10 October 2005

The sheer volume of debris in Gulfport had made it impossible for the Fire Department to remove many of the bodies immediately. Some were simply logged with GPS coordinates and left behind, to be recovered later. One Gulfport cop told me that they wouldn't really be able to tally the dead until the giant piles of debris on Second and by the railroad tracks were finally plowed up with heavy equipment. Among the many casualties of Katrina was a sea lion from the Marine Life Oceanarium that was swept onto the street and killed, its brains dashed out onto the pavement. It was a few days before the corpse could be removed. As luck would have it, at the time the storm hit Gulfport, there was a trucking yard filled with trailers containing packages of frozen chicken. The storm ripped the trailers open like soda cans and scattered the chickens far and wide. You could look out over the water and see white spots here and there where they were bobbing in the eerily tranquil surf. The chicken packets festered in the sun, until the decomposing gases caused the plastic packages to swell up and burst open. The flood surge also ripped through houses, soaking the walls, floors, and furniture with sea water and the slimy muck of the ocean bottom.

I guess the point I'm trying to get across here is that I can't fully describe the smell that hung over the place. And trust me, that's just as well.

Ofc. Krupke at 4:15 PM
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03 October 2005

The area that we were assigned to patrol lay along Highway 90, which runs along the Gulf Coast through Gulfport and into Biloxi. It was, we were told, the area that had been hit the hardest. And it was easy to believe.

That part of Highway 90, which is also called East Beach Boulevard, is a four-lane highway with a sloping, grassy median dividing it. Or it was, at any rate. The upper part of the road had, generally, survived better, though it had yawning gaps in it where the ground beneath had given way and the asphalt folded under. There were spots where you had to drive up onto the grass to get by, and places where you had to go down to the lower lanes, though they were generally buried in sand. The median was a total loss, a knife wound of clumpy sand between the two stretches of blacktop. There were sections of deep standing water where the road surface had buckled downward, and at least one of those concealed an open manhole which Burke's front tire found the hard way.

Our patrol area ran back for two or three blocks from the beachfront, as far as a set of railroad tracks. The railroad tracks were a border, and served as a kind of DMZ separating our area from the rest of the city. Fortunately for everyone living north of them, the tracks were elevated on an earth and rock berm that was just high enough to serve as a makeshift levee. The flood surge had thundered over Highway 90, past Second Street and Third Street, but didn't have the muscle to get past the tracks.

The front rank of houses facing the beachfront were all heavily damaged; many of them were blasted to splinters by the water, and the pieces swept back two or three blocks. Second Street was all but impassable to vehicle traffic, since the debris was piled high in the roadway. Entire blocks were sealed off behind sudden barricades of framing wood, their nails sticking everywhichwhere. You could see the force of the storm in the things scattered around. They weren't just lying on the lawn. They were embedded in the ground, some with a three-foot furrow in the turf behind them, where the storm water had plowed them through. Burke and I found a broomstick which was plunged halfway into the grass like a javelin, and later, a truck axle which had done the same thing. After our first day on patrol, I packed away my air-cushioned pseudo-SWAT footwear in favor of my old Marine-issue jungle boots, which drain quickly and have a steel shank in the sole to prevent pushing a nail through my foot.

Navigation was made very difficult by the fact that all the street signs were torn down and many of the landmarks were nothing but foundations. Even the Gulfport cops, who had patrolled the area for years, were having trouble getting around. Burke and I managed to get by on a simple hand-drawn map which was painstakingly drawn in my police notebook by a very nice lady whose house had been utterly destroyed. She and her two college-aged children had brought a U-Haul trailer out and were picking through, looking for anything they could save.

She was a Gulfport native - she had attended the school we were occupying, and was still, unquestionably, the lady of the house. Nothing was left of the house but the foundation, but luckily no one had been home. Her children had been in college, her husband away, and she herself had been out of town visiting relatives. "If I hadn't," she said matter-of-factly, gesturing at the ruined slab where her home had stood. "I'd have been in this house."

While we were there, one of her kids found a fabric case containing some of their seasonal tableware: a stack of plates of various sizes, with little Christmas trees on them. They were covered in dirt, but otherwise completely undamaged. "It's amazing what survives," she told me.

Yes. Yes, it is. Godspeed, Mrs. H.