Katrina, a category 4 hurricane, hit the Gulf Coast in late summer of 2005. While New Orleans was the most publicized of the areas hit, Gulfport, Mississippi, and the Interstate 90 area had some of the most extensive damage. From what I was told, I-90 runs east to west from the Florida panhandle all the way to Louisiana and follows the coast ft the Gulf of Mexico. Throughout Mississippi the route is mostly impassable; in some areas the asphalt has buckled and sand from underneath has spilled across the road.
To get to this area of Gulfport, you have to get past the barbed wire and armed guards placed at each entry road to deter looters and unnecessary traffic. The guards will check to see if you have a homeowners or Utility Company pass authorizing your access. The mother of the woman I was working with in our local office has a home about a block north of the coast. Of all the houses on her block, only four survived, one of which was hers, although it had major damage. The garage in the backyard was severely damaged, the master bedroom roof fell in, and all the carpet had to be removed, all of which was repairable, but the yard was in major disarray and five bodies were found in all the debris once search-and-rescue began. Her family had it luckier than most.
Using her mother's homeowner's pass one day and a utilities company pass from the wife of one of our fellow employees, we were able to venture in closer than most. As we pulled up to the guards station, we were a little nervous we would be asked for identification. Lucky for us, they saw the pass in the car window and waved us through with no questions asked.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. With sewer lines pushed through the asphalt and wide open in certain places, the odor was overwhelming. It reminded me of dirty diapers or decomposing animals, but worse. I got out of the car at one point to take a photo and could not keep from gagging. The air quality could not be the best, especially with all the particles from the demolished buildings floating in the air.
As we avoided potholes and the occasional vehicle coming form the opposite direction on the now one-lane road, I was astounded by what I saw. Where large mansions and plantation homes once overlooked the water, all that remained were piles of debris and sometimes foundations of the original buildings. The force of the water during the storm just swept away entire homes. The ancient, majestic oaks that once lined I-90 now lay uprooted on their sides. Periodically one would be marked "ALIVE" in red paint or tied with a red ribbon to avoid being destroyed when the cleanup crews arrived so the residents could replant the trees. We even passed a sign that said, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," spray-painted by one homeowner.
Farther down we passed hotels, restaurants, and a coastal Wal-Mart that was gutted. Do-gooders would leave piles of clothes in parking lots for local residents to take what they needed. Unfortunately, these items were not in containers and were at the mercy of the elements for days on end. There were similar piles all through the town in store and church parking lots. People tried to help, but did not seem to think it through.
At one point, as we passed overturned cars, fishing vessels, and pile and piles of debris, we came upon a boat that was brought ashore by Hurricane Camille in, I believe, 1993. The residents had left it where it had landed as a reminder of how strong a storm could be. The boat, surprisingly, was in the same place as before Katrina hit. We also saw a tractor trailer upside down in the water with only its wheels sticking in the air. The area was known for its floating casinos, some of which were the size of large office buildings. We passed the Copa Casino, a huge orange barge casino that was picked up and dumped on land. I found it hard to comprehend that something so large had ridden the waves onto land.
By now we had reached the end of the drivable portion of I-90 and had to turn in towards town. As we traveled farther from shore, the damage was not as severe but still devastating. Almost all of the homes still standing had large blue tarps over the roofs, and office buildings and storefronts had their windows blown out, the innards swept away. Buildings had large red crosses on them marking that they had been searched for survivors and bodies. We passed trees that were surrounded by metal, concrete, and appliances and covered with so many plastic bags hanging from them that they resembled Christmas trees.
By the end of the drive, my stomach had tightened and I fought back tears as I realized that this was actually 2 months after the devastating storm had passed through. I could not image what it looked like at the beginning.