Hurricane Katrina’s Damage in Biloxi
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GWEN IFILL: Katrina’s fury hit Harrison County, Mississippi, the hardest. And one of the communities that has suffered the biggest losses is Biloxi. Peter Slevin of the Washington Post there’s and he joins us now.
GWEN IFILL: Peter, can you give us any most recent estimate on how many — what the loss of life is?
PETER SLEVIN: Gwen, the city authorities are talking about at least 40 dead. But they’re being very careful about that, being very cautious because for one thing it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on everywhere in the city. There are trees down, power lines down. They’re really just spending the day getting out to everywhere they can and doing the best they can to make those estimates.
GWEN IFILL: Behind you we can see the kind of damage which has been done. Give us a sense of what the city looks like right now.
PETER SLEVIN: The city does seem to be a ruin. There’s no other way to put it. The storm was just extraordinarily powerful. Water came in eight or ten feet high, several blocks into Biloxi. You see that — you can look up and down the coast and see how the water just lifted houses off their pilings, wiped out hotels, really ruined the casino industry for sometime to come and put any number of people out of their homes.
When I came in this morning, it was daybreak and it was very eerie to see small bands of people carrying what few belongings they could salvage and heading out from their homes on foot to shelters.
GWEN IFILL: For people who have never been to that area of the Gulf Coast, how big an industry is the casino industry?
PETER SLEVIN: There’s not much else, frankly. The casinos have really taken over here, and I’ve talked to any number of people today who have returned to their homes and said, “I have no home, I no place to live. And I’ve been to my casino and I have no job. We just don know what we’re going to do.”
You have a situation here, Gwen, where the city is just overwhelmed with need, especially in this early stage. The city authorities really can’t do very much and they admit it. The city needs water, it needs fuel, there’s no power; there are gas lines that are open and a lot of these houses that have been blown away. And so you have both a ravaged economy and a great deal of emergency needs.
GWEN IFILL: We’ve been seeing pictures all day from not only Biloxi, but also from New Orleans, and we’ve seen a lot of last minute rescues going on or continuing on. Is that still happening as well in Biloxi?
PETER SLEVIN: It hasn’t happened as much here partly because the water isn’t a factor. The water came powering in yesterday afternoon, but it receded very quickly. And so it’s actually sort of an odd sight to see a few blocks west of where the water is here and talk to people and they’ll show you where the water climbed up the wall, sometimes six, eight or ten feet, and yet now it’s — the streets at least are dry as a bone.
GWEN IFILL: So what are officials doing now to begin, if it’s possible, to even tackle some of these challenges you’ve just outlined?
PETER SLEVIN: They’re just making a beginning, and what they say today is that it’s largely an assessment day and a day to rescue anyone they can find who may be trapped and to treat people who have suffered injuries by swimming away from the damage or breaking ankles, heavy cuts and so forth.
I was over at the police department the other day — a little while ago, and the authorities have commandeered a store, both to prevent looting and to gather some supplies that they can take to shelters because unlike many storms, when people drift back to their houses pretty quickly after the danger is passed, now many people don’t have homes to go back to, and so they will be in shelters for sometime to come.
The police authorities and city officials say that what they really want is for the National Guard to show up early and to show up in great numbers.
GWEN IFILL: How widespread is the looting that you alluded to?
PETER SLEVIN: The police say it was pretty modest here at least. Biloxi is a fairly small town and there wasn’t so much to loot partly because a lot of the business district, particularly the casinos along the western part of Biloxi, were wiped out, and so there wasn’t even all that much to steal.
GWEN IFILL: Was there any sense that, as we watch the hurricane make its way toward the coast and it was widely reported that it was supposed to be headed dead on for Louisiana, instead took a right and headed toward Mississippi, was there any sense that a lot of people did not evacuate as they might have otherwise if they thought it was headed right for them?
PETER SLEVIN: You know, Gwen, a lot of people talked about that today. They said, “Well, gee, we were here in 1969 when Hurricane Camille really did a lot of damage to Biloxi, we’ve been through hurricanes before; we just didn’t think this one would be this strong. We didn’t think it could do what damage it could.” There are an awful lot of people who are second guessing themselves right now.
GWEN IFILL: Do those people include the leaders in Mississippi, state leaders?
PETER SLEVIN: I don’t know about the state leaders who met over in Gulfport a little while ago, and I haven’t spoken with them. But if you talk with people who are trickling back to their houses, trying to see what’s there, mostly finding that an awful lot is gone, you hear them saying “Gee, I wish I had listened this time.
I really wish that I had paid attention, I wish I had gotten out,” and they’re coming back and finding, if they just went up the block, where some of them did, in fact some of them swam up the block, they’re coming back to houses closer to the water and discovering that very little is left.
GWEN IFILL: As you said earlier, there’s no electricity, there’s very little communications; there is no water. Is there a general mood? Are people hopeful, are they despairing? Do they feel like that they’ve turned some sort of corner?
PETER SLEVIN: I’ve seen an awful lot of tears today, Gwen — people who feel that they on the one hand, yes, are lucky to have survived it, but also looking ahead and wondering just how they’re going to make it.
There are certainly people of different classes in Biloxi, but I’ve spent a good deal of time in poorer neighborhoods where people say we really just have nothing to turn to and we’re going to need federal help, we’re going to need city help, and we just really don’t know what these weeks are going to hold. I talked to a man who owned some businesses who is not really worried for his personal well-being and he’s certainly not going to lose his house, but he has seen several of his hotels wiped out.
He’s wondering whether his insurance company will have enough to bail him out, he’s wondering if the insurance company doesn’t if he can count on the federal government to come in and do what needs to be done. But one thing is very clear is that it’s going to take a very long time for Biloxi to first dig out and just provide water and power and telephone service, and then secondly to figure out how it’s going to go forward and bring those jobs back.
GWEN IFILL: Peter Slevin of the Washington Post, thanks a lot.
PETER SLEVIN: Glad to be here.