Faces of Katrina

 

AP Correspondent Matt Apuzzo chronicles courageous efforts to return to "normal"

By Matt Apuzzo '00 
Photography by AP/World Wide Photos
 

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Shipping containers are strewn like toys amid the rubble left by Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi.
Photo by AP/Wide World Photos
The blisters on my feet have healed and the aches from sleeping on floors or in a rented sedan have subsided. Even the smell, that nauseating combination of rotting shrimp, sewage, and death that hung over downtown Biloxi for weeks, has faded from my clothes.

All the things that seemed so permanent after three weeks reporting in coastal Mississippi for the Associated Press are gone, leaving behind more lasting memories of Hurricane Katrina"the people I met only in passing but who faced such incredible obstacles. Them I can't seem to shake.

I met Han Luong, a 52-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, near what was left of the Biloxi docks. A six-foot gash in the pier separated us as he sat on the deck of the Santa Maria, the boat he worked two decades to buy.

His story began like most: His home was destroyed. Destroyed is the adjective reporters use when pulverized, decimated, and obliterated have been used up. None of them really does the situation justice. Luong's house was a slab of concrete.

The Santa Maria, however, endured, keeping thousands of pounds of shrimp frozen in its hull. This cargo of shrimp was everything to Luong. It was a new house, maybe some clothes, some food other than the MREs the guardsmen were handing out.

But a week after Katrina, every shrimp processing plant from Alabama to Texas was gone.

While other shrimpers dumped their freezers, Luong persisted. He borrowed $200 in gas each day to keep the generator purring and the shrimp frozen, holding out hope that somewhere a plant would open that would buy his shrimp.

Each day his debts grew and the plants remained closed. If he gave up and dumped his shrimp, he'd have no way to pay for the borrowed gas. He couldn't sell his boat; nobody would offer anything as long as the polluted Gulf of Mexico remained off limits to fishing.

It's amazing the calm that comes over people facing impossible situations. Luong casually shrugged, offering an understated assessment of his needs. "I need to fish. I need shrimp."

He would wait. That's all he could do. When I left Mississippi, he was still waiting.

Like Luong needed shrimp, Wilbur Brown, a 78-year-old farmer who lives in a nameless crossroads an hour north of the coast, needed power. Days after most Mississippi towns had electricity back, Brown still couldn't start his stove to boil the toxic water sputtering out his faucets. It took days working a chainsaw to clear the trees from the dusty road into town. He survived on warm Dr. Pepper and his morning coffee, which he made from the murky tap water because, he says, we're all gonna die from something.

For all the talk of the mistakes made in the days and weeks following Katrina"and there were plenty"the stories I find myself retelling are about people who, like Luong and Brown, adapted almost immediately to the most difficult conditions.

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Football fans at a sports bar in Kiln, La., showed up as usual, refusing to give in to the disaster around them.
Photo by AP/Wide World Photos
A week after Katrina hit, the Gautier High School football team was practicing again. The quarterback's house was flooded. The kicker lost his car and everything in his bedroom. One of the linemen said his father escaped his house in a canoe, leaving behind all their possessions. Yet there they were, running laps alongside a National Guard outpost, practicing passing routes like always because that's what Mississippi high school football players do.

Football, they said, meant things were getting back to normal.

It was a common theme in the weeks following the storm. Wal-Mart was open, so things were getting back to normal. The port reopened. The streetlights were back on. Everything was getting back to normal.

By any measure, of course, things were far from normal. Weeks after the storm, Mississippi was still looking for tens of thousands of trailers to house the homeless.

And the yearlong debris-removal process was really just starting, with truck drivers working 14 hours a day hauling away what was left of people's homes. I asked one of them, over a charcoal fire one night, whether it was hard dumping baby furniture, wedding albums, and toys all day.

"Well," the trucker said, "it's kinda like shootin' a dog. It's real hard the first time you gotta do it, but after a few times, it's just shootin'."

That's hurricane wisdom, a sign of just how amazingly good people are at coping with whatever the wind blows in. The first day of the NFL season, for example, people were still trying to calculate the scope of the damage. Bodies were still being found in the rubble.

Yet, in the tiny town of Kiln, the hometown of Packers quarterback Brett Favre, football fans found their "normal." They came in droves and they came on faith, believing that any bar where women's underwear hangs from the ceiling would find a way to serve cold beer and hot food on opening day.

They were not disappointed. Some of the customers were living in tents, others in their cars or with friends. Many wore the clothes they had worn the day before. Some hadn't had a hot meal in more than a week. But they showed up because, hurricane or not, it was opening day for football. And normal is what you make of it.