"I want to keep living here, but I can't"

Along the Gulf Coast, the devastation is complete, with Biloxi casinos just stones along the shore. In Jackson, refugees wait for their next move.

Published September 4, 2005 1:19AM (EDT)

It's only at the Gulf that one gets a full sense of Katrina's devastation. The Gulf of Mississippi is destroyed. As far as one can see in any direction the beach is filled with wreckage, twisted docks, trucks turned over, trailers impaled on cement barriers. The parking lot at the Copa Casino in Gulfport is broken in pieces, littered with beams long as houses, tires, glass and odd fabric straps. Steel pylons wrenched from the concrete, which is cracked like plaster.

Casinos in Mississippi are not allowed to be land based, so the casinos are actually boats. The six-story Copa is a barge as large as a city block. It sits unmoored 300 feet from its dock. Several holes have been ripped in the side of the Copa. The slot machines sit in rows next to the opening, tops covered in black plastic bags. Split wires lay across the floor and dangle from the roof. The nearby Grand Casino has also been lifted from the sea and thrown ashore. Bricks lie peeled from the face of the adjoining hotel.

It's 80 degrees and a cool breeze rolls slowly from the water. The air reeks of rust and rotting chickens from a truck that overturned in the storm, spilling frozen poultry across the street. In nearby downtown most of the buildings are missing windows, as if they've been blown out. In fact, within a mile of the shore, the effect is what one imagines is left after a carpet bombing. Storefronts twisted like pretzels.

There is a 24-hour curfew in this area south of the interstate. A few press buses park near the coast; the broadcasters narrate in front of the disaster. But a picture or a video could never fully capture the damage here. It's overwhelming and endless and in every direction. Guardsmen and police patrol up and back. There's nothing to defend. These casinos, which accounted for a third of the economy of Mississippi, the nation's poorest state, are just large stones in the rubble. Nearby in Biloxi the president has landed and is giving a speech. Many think he is too late.

Stan Wheeler lives two miles inland from the casinos. He sits in front of his small wrecked house, the front painted red, white, and blue. Inside, everything is soaked and ruined. He's lived in this area all of his life, along with most of his family. "I want to keep on living here," he says. "But I can't." He has no electricity. For days he's carried water from ditches to flush his toilet.

As he's speaking his nephew arrives to say goodbye. He's driving to Atlanta with some friends. They think they have enough fuel to make it to the state line and hope to be able to buy gas there.

"I have to get out of here too," Stan says after his nephew leaves. He looks inside his window. His small house is full of garbage bags. "What I need is a van. I'll work for it. I want the government to give me a van I can park right here and live in it so I don't have to leave."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Many who leave go to Jackson, the capital of Mississippi. Plenty of people still don't have electricity in Jackson, and there are streets blocked by fallen trees. In the coliseum, near the capitol building, several thousand refugees bide their time, hoping to return to homes that have been destroyed. There is medical triage, stacks of water and snacks. There are workers in red shirts taking information, handing out blue bracelets. Cots fill the center and line the walls. Children play in front of the building. A woman lies with her husband and daughter. The daughter is just a baby and begins to cry. Soon her mother is crying too. The three of them arrived days ago from Biloxi. They stopped in Jackson when they ran out of gas.

The shelter is hot but not unbearable and there are enough security to keep the peace. Thirty people sit around a table watching a small television set, scenes of looting in New Orleans. The people watching the television don't like the depictions.

"What do they expect us to do?" a young man says.

"I'm not homeless," a woman says when the television refers to the looters as homeless. Like many others in the shelter she's from New Orleans. "Homeless people don't have an address. I have a home."

There are no hotel rooms available in the capital; all of them are full of the displaced heading north. In the other direction toward the Gulf one begins to see the wreckage of Katrina and the trail of tears that has created the new population of American refugees. At first, a few signs hanging from their hinges bear reminders of level 4 winds. Then stores with giant trees crashed through their roofs. Seventy miles south of Jackson there is almost no electricity, no phone service. People huddle in groups around closed banks. There are many impromptu aid centers doling out water and ice from the back of trucks.

South of Hattiesburg just past 7 in the morning hundreds of people wait in line in front of two gas stations. Many wait in cars but just as many are pedestrians carrying red fuel containers. Neither station is selling gas. Eventually one station opens the doors of the convenience store. Six people are allowed in at a time emerging with cases of warm soda, bags of potato chips, candy, cigarettes and popcorn. The registers don't work. Cash transactions only. All of the canned food is already gone.

The people in line are frustrated. "He could open the pumps if he wanted to," somebody says. A brief scuffle occurs across the street, two men shoving each other.

"It's the heat," says a man in blue shorts and no shirt. "Makes people crazy."

There's a lot of blame directed at the government. "What do they expect us to do?" one lady says. "They didn't start handing out ice for three days. By then everything had gone bad." Further south the destruction becomes more intense, nearly every building sustaining some sort of damage. Later in the morning some of the gas stations are selling fuel, and the lines at these stations stretch for miles with wait times of four hours.

By Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott is the author of six books, including "Happy Baby." His next book, "The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder," is forthcoming from Graywolf Press.

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