrow from Mississippi.