Finding Katrina's "Forgotten"


By Brian Grow Katrina-battered residents of the Gulf Coast are engaged in a wrestling match between heartbreak and hope. Much of the focus, understandably, has been on the plight of desperate New Orleanians. But in the counties and parishes of southern Mississippi and Louisiana, the damage and desperation are also heart-wrenching.

Help here is still arriving in a trickle. A lone Army National Guardsman in full flack jacket stands watch with an M-16 at the Bogalusa Medical Center in Bogalusa, La., 70 miles north of New Orleans.

The lack of information is making matters worse. Some people are driving 80 miles to Baton Rouge for gas -- wasting precious fuel -- unaware that cities closer by have stations open. That's why some in this region of hardscrabble towns, saw mills, and scrub brush are calling themselves "the forgotten."

ON THEIR OWN FOR NOW. Uncaptured by the national media so far, the long-term damage to lives, homes, and businesses here is as real as in New Orleans or Biloxi, Miss.. From Highway 98 in Mississippi and south along State Roads 35 and 41 in Louisiana, Katrina's rage twisted the tops off pine trees like bottle caps. Towns and hamlets such as Slidell, La., and Columbia, Miss., are under martial law, with curfews from dusk until dawn.

A security guard in Bogalusa declares life has returned "to the Stone Age." Looters have stolen the furniture off of her Daddy's porch, says an assistant manager at the local Wal-Mart in Columbia, and driven off with Harley-Davidson motorcycles from Big Easy Choppers in Slidell. Vandals have smashed the windows of quick-loan shops.

As aid and attention begins to flood into New Orleans, help will come here. But for now, people and towns on the edges of the Katrina zone are on their own. I traveled the region's back roads this weekend to see how they're coping. Here's what I saw:

Stench, Sleep, and Repairs

At the Spaceway Truck Plaza & Restaurant west of Meridian, Miss., piles of people were lined up at lunch tables inside the cafeteria. Most of them were refugees from New Orleans, as well as the Mississippi cities of Gulfport and Biloxi, all roughly 200 miles south. Cars, 10 deep, waited for gas at the eight working pumps. The scene was controlled chaos.

As mothers comforted children, exhausted workers from Duke Power and Cingular took breaks. After six days working nonstop to install generators to power the Cingular Wireless cell-phone network, all Tom Holzknecht wants to do is sleep.

His bloodshot eyes and sunburned face tell the story: On Aug. 28, he left his home in Plainview, Ind. Between his labors, he has been catching quick winks in his hot, musty truck ever since.

One night, he and his fellow contractors were offered hotel rooms near Biloxi. But the stench of rotting garbage, sewage -- and possibly dead bodies -- was so bad, he says, they stayed in the truck where a breeze through the windows could cut the odor.

Now, he and other workers on his Wireless Communications Disaster Crew are headed home for a rest. They may be back, he says, because the damage is so bad. "It's the worst I've ever seen," says Holzknecht, 64, a veteran of repair work after Hurricanes Floyd and Dennis.

Clinging to the Couch

Russ Wilson sits on his green couch. Not his favorite couch at home, but the rentable one at his furniture shop, Autumn South Rentals, in Laurel, Miss., 140 miles north of New Orleans. He and wife, Jeanette, have been holed up there for a week, weathering Katrina in its back room. They can't go home. The hurricane's fury sent two giant pines through the roof of their abode.

They saw the storm's force from their store, too. The roof of Elegant Evenings, a salon across the square in downtown Laurel, ripped off and came crashing down on the back of Wilson's pickup truck. "I dove behind the couch," says Jeanette. Now, the twisted metal is still parked below the town's flagpole. The American flag flutters, but in tatters.

Flying bricks and debris shattered Autumn South's upstairs windows. The entire downtown square in Laurel is wrecked. Much of the townfolk have fled. "The storm is gonna put a stop to business for a while," says Wilson.

Power came back on Aug. 31. But the town has little potable water or gas. So Wilson and his wife sit on the couch in their shop -- and patiently wait for the insurance adjuster to come. It could be weeks. Like thousands of others in Laurel and beyond, he's hoping to reclaim some of the life he knew before. But "time is all I've got right now," says Wilson.

"Catching Hell" in Angie

On the ground, it's clear why some hamlets not far from the rattling helicopters and mass evacuation of the Big Easy aren't yet on the rescue map. Angie, La., is nothing more than a crossroads, a poor town 80 miles north of New Orleans. Street signs nearby read: "Prison area. Do not pick up hitchhikers."

A lone barbecue restaurant is surrounded by fallen trees. The Angie Farm & Garden Supply store offers crickets and minnows for sale to local fisherman, but it's shuttered.

The people here are hurting. On Saturday, Sept. 3, the Washington Parish sheriff's department handed out its first batch of water and ice in a week. Cars, tractors, and four-wheelers flocked to the cow trailer parked at the Angie Fire Station.

Cindy Varnado, who's living in a double-wide trailer with 14 people from four families, has been scrambling for supplies all week. She drove to Baton Rouge for gas, to Covington, north of New Orleans, for bread, and now snatches a case of water and four ice bags in Angie. "It's ridiculous," she says. And it's not going to get any better soon. Varnado's husband, a land surveyor, got word on Friday, Sept. 2, from his boss that there won't be any work for weeks, if not months.

What's the feeling among the locals, alone and without supplies for the last week? Like "catching hell," says Darrin Dixon, who works at the local paper mill. He doesn't expect power for six to eight weeks -- and probably no work, either. Angie's water and ice supply was brief. It ran out in an hour.

Sentinels with Satellite Phones

Levern Meades is crying. The chief administrator of Bogalusa Medical Center is exhausted, frustrated -- and searching for body bags. Power has been out at his hospital in this town of 13,000, 70 miles north of New Orleans, for five days. The air in the dark hallways is stifling. At least 14 people have died, including one in Meades' care who couldn't get a kidney dialysis quick enough.

Meades thinks the bodies are being stored in a refrigerated trailer at a hospital in Franklinton, La., the next town over. Just after the storm, there were 40 patients in the Bogalusa hospital. Any needing critical care were transported by the ambulances that could find gas to hospitals in Baton Rouge and Independence, La. Now, five days after the storm, Meades has pared his patient total down to 14.

Two generators provide meager power that allows the hospital to care for new trauma patients, most coming in now with chain-saw cuts and heat exhaustion. Third-year medical students from Louisiana State University, who fled New Orleans last weekend, served as two of his five doctors on the first night after the storm.

On Aug. 31, he hustled down to the Red Cross rescue center in Baton Rouge to order water and medicine. But much of it hasn't arrived. "We've been the forgotten parish [county]," says Meades.

ACTION, NOT JUST TALK. But Meades is weeping for another reason, too. He's deeply touched by the outpouring of help from local citizens -- and perfect strangers. A local cop set up camp in the lobby to keep out looters, and nurses have worked around the clock. Dr. Richard Hartman, 75, a retired local physician, is serving as the hospital's surgeon and Emergency Room chief.

Other help has materialized out of nowhere. Daniel G. Fournerat is the general counsel of PetroQuest, an oil and gas exploration company based in Lafayette, La. After trekking west to Mississippi in search of his father-in-law this week (he's safe), Fournerat pulled into the Bogalusa Medical Center on Aug. 31 and was gripped by its plight. Since then, he's used his satellite phone -- one of only three in town -- to call in supplies using a rented helicopter. He found two extra ambulances in Lafayette and had them driven in. Six PetroQuest executives were due to arrive on Sept. 3 in their personal SUVs laden with medicine, water, and ice.

Sleeping in Meades' office, Fournerat has become Bogalusa's good Samaritan. He vows not to leave until next week -- and not before he finds 1,000 oxygen bottles for the hospital. "You hear a lot of people talk," says Meades. "He's doing it."

Sandwich Missives

The Sandwich Man Inc. is silent. It's sweltering hot at the company in the town of Pearl River, La., 40 miles north of New Orleans. Yet, five of the outfit's refrigerated lunch trucks sit idly in the parking lot. No gas, no power, and no workers gobbling lunch, so business is on hold.

But life goes on after the storm. Managers are trying to save some of its food before it spoils, while a desperate worker pleads for money. Four letters posted on the front door of The Sandwich Man offices tell the story:

To Anybody

We're O.K. House O.K. Minor damage.

Praying for you all.

Jack & Ruth

----------------------------------------------------------

9/2/05 -- Afternoon. Don't have watch.

Cheryl,

I took bread and ham and cheese and mayo. Can't watch it ruin when I found linemen at Cleco do not have enough food. Wish you could contact these people.... They need us to feed them. We took van to keep stuff cold.

Sorry I couldn't ask.

Love, Ruth

----------------------------------------------------------

9/2/05

Everything looks pretty good considering what a storm came through here.... I would like to know everybody made it alright.... I am trying to relocate a little closer. Maybe we can get this ball rolling again.

Cheryl

----------------------------------------------------------

Miss Ruth,

I have lost everything. I really need to get my check. I can hopefully get it cashed in Hammond.

Sincerely, Jan

Sludge-Swamped Slidell

Ralph Kastner, owner of Tuff's Equipment Rental, has his knee-high rubber boots on. It's gear de rigeur in Slidell, five miles from New Orleans. The Louisiana town on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain is now mostly reduced to a stinking mass of black sludge.

When Katrina hit, a four-foot high wall of water washed out of the lake and into town. It mowed down power lines, smashed businesses, and flooded homes. A week on, the water has evaporated, leaving an inch-thick smear of waste that smells like a combination of fish and garbage.

At Tuff's, Kastner stacked a dozen forklifts, each raised 10-feet high, around the store's windows in hope of protecting against the storm -- and looters. Kastner's quick thinking worked. Little was stolen except four generators out of the back depot. But it wasn't enough to hold back the storm. Every rental truck, forklift, generator, and backhoe is ruined. Water washed into the engines, gummed up alternators, and shorted out batteries. At least $4.5 million worth of equipment is lost, Kastner estimates.

At Tuff's Storage, another of Kastner's businesses, the roof was ripped off, and 32 cars parked on the lot were flooded. "It's total devastation," says Kastner, barely holding back tears. "The sludge is in everybody's house."

SHARING FOOD. Mayor Ben Morris has declared martial law -- and police cars zip up and down the main drag, Route 11. The get-tough approach has thwarted some looting. "The Mayor said, 'If you see looting, take care of business -- and we'll worry about it later,'" says Kastner.

But police rule will do little to salvage the town. Speed boats lie smack in the middle of the business district, tossed out of the lake and the lots of local boat dealers by the storm. A giant truck trailer lies awkwardly against the wall of a local restaurant. Pickup trucks and Land Rovers in the parking lot at Pontchartrain Fresh Foods are slammed into pile-ons. The grocery store itself is a mass of Gatorade bottles, boxed soup, and rotting produce in mud.

A homeless woman in dirty pants and an oversized plaid shirt has collected two grocery carts worth of food. She wonders aloud how the local ducks survived and how all the ravaged businesses will bounce back. "This will really effect the economy," she says.

Amid the squalor, but with a smile, she offers a reporter some of her newfound food -- a couple of muddy candy bars and some spoiled apple juice.

Grow is an Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek


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