Staff writer George J. Tanber covered Hurricane Katrina's aftermath for The Blade and its sister paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In this dispatch, he reflects on the devastation he witnessed during his travels across the stricken Gulf Coast areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
"How bad was it?"
It's the most frequent question you hear since returning Wednesday from 12 days of covering Hurricane Katrina.
"Bad," you say. "Worse than you can imagine."
This was the greatest natural disaster of our lifetime. Katrina blistered a 120-mile stretch of Gulf Coast from Mobile to New Orleans - the distance from Toledo to Cleveland. The lives of every one of the 2 million or more people who reside there were impacted in one way or another. People died, families separated, and homes and businesses were destroyed on a level rarely experienced in this country.
For once, it wasn't Africa. Or India. Or Bangladesh.
Still, it wasn't in our backyard. You couldn't see it.
So how bad was it?
From print stories, photographs, and video clips, you can get a sense of it.
Being there is something else.
The storm's power was visible everywhere, but in particular in Mississippi between Biloxi and Bay St. Louis, which witnessed the brunt of Katrina.
Along the beach, million-dollar homes vanished as if they were vaporized. In some cases, only the front steps or a fireplace remained, creating a cartoon-like image. But there was nothing funny about what you saw.
Katrina's ferocity was best witnessed in Pascagoula, Miss., where the first floor of Buzzy Largillier's beach-front house went missing. It was built in 1876 and survived umpteen storms over 129 years.
Sometimes, what you couldn't see, you smelled. During a stroll through several neighborhoods in Biloxi, the stench of rotting flesh in 95 degree heat violently turned your stomach. Five days after Katrina, retrieving the dead was not a pressing issue. The focus was on survivors.
Along Louisiana's State Rt. 23 in the Mississippi Delta, south of New Orleans, a different smell surfaced. Gulf waters that flooded already-flattened towns had mixed with oil, gas, diesel fuel, and other chemicals, producing a foul, scary odor and a daunting cleanup task.
Not surprisingly, every native you met had a story. How could they not.
One minute, they're thinking about Friday night football, dinner menus, and yard chores. The next, they're sleeping on a high school gymnasium floor surrounded by 1,000 strangers, their remaining possessions filling a single plastic grocery bag, and wondering if their lives will ever be whole again.
Yet, this is the South, where civility is a fiercely practiced tradition unmatched elsewhere. Thus, "Yes, sir, I did lose everything I had." And, "No, sir, I haven't found my sister yet."
Amid the despair, glimmers of hope and acts of compassion were witnessed every waking hour in every damaged town.
In Slidell, La., Dwayne Ginn, owner of a landscaping business, lost his home and most of his tools. Within a few days he was back in business, clearing felled trees and planning a new home. Nothing, he said, would keep him down or chase him away.
When Barry Breaux reopened his Breaux Mart grocery store in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie on Sept. 9 - one of the first businesses to do so in the area - his customers, many seeing one another for the first time since the storm, acted as though it was New Year's Eve.
Meanwhile, Jerry Taylor, a Daphne, Ala., pastor, turned up unannounced at the Pascagoula Church of God two days after Katrina. By the next day, Mr. Taylor had organized a kitchen outside the damaged church where he and his parishioners served more than 4,000 meals in three days, causing Pastor Eugene Eubanks of the Pascagoula church to remark, "In the midst of this tragedy, a great ministry has sprung forth."
Recalling the aid they received after four hurricanes struck their state last year, police, fire, and EMT crews from numerous Florida communities appeared for duty all along the coast.
Similarly, in a post-Sept. 11 gesture of gratitude, a platoon of New York City police made the 1,300-mile journey from Manhattan to New Orleans, where they patrolled the sometimes lawless, flooded streets.
Tori Sanchez of suburban New Orleans was astounded by the many acts of kindness. She herself benefited on four occasions in a single week, when she was short on cash and people she did not know bailed her out.
"How do you explain the generosity of people who don't know you?" she asked after a stranger gave her $8 at the Breaux Mart. "I'm going to have a smile on my face all day."
During a 2,300-mile journey, things you had never seen before became the norm.
Lines outside of banks stretched for a block or more, where people waited for hours in searing heat for the cash they needed to get by. Caskets floated out of cemeteries and onto roads. And Bourbon Street and the rest of the French Quarter, which in its lifetime has never slept a wink, was empty, shuddered, and silent.
Katrina, like all natural disasters, impacted people in varying degrees. No matter the level of loss, in the minds of many of its victims the damage was equal.
Explained Stacey Stec, recounting how five trees fell on her Slidell home: "Compared to what you've seen [elsewhere], it's a little bit of damage. But for us, it's a lot."
Katrina was a huge story. So reporters by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, from around the world descended on the Gulf Coast. We stocked our vehicles with food, water, and containers filled with gas, and set out to recount what happened.
It was a challenging, grueling assignment, made more difficult by the constant sight of so much destruction, so many fractured lives. Compared to what the people there suffered, though, our task was a placid walk in the park.
And when we finished, after a week or two, we got to return home and move on to the next story.
The victims of Hurricane Katrina must stay and soldier on.
Contact George Tanber at gtanber@theblade or 419-724-6050.