Going south | SPECIAL: Hurricane Katrina | Indy Week
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Going south 

Our president and most media reports say life is improving along Mississippi's Gulf Coast. They should ask the people who have to live there.

On Oct. 11, President George W. Bush visited Delisle Elementary School near Pass Christian, Miss. He embraced kindergarteners and spoke in inspirational aphorisms about how hard the federal government has been working to restore order and rebuild the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina roared ashore almost two months ago. Don't believe everything you hear.

Two weeks before Bush posed for his eighth storm-zone photo op, I stood in the parking lot of that same school, warily watching six uniformed cops shove ammunition clips into their automatic weapons. It was just about sunset, a streaky pink and orange sky heralding the end of another exhausting day and the beginning of yet another chaotic night for the folks trying to make sense of their lives in Katrinaville.

We'd best move along, the officers advised, good-naturedly but without question of our obedience. It was almost curfew, and things were about to get a little dicey: They were hunting down a man who'd been threatening to shoot police in the neighborhood.

We were wrapping up a long first day of our animal rescue mission. After traveling mile after mile past flattened buildings, malodorous sewage ponds and razor-wire checkpoints guarded by soldiers in full combat gear, the parking lot of the cheerful little school--the only one left standing in that district--had seemed, just minutes earlier, as benign a place as any to park our RV and crash for the night. But with the arrival of three patrol cars full of exceedingly well-armed cops, our surroundings had suddenly taken on a menacing air. Neighbors began oozing into the residential streets--black and white, homeless and jobless, overtired and overheated. They gathered in tense knots, murmuring.

We moved along.

I took a weeklong tour of duty on what's left of Mississippi's Gulf Coast because I couldn't stay home and watch the news anymore. Along with the wrath it wrought on the millions of lives in its path, Katrina created a perfect storm of compulsion for me: I'm a weather freak and a news junky, a devoted animal lover and a longtime volunteer for Independent Animal Rescue, a Triangle nonprofit.

From the first day's footage of a desperate dog stranded on a flooded roof searching for his family, for dry land, for any shred of the normal life he'd known just a few hours earlier, I couldn't look away.

As the days passed and the maelstrom alternatively expanded and imploded, it became apparent there was little enough being done for the human victims and even less for their animal companions. Starving and exhausted strays swam through toxic floodwaters toward rescue boats, at first hopeful and then bewildered when the rescuers failed to stop. News photographers kept capturing the tortured faces of pets locked in empty waterlogged houses, clawing at windows, yelping. Stories began to emerge of residents abandoning beloved animals at gunpoint, forced by evacuation authorities to choose their own safety at the expense of their furry family members' fate.

Six days after the storm, CNN broadcast a report of a New Orleans doctor who fashioned a makeshift chamber out of a travel crate and plastic wrap. He began gassing dogs at the request of their owners, staff members and patients at a hospital that was being evacuated. Panicked by the "no pets allowed" order, they figured euthanasia was better than abandonment and starvation, and they were right. But what kind of choice was that, to lose your house, your job and your entire hometown and then have to kill your dog because it was the most humane option available?

That was the day I knew I had to go. I don't know much about rescuing humans; I can't repair electric lines or rebuild houses. But helping animals in need--for that, I had a decade of practice and a large network of fellow animal-lovers just as horrified by the news who would support me.

With backing from many generous donors and Independent Animal Rescue, my husband Bill and I set out from Chapel Hill on Sept. 23, driving our 20-year-old camper and towing a borrowed horse trailer stocked with supplies for all species.

As we had prepared for our trip, surfing Internet news and watching snippets about recovery progress on TV, it was easy to hope that by the time we arrived, four weeks after Katrina made landfall, things might be looking up. But looking up at large sailboats in varying states of dismemberment suspended in splintered pines near what used to be the Pass Christian Yacht Club, it was remarkably hard to believe our own eyes.

Over the course of the next week, we witnessed a physical, political and psychological landscape that bore no shred of resemblance to the hearty optimism and braggadocio making the airwaves. With thick black muck on our feet and an omnipresent smell of rot in our noses, we found suffering animals abandoned by their people and suffering people abandoned by their government. One thing quickly became painfully clear: Rather than improving, the situation on the ground was steadily disintegrating.

There's no question the unprecedented scale of Hurricane Katrina posed enormous obstacles for the governmental, military and private institutions and organizations that formed the offensive line of the relief team--no matter what training, talents and brawn they might have brought to the huddle. But what became apparent to us, after just a few hours on the 50-yard line, was that there was no quarterback on the field.

As we labored in one little corner of the effort, we encountered a problem that became symbol and metaphor for the chaos that infuses Katrinaville: Even when the systems worked well enough to send resources within easy reach of where they were needed, a complete lack of coordination often thwarted them doing any good.

In the hardest-hit beach towns, we visited local relief stations that varied from tiny grassroots efforts by local churches and community groups to immense mobile command centers run by government agencies, national missionary organizations and the American Red Cross. All of them had one thing in common--very few, or in most cases, zero, provisions for companion animals. Everywhere we went, we were swarmed by displaced people needing what we had to offer, sometimes even before we could unlock the trailer. Pet owners would spot our Independent Animal Rescue banner and launch into long emotional rushes, telling us about their cats, dogs, birds, guinea pigs and how they evacuated with them before the storm or retrieved them from dangerous predicaments afterward. They'd ask if we had any of that cat food that helps with hairballs or a leash and collar for the neighbor's dog they'd taken in because his people hadn't come home. Many were living in their cars, or in tents, or bunking with strangers. Some were caring for multiple pets of friends, family and neighbors who had evacuated and not returned.

At all these places, we were within 25 miles of the larger and slightly less-damaged city of Gulfport, where a local humane society had a warehouse stocked with a national outpouring of donations. Except for the small percentage needed on-site, food and supplies sat in the warehouse, neatly organized and undistributed.

Working among people needing many varieties of assistance much more dire than dog food or cat litter, and knowing there were dying animals still waiting for rescue all over southern Mississippi and Louisiana, it seemed ridiculous that even the pets who had people to look after them were suffering, too, just for lack of anyone accomplishing the simple task of distributing resources from the places they were plentiful to the places they were scarce--less than a half-hour drive away.

While it wasn't surprising that animal welfare was an afterthought, it was frightening that hundreds of parallel scenarios were occurring every day on the human side, too. In one well-publicized example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent dozens of tractor-trailers packed with ice to the fringes of the storm zone, kept them parked along highways for days and then ordered the drivers to take their cargo to Maine, after all.

The toll on the human side is hard to fathom, but in the companion animal world, this utter lack of coordination continues to cause one particularly heart-wrenching direct result. At shelters throughout the storm zone and those within easy driving distance, a steady parade of cars rolls up every day. People emerge leading dogs on leashes or carrying cats, bunnies, ferrets and birds in cages. They shuffle sadly up to the overworked volunteers, tell their personal variation of the all-too-common story about how hard it is to house and feed their human family members right now, there's no bandwidth left over to care for the furry and feathered ones. Please find them a good home, they all plead. Then the people go away, the animals go inside, and everyone's lives are permanently altered for the worse.

(The veteran volunteers would rebuke you gently for weeping openly as this scene unfolded, by the way, because every time one person surrendered to their emotions, it launched a chain reaction of grief that we were all too damn busy to indulge in. There was only one productive thing to do, anyway, which was speak comfortingly to the new arrivals as you set them up in clean cages with food and water, rubbed their ears, and moved on to the next emergency, which was always at hand. But after a month of all-out efforts to rescue, house and care for pets separated from their families during the hurricane, it was particularly hard to watch a continuous stream who'd survived the worst of it with their human families intact then be rendered homeless right before our eyes anyway.)

There were small victories, though, which kept us going through the hardest parts. In Bay St. Louis on our second day, we found two cats, a male and a nursing momma with one tiny kitten in the yard of a tilting, abandoned house. All three were too skinny, the male had a nasty wound on one paw, and the kitten an infected eye. Wanting to move them but loathing the idea of leaving additional, hidden kittens to starve, we left to grab lunch and strategize. Returning later, we found some neighbors who said the family had moved to Texas and told them to take the cats if they wanted, which they didn't. At the sound of our voices, the momma cat came out from under the house, carrying the kitten. I lay down on my stomach with a flashlight, shutting off scary thoughts about the muck under me, and searched the 18-inch gap under the house. No luck. Judging the kitten to be about four weeks old, with a birthday right around the time of Katrina, it seemed possible, even likely, the rest of the litter had perished in the storm. Faced with a sad choice, we calculated that three lives we knew we could save were worth risking an unknown number we couldn't. Cats and kitten in hand, we were preparing to leave when my husband took one more pass around the house and made a miraculous catch, spotting two tiny balls of fluff 12 feet in the air, tucked under the eaves of the porch roof.

Between these lows and highs, we hauled donations from place to place, stocking and restocking relief centers and shoring up operations at struggling local rescues.

In Pass Christian, just down the road from the school where Bush spoke, a local family was caring for nearly 200 dogs, some they'd had before the storm but most of them Katrina refugees they'd pulled from floodwaters around their flattened town--all while camping next to their own demolished houses without running water or electricity, and weathering a second flood courtesy of Hurricane Rita. We gave them veterinary medicine, battery-operated fans and many other supplies, and set up safe, clean, new kennels for three momma dogs with newborn litters to get them up out of the dirt (photo, previous page).

Near the end of our week, we headed inland to Tylertown, Miss., to deliver supplies we'd collected specifically for the wish list of the Humane Society of Louisiana, a small organization formerly based in New Orleans. With their shelter demolished and their entire base of donors and volunteers scattered across the country and otherwise occupied, the group's leaders had evacuated to a patch of land about two hours due north, where they were building a new facility from the ground up while caring for hundreds of dogs, cats, chickens, rabbits and at least one pet turtle on site and sending rescue vans back into their city each morning. The vans would return each night full of pets freed from locked houses after four weeks without food or rounded up in the streets, where feeding stations maintained by rescue groups kept them alive until they could be moved to safety. We gave them a bath, took their picture, documented where they'd been rescued and if they had any ID (almost never), fed them dinner and put them to bed. Every one had a story: this one was locked in a pantry, pulling Ding-Dongs off the shelves; these two were under a house together and wouldn't leave each other's sides.

Thanks to Katrina--and governmental and Red Cross policies that prevented people from evacuating and sheltering with their pets--very few will ever see their families again. Thanks to the Humane Society of Louisiana and an enormous network of other local and national animal groups doing the same work all over the region, the rest will find new homes and start their lives over.

Amid the chaos, it's hard to pin down exact statistics, but any way you count, the pet-survival numbers are dismal: U.S. Census formulas indicate roughly half a million companion animals lived in Katrina's path, and it's believed about half of them evacuated with their families. Of the quarter-million abandoned, reports from national and local rescue organizations show that at most, 15,000 were saved. Of those, only about 1,000 have been reunited with their families.

Six days after we set out, we rolled home exhausted, with 14 canine and feline survivors. I completed the mission filled with conflicting emotions: relief at having done something, anything, more productive than watching in horror from 900 miles away; regret at not doing more, recognizing that all the supplies and money we collected, as well as our time and sweat, were a mere blip on Katrina's enormous radar. Most of all, I remain consumed by sadness for the people and animals still suffering and disgust at the abysmal failure of our government.

By the end of a week in the field, we had developed a clear picture of what went wrong with the pet-rescue effort, and the painful cost of those mistakes.

But on the human side, the American disaster response team's repeated fumbles and overall lack of cohesive strategy and leadership continued to generate widespread consequences we couldn't begin to comprehend or catalog.

Everywhere we went, new tragedies occurred in plain sight; every person we talked to told of yet another bumbled play making life more difficult in small and large ways.

In each town along the coast, people waited and waited, sometimes fruitlessly and usually beneath the broiling sun, for help. They stood in endless lines for government checks and medical attention, a chance to make a phone call, an appointment with an insurance adjuster, any scrap of good news.

One morning, we dropped supplies at the Red Cross center in Waveland and drove on to Bay St. Louis for a long day of rescue work. Passing back through Waveland that evening (washed-out roads and bridges required circuitous routes everywhere), we stopped to replenish the supply pile and met up with a young couple who'd been waiting for one thing or another since we were there eight or nine hours earlier. They were taking turns standing in line and guarding everything they owned in the bed of their pickup truck. At the end of their long frustrating day, they were heading north to crash on the living room floor of a friend who lived far enough inland to still possess a living room floor.

During the last week of September, while thousands of FEMA trailers sat empty in a storage lot not too far away and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour stood before his legislature talking about a "renaissance," "buoyed by the spirit of our people," who are "hitching up their breeches and rebuilding," temporary housing remained elusive, particularly in Hancock and Harrison counties, which lay on the powerful northeast side of Katrina's eye at landfall, just across the Louisiana border.

Bottled water, non-perishable groceries and hot prepared meals were generally easy to find. Crews from private firms and public utilities all over the nation were in evidence, repairing electric, sewer, water and phone systems and roadways, making slow but seemingly steady progress. But most residents still lacked a place to sleep at night that offered any privacy or any sense of home.

In Bay St. Louis, one of the many houses Katrina knocked over was the modest bungalow belonging to an elderly man with a sickly beagle and basset hound. Seeking shade and rain cover, he had moved into his dogs' kennel, a homemade amalgam of chain link and scrap sheetmetal. He'd been living that way for four weeks when we met him. Two blocks down the street, the local senior center (which was brick and therefore one of few intact buildings in the neighborhood) was lined wall-to-wall with cots. Strangers of all ages were sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder, grateful for the air-conditioning, eating three meals a day at the Christian mission tent across the street and absolutely stumped about when or where better accommodations might present themselves.

When you consider the FEMA ice story, it's not a mystery why so many people are still homeless.

On Oct. 13, a FEMA spokesman admitted to The New York Times that 9,000 campers and mobile homes the agency bought for hurricane survivors are still sitting, unused, at staging sites. Meanwhile, seven weeks after the storm, 22,000 people remained in shelters and an estimated 400,000 more were in hotels or bunking with friends and family, or often, kind strangers. That's not counting those camping in tents (or dog kennels) next to the ruins of their houses.

Most of them aren't going anywhere. Of the 431,000 Mississippi households registered for FEMA assistance, 77 percent are still in the same ZIP code and 88 percent remain in the state, Gov. Barbour bragged to the legislature late last month.

But others see no reason to stay.

Eating in the Bay St. Louis mission tent one day, we met a 60ish middle-class couple, proprietors of a local mom-and-pop and parents of two cats. Katrina had taken everything--their house, their business and three vehicles. (Both cats had also gone missing, but had since been recovered.) While we were wolfing down some calories and Gatorade to sustain us through the cat rescue we were plotting down the street, they told us they had waited for hours in the FEMA line that morning, only to learn they didn't qualify for federal funds because their homeowners' policy carried a provision for flood damage. They were awaiting a ride to Virginia, where her sister's hometown had "adopted" them. They planned to start over from scratch, armed with donations and moral support from their new neighbors and a whopping $35,000 from their insurance settlement.

For those who do stay, each day brings new complications. The winds and flooding have passed, but Katrina's impact continues to mutate into torturous new forms.

The elderly man with the beagle and basset hound, a Choctaw Indian who doesn't read or write, allowed us, with some coaxing, to take his ill dogs to the vet. The doctor discovered, among many other problems, both dogs had scabies, a skin parasite that's frightfully contagious--particularly to humans sleeping alongside them.

As time goes by, survivors trying to resume a semblance of normal life face an obstacle course of dysfunctional infrastructure as utilities creep back on line at a glacial pace. Most schools, stores and businesses of all kinds--banks, car-repair shops, pharmacies--remain closed. (Wal-Mart, however, opened a 16,000-square-foot sales tent in a parking lot in Waveland while we were there, generating a gushy Associated Press article declaring that the town must be getting back on its feet. In what we judged an affirmation of our mission, though, they were out of dog food.)

In its hurricane preparedness guides, FEMA urges people to stock up on prescription medicine when a storm approaches. But after two months, even the most meticulously well-prepared survivors are now standing in line at mobile medical units, seeking blood pressure medicine or allergy pills.

The scenery around them isn't changing much, either.

At the storm's zenith, a 35-foot surge fed by the Gulf of Mexico and a large inland bay lifted whole houses and deposited them across the landscape, hung cars and boats in trees and left 7 million cubic yards of wreckage in Hancock County alone.

In Waveland, a beach town formerly home to 6,700 people, banks of debris as tall as your head line every residential street. In form, they resemble the piles a snowplow leaves behind after a big blizzard, but they contain all the everyday things that used to fill houses that no longer exist. Driveways lead to barren foundations that used to support walls and roofs, beds and dressers and sofas, cabinets full of groceries and garage workbenches full of tools. Swallowed up and spit out by 125-mph winds, the mangled remains of thousands of households sit stinking in the hot sun.

On Oct. 8, a parked convoy of heavy-duty dump trucks three miles long lined U.S. 90, the main Gulf Coast highway, waiting to haul the trash away. Some of the drivers had been in the line for three days, sleeping in their cabs and waiting for their truckbeds to be measured by "quality assurance inspectors" before they were allowed to work.

At $16 per cubic yard, the contractors stand to make about $112 million in Hancock County, so they wait willingly while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing debris removal, sorts out its apparent shortage of inspectors. Marlin Smith, a contract hauler from Texas, told the Biloxi, Miss., Sun-Herald: "The left hand has no idea what the right hand is doing. I've never seen it like this; it's almost like a political chess match."

After steeping in the chaos for a while, it became progressively more difficult to visualize what was missing from the landscape. The sight of a house standing normally on its foundation, its roof intact and curtains at the windows, became a thing worth stopping to admire. A grocery store with its lights on and fully stocked shelves, a traffic signal changing sequentially from green to yellow to red, a smiling person--those are things you don't see much in southern Mississippi these days.

The political landscape is just as chaotic as the physical one, and greedy land-grabs and allegations of public corruption are quickly rising to the surface.

We met lots of survivors who told us they were staying put on their land, hesitant to leave even long enough for a hot meal because they were sure the government or a private entity would somehow commandeer it in their absence. The more we heard about the political and corporate maneuvering along the coast, the less paranoid they all seemed.

Jonean Crowle led her Pass Christian neighborhood's successful fight against an upscale condo and casino development a couple of years ago. Katrina has created just the opportunity developers and politicians have been seeking, she fears: an excuse to force the stubborn locals off the most desirable land to make room for high-end real-estate investments.

"It's a politics thing all the way down the line. It's about who can bring the most tax base," says Crowle, who's still without basic services and camping under tarps strung from her house ruins. "If we get disgusted and leave, someone will come in and build nicer houses, turn the coast into investment properties and condos with no room for little guys like us."

Mississippi's leadership is doing little to ease those fears. In the early days of the cleanup, they caved to casino profiteers, who were restricted to waterways and had long sought to come ashore. Arguing their properties would have been safer on dry land, and that rebuilding was only worth it if the law changed, they persuaded a governor and legislature alarmed by rapidly draining tax coffers.

In Harrison County, where establishments like the Biloxi Grand Casino generated millions of gambling and tourism dollars until Katrina struck, county leaders are projecting a revenue loss of $40 million in 2006. Dangling at odd angles, moot billboards still scream along Interstate 10: "All-you-can-eat crab legs!" and "Play today; win tonight!"

Meanwhile, city halls, courthouses, fire and police stations, libraries and other public facilities lie in splinters or ooze toxic mud while officials improvise. In Pass Christian, school leaders are consolidating all their students on the campus of Delisle Elementary, their only salvageable building. The day Bush spoke there, elementary students resumed lessons; middle and high schoolers are scheduled to start classes there as soon as the debris is cleared off the playground and mobile classrooms are moved in.

The irony of the president posing for pictures on the inland edge of her town where one remaining school still stands didn't escape Crowle, who lives just a couple of miles down the road from the school, closer to the water where pretty much nothing still stands. Crowle can't get a permit for a FEMA trailer because she doesn't have electricity, and she can't get electricity until sewer and water service are restored to her neighborhood, which won't be any time soon. But, judging by politicians' speeches and the media's feeding frenzy over feel-good recovery stories, neighborhoods like Crowle's have been wiped off the map in more ways than one. Just last week, crews scooping debris near Crowle's house saw the leg of a human corpse fall out. But you don't hear about that on the news, and the two miles separating her neighborhood and the reopening school mark the line between two worlds divided by the whims of Hurricane Katrina and the public-image manipulation that's arrived in its wake.

"You'd think, while he was here," Crowle says, "Bush could have come just a little further down the street."

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