Hurricane Katrina was born on August 23 and lived for 9 days… but in just one of those days, August 29, the fourth hurricane of the 2005 season triggered the greatest humanitarian disaster in America's history… Eventually displacing more than a million people.
You have to go back to the Great Depression to see that kind of population on the move. Now two months later we're moving to see what has and hasn't happened in her wake.
To get to our starting point, Foley, Ala., we first had to drive east out of New Orleans. Normally the drive would be about 180 miles and take three hours. We took nine hours and covered 241 miles.
For the most part highways, I-10 in our case, are open and in only a very few places impacted by the storm. The same can't be said for coastal highway 90. It's a mess, most of its bridges damaged and closed. Gas is plentiful along the way and sells on average for $2.75 a gallon. The fast food spots are open and busy but don't look for a hotel. If their open, they're full.
We wandered on and off of I-10, dipping in and out of disaster, scouting ahead for the journey back that will make up our reports every night this week in a series we're calling "After the Storm: The Long Road Back."
Our first stop out of New Orleans, at 10 a.m., wasn't that far down the road, in Michaud, La. It's where they make the external fuel tanks for the space shuttle. The only place they make them. NASA hopes to return to space next May. What we found could have them rethinking that.
From there we headed to Mississippi. As you drive in the Katrina zone beyond the devastation there are other impressions. Grit. Your skin and lips constantly feel dry and covered with dust. You can't see it, but you feel it coating you. The last rain in the region was hurricane Rita. Ironically, areas that were flooded are now bone dry. Fire is one of the greatest fears here.
By 12 noon we're passing through East Orleans and another of Katrina's effects pours through the window… smell. The bouquets range from interesting to "Oh my God!" In a mile of roadway I am nearly overcome by the smell of some sort of fuel which is then replaced by the overpowering aroma of roasting coffee from the huge Folgers factory. A half mile later something obviously dead replaces that scent.
1pm and we're pulling into Pearlington, Miss. The town sits on the bank of the Pearl River. The very river Katrina followed inland. It was said this town was forgotten before the storm and definitely afterward. At the small Catholic church, the statue of Mary still stands. The church behind it is erased. So is the post office, right down to the slab, gone.
I talked to Griff Hailes. He and his wife Winney had just set a camping trailer where their house was. No sign of the house, but they have a 70-foot deep sea tug in their backyard now. Lots of folks come by to take pictures. Griff is thinking of charging admission to make up for what the insurance won't cover, which right now is everything. He's 80, she's 79.
2:56pm and it's Pass Christian, Miss. This is the town where the cops got trapped in the new library as the storm surge rose. The hurricane glass held until they realized they were trapped. From those windows they watched Katrina from underwater, in sort of a reverse aquarium. The amazing part is how they got out.
I met Dave and Carole Baker there. Like prospectors, they were bent over on their property, sifting through the sand, trying to find jewelry or silverware. Carole walked me through their house room by room. It took some imagination since the only thing left is the slab. We were the first camera crew they had seen.
Back on the road again and more interesting things to see.Most cars in the storm zone are new. The most common state plate is "temporary." Most common sign? People advertising "House gutting." And you see lots of American flags… all of them new.
We pass through Long Beach, Miss. This is the town a British billionaire is promising to rebuild. The millionaires who own the vanished beachfront mansions are probably glad for that.
5:05pm and Pascagoula, Miss. is getting dark thanks to the time change. We pass several shopping center parking lots littered with clothing. When I see one with people wading through it we stop. By street light and aided by headlights, Carolyn (she wouldn't give her last name) digs through the clothing spread out before her. She is looking for something for her grandbabies. Their parents have lost everything and here is what remains of the clothing Americans gave. For two months it has been sitting scattered in the open air. She will search all night if she has to, haunted by the faces of children who are now cold since fall has come and their coats are gone.
In a single day we have been reminded of what one storm did to change life for a million people. We've met people who still struggle to survive. Come with us this week and we'll show you.