Mississippi Situation Deteriorating; Death Toll Tops 180
Officials estimate that the storm surge and devastating winds of Hurricane Katrina killed at least180 people, but the coroner for Harrison County, where many devastated coastal towns are located, warned that it could take several days to identify the number of dead and that bodies were decomposing quickly in the heat, making identification difficult.
Finding all the victims of the storm and beginning the process of accounting for the devastation will take time, officials warned. They say that many towns along the coast were simply washed away and wind from Hurricane Katrina toppled enormous old oak trees and stripped off roofs 100 miles and more from the coast.
“It’s one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen,” Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said.
Communication systems along the coast were almost completely down, except for a single bridge west of Pascagoula, where cell phones had spotty reception. Residents sat on the hoods — or stood on the roof of the tallest SUVs — waving their phones trying desperately to get a better signal, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Long lines were also found at all open gas stations in the region. A $25 ration was imposed and many drivers had to push their empty cars for hours to get to a station with fuel.
Biloxi, a city of 55,000, was all but demolished. Mississippi Clarion-Ledger reporters described dispirited and dazed residents picking through streets that looked more like landfills. The smell of sewage and rotting bodies has begun to fill the heavy, heated air.
Lt. John Lowe, of the Biloxi Police Reserve, said he expected the death toll to exceed 100 in this one city alone, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Convoys of 18-wheelers carrying supplies began reaching southern Mississippi by midweek, but distribution was spotty and generally focused on shelters.
President Bush was scheduled to tour the area Friday, but residents were reportedly more interested in Federal Emergency Management Agency trucks full of ice, bottled water and prepared meals, according to the Biloxi Sun Herald.
At some distribution points, people clapped and cheered when supply trucks showed up. At others, sheriff’s deputies and National Guardsmen had to hold off a rush of people desperate for food and water.
Recently arrived relief workers expressed shock at the situation throughout the region.
“We wanted to go to the hardest-hit area, and this is it,” Salvation Army Capt. August Pillsbury told reporters in Biloxi. “Look around you. There’s nowhere to live. There isn’t any worse than this.”
In addition to the devastation, there have been numerous reports of looting as well. In Biloxi, looters smashed the windows of everything from convenience to video rental stores. Local radio reporters said that parked cars had been broken into and their gas siphoned.
In the town of Gauthier, about 20 miles inland, a shattered house bore this warning, spray-painted in orange on what remained of the roof: “We still have the bullets left over from [Hurricane] Ivan. Beware, looters.”
One of the hardest hit towns was Waveland, population 7,000, which was separated from the mainland when Hurricane Katrina swept the main bridge away. The Associated Press reported most of the town was in splinters, and survivors scavenged the rubble for food.
Mississippi’s coastline, a relied-upon economic engine for the entire state could take years, if not decades, to recover, the AP reported.
About 14,000 people work in the dozen casinos along the state’s coastline. Each casino included hotels that employed thousands more.
State Gaming Commission director Larry Gregory said the state loses about $500,000 in tax revenue each day the coastal casinos are closed.
“It’s beyond imagination,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said. “We’re going to rebuild the coast bigger and better than ever,” he said. “But it’s not going to get done next month. It’s probably not going to get finished next year. It’s going to be a long time. We’re in it for the long haul.”