Cover Story

Unnatural disaster

Hurricane Katrina submerges New Orleans, strafes Gulf Coast states, and puts the nation on emergency footing

Issue: "Katrina: Unnatural disaster," Sept. 10, 2005

Two days after Hurricane Katrina rolled ashore, to drive north from the Gulf of Mexico out of Gulfport, Miss., was to leave a disaster scene only to encounter what looked like a war zone. No lights. No gas. No phone service. No commerce. And parts of Interstate 55 were covered in trees.

On Interstate 10, motorists swerved to avoid refrigerators, stranded vehicles, and other debris. For travelers, getting away from Katrina's strewn path meant driving at least halfway to Memphis. From Gulfport north it was 200 miles until gasoline and electricity showed up in Yazoo City.

During WORLD's 800-mile trek through hurricane-struck areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama over the two days after Katrina hit, few emergency workers emerged apart from National Guardsmen blocking key entrances to New Orleans and Gulfport.

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Most survivors still awaited word on displaced neighbors, co-workers, and fellow church members.

On Sunday morning, Aug. 28, when Gulfport pastor David Skinner learned that the Category 5 hurricane was headed his way, he canceled Sunday services and urged evacuation. He went to stay with his wife's family in Greenwood, Miss., and the day after the storm blew through still had not heard from any of his 160 congregants: "I'm praying right now we don't have any casualties." His church sits near the coast and his own home in Biloxi, Miss., is practically on the water. In describing it, he hesitated. "I don't know what tense to use-past or present."

While the region came to grips with the breadth of Hurricane Katrina, the nation began to feel the depth of the crisis. President Bush ended his Texas vacation to mobilize an emergency response akin to gearing up the country for war. Americans suddenly had loss and woe from another-and closer to home-gulf region.

Betsy. Camille. Katrina. Invariably the only comparable power to a hurricane is another hurricane. In breadth and size, Katrina was every bit as intense as the Category 3 Hurricane Betsy that tore over Florida in 1965 before flooding much of New Orleans. In power and intensity, Katrina rivaled Camille, a Category 5 storm that struck 55 miles east of New Orleans on the Mississippi coast. The city had survived both and many reasoned Katrina would be just another close call.

That helps to explain why so many who could evacuate greater New Orleans and coastal Mississippi decided not to. One grandma, Dagmar Booth, left her husband John behind in New Orleans as Katrina advanced: "He stayed because his aunt wouldn't leave. They said they were staying because they had ridden out Betsy and Camille. How can it be worse?" She had survived those storms, too, and concluded, "No way we were staying for this one."

Mrs. Booth spent Sunday loading her valuables, including a sewing machine, books, and a grandchild's videos, on top of stoves and counters in the hope that they would stay dry: "Some of those books you just can't replace." Then she and her daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren, along with her own elderly mother, started the long trek out of New Orleans in two Toyota sedans. They had hoped to make it to Dallas, but after 2 a.m., with winds pounding Louisiana, the four-generation traveling party pulled into an emergency shelter in the LSU-Shreveport gymnasium.

At dawn on Monday, the evacuees cheered as a small color television set among the makeshift cots and bedrolls showed that Katrina had ticked right to come ashore just east of New Orleans and head over the swamplands into Mississippi. That meant New Orleans would escape the worst since the city was on the western, less dangerous side of the hurricane-but the cheering would turn out to be premature.

For a time, the focus was on Gulfport, Miss., 140 miles northeast of landfall, where wind or wave affected almost every structure in the city. Even three miles inland Katrina flattened buildings and blew off roofs. National Guard troops in Humvees patrolled streets, preventing most from reaching the hardest-hit areas, but stories began to emerge. One poor resident, Robert Calhoun, rode out the storm with a friend a few blocks from his Virginia Avenue trailer, and when he came back he discovered that "nothing was left. Nothing." Lacking much to begin with, he said he lost everything, "except what I've got on": He had slid a pair of shorts over pajama bottoms.

In Biloxi, Miss., 154 miles northeast of landfall, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said dozens were dead after an entire apartment building was washed away in the storm. One example of the power of Katrina's 22-foot storm surge: It lifted the landmark President Casino barge off its moorings in the Gulf of Mexico, floated it across US-90, and deposited it atop a Holiday Inn.

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