The journey from Pensacola, Fla., to Pascagoula starts with a search for gas and ends with a search for the dead.
Along the way, the smell of damp in Mobile, Ala., turns to the stench of death from the Gulf Coast. The radio dial flits from call-in shows fielding requests from beleaguered mayors of small hamlets for generators and ice to Baptist preachers promising God’s wrath. But for many here, it seems as though his will has already been done.
The entrance to Pascagoula reveals crushed homes and dilapidated stores alongside queues for gas and food.
“I’ve got enough supplies for another two days, but I don’t know what I’m going to do after that,” said Sarah Jackson as she entered her second hour in a queue outside Wal-Mart. “I keep telling myself I’m lucky because it could have been worse, but with each day I feel less and less lucky.”
Officials on the Gulf Coast say the emphasis has moved from search and rescue to bag and tag as emergency rescue workers cut their way through to Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., to find the death toll rising steadily.
“This is far worse than any of the worst-case scenarios we thought we would ever have to deal with,” said one law enforcement official.
Ten people have so far been reported dead in Jackson County, home to Pascagoula.
“The magnitude of it is mind-boggling,” a Mississippi congressman, Gene Taylor, told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. “I’m guessing tens of thousands of homes are gone.”
While everyone here was hard hit by Katrina, not everyone was affected in the same way. The wealthy lost property on the seafront. But the lives and the livelihoods of the poor without cars with which to escape, sturdy homes to protect them and insurance to fall back on, were the most vulnerable.
In one of the poorest states in the country, where black people earn half as much as white people, this has taken on a racial dimension. “People who live in poverty and don’t have the means to evacuate were definitely more likely to perish,” said Michael Matthews, an African-American who was nudging his car slowly along the four-hour queue for gas in Lucedale.
“The president is flying down here tomorrow in a plane, to tell us we can only use 20 gallons of gas. I think they are taking advantage.”
In Yvonne trailer park in Lucedale, residents hold out little hope of speedy government help. “I don’t think we’ll see any of that here,” said Raybelle Perrymon, sitting in the shade on her wheelchair, stricken by polio. She is an elderly black woman cared for by a younger white man, Charles Childens, who shares her trailer and her Kools.
She cannot get her disability benefit because the banks are closed. That means she cannot pay her rent or buy food. “We need help, but I don’t think we’re going to get any, until everybody else has gotten theirs,” she said. Childens nodded. “We need something to eat,” he said. “We need it pretty soon.”
Lives, like the trees, have been uprooted, and some have returned home to find almost nothing as it was.
“Look down,” Maureen Burnett told a New York Times reporter as she searched for her mother in Pass Christian. “See that kitchen table? That’s her table … the house ain’t there.”
Pascagoula residents expressed frustration with the relief effort, complaining it was too slow in doling out provisions and information. “We can’t wait for the kind of help they are giving,” said Sharon Jones, sitting on her porch.
“The lines [for handouts] are ridiculous. You need to wait five or six hours for water and ice, and that’s all the authorities are giving. I’ve got food for one more day; after that I’ll have to pray.”
Jones said her mother had lost everything. “They keep telling us to call FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. When we try to call we can’t get through; she’s just lucky I’m here.”
Gas curbs are getting tighter, and Thursday night people could only buy $30 worth of fuel. Many gas stations are closed, forcing people like Rover Furnas to make a 40-mile round trip to fill up his car. “This situation has had a severe mental effect on everybody, but as for a physical effect, well, that has hurt some a lot more than others,” he said.