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Recovering From Katrina

September 5, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


REV. BO ROBERT, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church: Let me have a hallelujah.

GROUP: Hallelujah!

REV. BO ROBERT: That’s not my style, but praise God we’re all here.

GROUP: Amen.

TOM BEARDEN: St. Mark’s Episcopal held services in Gulfport on Sunday, on the site their church has occupied since 1924. But Hurricane Katrina destroyed the beach-front church building last week. There isn’t much left but the foundation.

REV. BO ROBERT: Look in your mind’s eyes, and I want you to picture a white wood frame building with green shutters, red carpet inside, white colonial pews and red velvet seats. That’s not St. Mark’s Church. But look besides you. Those nasty people sitting out there covered with mud, forgot to shave, that’s St. Mark’s Church.

TOM BEARDEN: As Mississippians were worshipping, FEMA urban search-and-rescue teams were still looking for people who might still be trapped in their homes. A task force from Ohio has been trudging through the mud-covered neighborhoods in Pass Christian, Mississippi, one of 28 national teams coordinated through the Office of Homeland Security.

CHRIS EISELE, Ohio Urban Search & Rescue: Hello.

TOM BEARDEN: Medical specialist Chris Eisele entered a home that appeared to be okay, until one could see how floodwaters have literally stirred the interior…

CHRIS EISELE: We’re here to rescue. Anybody in here?

TOM BEARDEN: ..Despite the fact that the house was on 12-foot stilts.

CHRIS EISELE: A lot of the things we’re looking for when we open the doors is obviously what cars are in the driveway, if the beds are made. One of our biggest indicators is going to be the smell — not only the smell of storm, which we’re kind of acclimated to now, but trying to make sure that you’re not smelling for a decomposing body.

TOM BEARDEN: Safety Specialist Jeff Newman was down the street, also checking for anybody who might be trapped, and for bodies. Occasionally, the team came across homeowners who are only now beginning to return.

SPOKESMAN: You live here?

GROUP: We live here.

SPOKESMAN: You live here, okay. Do you know anything about your neighbors the day after?

WOMAN: Yeah, this one, she’s a nurse at Memorial. That one’s okay. She called us yesterday.

SPOKESMAN: Okay. Anybody else you know on the street? So you know if this lady left or these people left?

SPOKESPERSON: Yeah, I know she left.

SPOKESMAN: Okay, so we got this one covered and we got this one covered?

WOMAN: Right. Right.

SPOKESPERSON: Okay, very good. I don’t about them over there.

SPOKESMAN: Did you guys need anything?

WOMAN: No, no…

MAN: A ride out of here. …The road was clear.

TOM BEARDEN: The Ohio unit got to Mississippi on Monday, just in time to ride out Hurricane Katrina in Meridian, about 200 miles from the coast. They arrived here the following day. They are aware that FEMA has been criticized for a slow response.

SCOTT DONEGIA: The first few days of any disaster is going to be chaotic. It takes time logistically to bring supplies and that in. We saw that here.

JEFF NEWMAN: The equipment and what we need to do this job, we’ve got to be able to access and get in. You know, you’re talking with the heat that we’ve been going through, and everything else here, if we had to actually lug all of our tools to do our job by foot, we couldn’t get in.

TOM BEARDEN: The team says the rescue part of the operation is pretty much over. But they’ll keep looking until every house has been checked. This neighborhood cleared, the team prepared to move on, trying to decipher maps that were often confusing.

SPOKESMAN: There’s Pinewood. Can you give me a cross street?

SPOKESMAN: Top portion of the bay there. Off of Fairway Drive. Off of Fairway Drive.

SPOKESMAN: Okay, copy. I see it now.

SPOKESMAN: You see it?

SPOKESMAN: Yeah, right here. In little letters, off of Fairway Drive.

TOM BEARDEN: A few miles to the east, the beach at Biloxi is a garbage dump: Suitcases, bathtubs, stuffed animals, dead animals. But that didn’t deter Father Warren Drinkwater from trudging through it all to take a bath in the Gulf of Mexico, because there is no running water along the entire coast. He’s a retired Catholic priest from New Orleans, living in a retirement home across the street.

FATHER WARREN DRINKWATER: You know, every summer we used to camp, so… (laughs) …in our seminary days, so we got used to this tough stuff.

TOM BEARDEN: Father Albert Babin is living in the home, too. He says there are 26 miles of beaches like this.

FATHER ALBERT BABIN: The surge comes in, subsides; comes in, subsides. And at the height of it, the strongest winds, it’ll push it all the way up, past that school there. And on its way back it’ll pick up anything.

TOM BEARDEN: There’s more debris offshore, under the water. No one has any idea who, if anyone, might ever clean it up.

JIM LEHRER: And, from Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, a tough homecoming for one family. Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago reports that story.

SPOKESMAN: Look, it’s gone. The Hughes house is gone.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: The Chapoton family knew it would be bad.

SPOKESMAN: That was a huge house.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: They braced themselves as they drove down their street for the first time since Hurricane Katrina brought a 27-foot wall of water through their Gulf Coast town.

SPOKESPERSON: Oh, my. Oh my.

SPOKESMAN: This is awful.

SPOKESPERSON: I think we ought to go to the driveway, huh?

ELIZABETH BRACKET: It’s a trip home that’s being played out daily along the 90 miles of devastation stretching from New Orleans to Biloxi, Mississippi.

SPOKESPERSON: Do you believe it?

ELIZABETH BRACKET: The most powerful winds from the northeast side of the hurricane spiral hit Bay St. Louis, destroying Mike Chapoton’s house, his town and the bridge commuters used for their daily trip to New Orleans.

MELISSA CHAPOTON: Oh, this is from when we took the boat back, when we first got the boat.

MIKE CHAPOTON: This is the cake knife from our wedding cake.

EILEEN CHAPOTON: Are those our clothes in the trees?

ELIZABETH BRACKET: Eileen Chapoton, her husband, Mike, and daughter, Melissa, had different feelings about sifting through years of memories.

MELISSA CHAPOTON: I was sick to my stomach driving in. It’s just a mess.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: Is it good to have finally seen it?

MELISSA CHAPOTON: Yeah, definitely. Definitely.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: Now you know what you’re dealing with.

MELISSA CHAPOTON: I couldn’t sleep or anything.

EILEEN CHAPOTON: It’s better than I thought. My neighbor we found out on Tuesday had come to his house and said there’s nothing left. So I was really thinking that I wouldn’t see anything and I would not retrieve anything, and we’ve actually gotten some things.

MIKE CHAPOTON: I said I wasn’t going to do this, but I’m doing it, picking through the debris.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: But Chapoton’s brother-in-law, Jack Holden, thought the effort was important.

JACK HOLDEN: The reason I came was to help them, not that I thoughts we could get much, but get what memories they could salvage and help them with that.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: Can you salvage memories out of mud?

JACK HOLDEN: You know, china that grandma had, special serving pieces that were used for holidays and trophies that the children got is part of your being, you know. As a southerner, your house is part of who you are and what you are and there’s long traditions with that.

MIKE CHAPOTON: Good Lord! Good Lord!

ELIZABETH BRACKET: For the 8,000 people who lived here, the historic old town district was the cultural center.

SPOKESPERSON: This was a little commercial district. That’s the street right there, gone.

SPOKESPERSON: This was the heart and soul of Bay St. Louis.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: The town didn’t just lose its buildings. Hurricane Katrina claimed the lives of at least 39 residents in the county. In a roller-coaster ride of emotions, the Chapotons’ feelings of loss changed throughout the day.

MIKE CHAPOTON: My stuff wasn’t so bad. I guess it’s the collective thing. It’s everybody, it’s magnified; it’s not just me, it’s a whole little town.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: Interesting that it hit you more here even than when you were looking at your own loss.

MIKE CHAPOTON: Well, like we said, we understood the risk, we thought we did. And it was a decision we made, and I guess it was, you know, a decision everybody made and I guess that’s what makes a community is the collection of the decisions. This is the result. This is going to take a lot of work. Now everybody’s dreams are scattered around here.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: Do you think your dreams will come back? Can you see it being rebuilt?

MIKE CHAPOTON: Oh, sure, yeah.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: Are you going to be part of it?

MIKE CHAPOTON: I have a hard time leaving, and I don’t know why. It hurts. This is my home. I knew when we left the house would be gone, so I was okay with that. But then when you see that everything’s gone…

SPOKESPERSON: I’m so sorry.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: As the day wore on, more and more of the Chapotons’ neighbors began returning.

MAN: I’m building back. The hell with everybody.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: But Eileen Chapoton worried that the community itself would not return so quickly.

EILEEN CHAPOTON: Friends going to Shreveport, friends going to Jackson. We don’t know where we’re going to be. And I think that’s a greater loss than the loss of the house and everything in it. We loved where we lived, so my life as I know it is just gone. I mean, it’s just gone.

ELIZABETH BRACKET: As it is for hundreds of thousands of residents along the Gulf Coast, whose lives were changed forever by Hurricane Katrina.