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Andrew Ward, Atlanta bureau chief for the Financial Times, writes from the roadways and towns of Mississippi, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Thursday September 8

In need of a good night’s sleep in my own bed and some fresh clothes, it is time to head home to Atlanta.

Thousands of people along the Gulf coast would love to be able to do the same thing. Instead, they remain stuck in communal shelters, tents, hotel rooms and the cramped spare rooms of friends and relatives for the foreseeable future.

However, having witnessed the resilience and resolve of the people of Mississippi over the past 10 days, I have no doubt that their communities will recover. I look forward to reporting on that process over the months to come.

Wednesday, September 7

Driving past WJ Quarles elementary school in Long Beach, I notice a family sitting outside a cluster of tents in the playground. When I approach, they welcome me under their sun canopy and tell me their story. Kathy Taylor, 54, is living in the tents with her two daughters, one of their partners and six grandchildren. All of them have lost their homes and all their possessions to Katrina. The clothes they are wearing were donated by church groups. The main tent they are sleeping in was donated by Wal-Mart, which employs one of the daughters, Samantha, and her boyfriend, Gordon. They used to work in the semi-demolished store on the Long Beach seafront that I saw on Monday. Wal-Mart is still paying their wages and has promised them new jobs in another nearby store. The company has given a one-off payment of $250 to all its employees who have been left homeless.

While I am talking to Kathy and her family, a local school teacher comes over to invite the grandchildren to join a play group she is organising for kids in the adjacent Red Cross shelter. This is another example of the strong community spirit I have found during my travels along the Mississippi coast. I have been almost universally impressed by the friendliness and good character of the people I have met – black and white, rich and poor. There is little of the strife and tension that has been so widely reported in New Orleans and only sporadic cases of looting. People such as Kathy Taylor and her family have cheerfully welcomed me into their temporary homes and told their traumatic stories, unfazed by the fact that I am both a stranger and foreign. I sense that people find it therapeutic to talk about their experiences and appreciate that the rest of the world is interested.

Tuesday September 6

A day spent in my hotel room writing up the stories accumulated in my notebook. I venture out only to try and find some new clothes so that those I have brought with me from Atlanta can be retired to the laundry bag before they create a public health hazard. Unfortunately my hotel is in rural Alabama, where the only shops are gas stations and the only clothes sold are emblazoned with the Confederate flag. I opt for a more politically correct option: a packet of washing powder and set about scrubbing my dirty clothes in the hotel room bath.

There are still many hurricane evacuees staying in my hotel because their homes are too badly damaged to return to. One of them is Sally Adolph, from Bay St Louis, Mississippi, more than 100 miles away. She and her husband rode out the hurricane in the hotel parking lot because there were no vacancies and spent the next two nights in their car until a room became free. They have hung onto the room ever since because accommodation is so scarce, but it is costing them $60 a night and they are too far away to reach their places of work. I find Sally on the payphone in the lobby trying to find a more convenient place to stay. She also has a list of financial institutions to call to negotiate deferred payments on credit cards and loans until income starts flowing again.

Monday, September 5

A gratifying email has arrived about a woman who learned that her son and his young children were safe through one of my stories. I met 18 year-old Jason Fowler by chance on my first day in Gulfport and interviewed him about his desperate search to find water for his family. Hundreds of miles to the west, Jason’s mother was frantically trying to contact him from her home in California. Having had no luck with the telephone, she sought help from a public library. The librarian put his name into Google and up came the FT.com story in which he was quoted. An e-mail was sent by the librarian to the FT’s customer help desk seeking more information about his well-being and whereabouts. But by the time I received the message and responded, mother and son had happily made direct contact.

Today, I drive back to the coast to meet a team of British diplomats searching for dozens of unaccounted Britons. I arrange to meet them on the sea front in Long Beach, west of Gulfport, where they are looking for an address given by worried relatives. The British woman’s home has been destroyed but a neighbour says she evacuated before the storm.

I spend most of the afternoon with the diplomats, much of it spent making U-turns as we struggle to locate addresses amid the destruction. But we eventually track down two separate British women and ascertain the safety of a third from neighbours. One of the women calls her sister in the UK on a mobile phone lent by the diplomats, her own phone having been out of order since the storm. The ensuing conversation is the happiest event I have seen in a sad week.

The British woman involved in the phone call is Karen Edwards, who has lived in the US for 26 years. She lives in a mobile home with her 17-year-old daughter Stacie. They both worked at the Palace Casino in Biloxi, which was badly damaged by Katrina and will be closed for the foreseeable future.

Karen will be paid for the next two months but after that will have no income unless she finds another job. Thousands more employees of the coast’s numerous casinos face the same outlook.

Each day I seem to find a place where the destruction is worse than any I have seen before. That was the case again today on Long Beach, where homes and businesses for perhaps 300m back from the sea have been reduced to a crush of timber. The shell of a giant Wal-Mart superstore remains standing but its front and back walls have gone and its entire contents washed away.

This is a jarring sight after my visit yesterday to a Wal-Mart in D’Iberville that had survived the storm and reopened the day after. I wrote elsewhere on FT.com about how this showed the local economy was gradually cranking back to gear. But it is only possible in places where the basic infrastructure remains intact. Along large stretches of Mississippi seafront, the recovery will take years rather than months.

It is my first visit to Long Beach, but with a white sand sea front stretching into the turquoise Gulf of Mexico, I imagine it was once beautiful. Now, the air is filled with the fumes of leaking gas and rotting food, animal carcasses and who knows what else buried in the wreckage. Driving around, the smell seeps into the car though the air conditioning.

Whereas the public and the authorities appeared shell shocked for much of last week, a spirit of defiance and solidarity is now palpable. Stars and stripes are draped from damaged buildings and flown by pick-up trucks. This being the deepest of the Deep South there are also several Confederate flags on display. Bible scriptures painted on boards are displayed by roadsides, while others bear slogans such as: “We will rebuild”.

Communications have become much easier in the disaster area, with mobile phone service now widespread (although getting calls in and out is still hit and miss and internet connections unreliable). Availability of petrol and groceries remains patchy and every operational hotel within 100 miles is fully occupied as insurance claims assessors join the relief workers and homeless already vying for rooms.

Driving back to my hotel (still the one north of Mobile), I hear on the radio that the Red Cross shelter in Gulfport, where I saw such filthy bathrooms on Saturday, now has portable toilets. A Red Cross official says that, in the eyes of the residents, they are “the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen”.

Sunday, September 4

I head back south with a request from my editors to report on the first Sunday church services since the storm. It is expected that tens of thousands of people will converge on places of worship this morning to give thanks for their survival and pray for the dead.

Having done all of my reporting so far in Gulfport and Biloxi, I decide to head instead to the smaller coastal town of Ocean Springs, further to the east. In the course of searching for a church, I find myself in a residential area badly damaged by the storm. As I get closer to the sea, the damage gets gradually worse until I reach an ocean front road along which every home has been washed away except for its concrete foundations. It is the most shocking sight I have seen since the storm. The optimism I felt yesterday about the situation getting better suddenly evaporates as I survey the entire contents of people’s flattened homes strewn in all directions.

By now I have abandoned the plan to attend church and instead spend an hour exploring the ruined streets. I am joined by a stray dog - one of the many pets separated from their owners in the chaos of the storm and its aftermath. He appears malnourished and dehydrated so I decide to offer him some food and water. But the dogs turns out to be a fussy eater, turning up his nose at some crisps and a cereal bar until eventually agreeing to eat a tin of tuna I opened for him.

After shaking off the dog (with difficulty), I head back inland to do some reporting on how the local economy is slowly creaking back into action. I visit the nearest Wal-Mart, which has been open since the day after the storm. In the car park I meet a Scotsman who is coordinating Oxfam’s relief effort in the area. He spent much of the first half of this year in Tsunami-hit parts of south Asia. “I didn’t expect to be spending the second half in Mississippi,” he says.

Saturday, September 3

After two days writing and regrouping in Montgomery, I head back into the disaster area. There is a noticeable change in the nature of traffic driving south compared to the first few days after Katrina.

Back then, the roads were lined with power company vehicles racing to restore power and Wal-Mart trucks loaded with emergency supplies for their stores. There were few official government or military vehicles but that has now changed. Today, the I-65 looks like the Road to Baghdad with long processions of army trucks carrying troops, generators and fuel. Evidently a massive government response is now belatedly under way. But the fact remains that Wal-Mart and the rest of the private sector is much better prepared for the disaster and quicker to respond than the government.

I decide the best way to measure progress is to return to the Red Cross shelter at Central Elementary School in Gulfport, where I had found 275 people with barely anything to drink last Wednesday. Thankfully, the situation appears much improved with several crates of bottled water stacked near the entrance. Numerous Red Cross officials and medical personnel have arrived from around the country to relieve frazzled local volunteers. However, conditions inside are far from ideal. There is still no running water with which to flush the toilets or wash, and no air conditioning to ventilate the hot, smelly corridors.

I am shown around by 15-year-old Rachael Lipke, whose family is staying in the shelter. She warns me that Red Cross officials have told residents not to allow reporters into the building. One look at the toilets overflowing with human waste and it is easy to see why they don’t want the media exposure. But not everyone is complaining about the conditions. Brett May, a hyperactive six-year-old, seems to think the shelter is an extension of summer camp. He draws me into a game of American football on the school lawn but doesn’t think I would make a quarter-back. “I can throw better than you,” he tells me derisively.

Driving around Gulfport, it is clear that a sense of organisation and purpose is replacing the aimlessness and confusion that followed the storm. People have cleared the debris around their homes into neat piles ready to be removed and placed tarpaulin on damaged roofs. Roads are gradually being cleared of fallen trees and other obstacles. And, most encouraging of all, electricity has returned to parts of town. Drivers are being confronted with their first working traffic lights for a week and now deserted buildings that left their lights on when the storm struck are suddenly illuminated again.

I am staying tonight at a hotel 50 miles north of Mobile, the nearest I could get to the Mississippi coast. Once clear of the disaster area, I have two phone calls to make. Christina Lipke, mother of the teenager who showed me round the Red Cross shelter, gave me the numbers of her sister and son in Atlanta and asked me to let them know she and the family are safe. The sound of an unknown British voice on the end of the phone causes much confusion but eventually they get the message and are delighted.

Wednesday, August 31

The drive into Gulfport is like an obstacle course, with numerous trees and utility poles partially blocking the road. At one point I am forced to take a detour through a cemetery to avoid a fallen tree. Several grave stones were toppled by the wind.

It is a cliché, but there is no better way to describe Gulfport than like a war zone. No building was left untouched by the storm. The damage grows gradually worse the closer you get to the Gulf of Mexico. A giant red brick church and an even bigger pink casino – two symbols of Mississippi life at opposite ends of the moral spectrum – both stand in ruins, with entire walls having collapsed into rubble. The streets are ruptured as if an earthquake has struck.

My biggest fear is getting a flat tyre on the shards of glass and countless loose nails strewn across the roads. A journalist with a flat tyre would hardly be a priority for the emergency services and, as someone who would struggle to tell a nut from a bolt, changing it myself would be a challenge.

National Guard vehicles patrol the streets and police cars are stationed at every main junction, trying to maintain order on the roads in the absence of traffic lights. But there is no evidence of any large-scale, building-to-building searches underway. Outside one fire station, firefighters mill around with no obvious purpose. Asked if the situation is under control, a policeman shrugs his shoulders and refers me to the Sheriff’s office down the road. My first impression is of a local government overwhelmed by the scale of devastation and torn between the competing needs to rescue the trapped, find the dead, assist survivors, maintain order and start the clean-up.

A similar sense of helplessness and dazed shock appears to be gripping survivors, who sit in groups outside battered homes. Following an ordinary storm, people would by now be on their roofs repairing the damage and sweeping the debris from their driveways. But the volume of work to be done following Katrina and the lack of power, water and fuel with which to do it, seems to be deterring people from starting. Every electrician, plumber and carpenter in America could converge on the Gulf coast and it would still take months to fix everything.

Driving along a residential street, I come across Brenda Abshire, a 36-year-old whose husband worked at the collapsed pink casino I saw earlier. “We still have our lives and our home but we have no jobs,” she says. “We’ll probably move somewhere else to find work.” Casinos were among the biggest sources of revenue for Mississippi, generating $400,000 of tax income every day and supporting thousands of jobs. Many of them are now destroyed.

Further along the road I meet Bill and Kimberly Richmond and their teenage son Adam. They lost their mobile home in the storm and have moved in with Bill’s parents, together with most of their extended family. A total of seven people, seven dogs and 17 cats are living in the small, one-storey building. Like many others, they stand outside barbequing meat that has defrosted because of the power cut. But they have only a bathtub full of water to share between all 31 people and animals. Not for the last time, I feel guilty about the gallons of water in my car. I offer them a pack of cereal bars instead – hardly the best thing to quench their thirst.

Bill and Kimberly point me towards the nearby Red Cross shelter at Gulfport elementary school. I expect to find the sort of well-organised sanctuary for the needy that we associate with the Red Cross around the world. Instead, I find chaos and despair.

“We have an electricity generator but no fuel to operate it,” explains a drained-looking Red Cross volunteer. People are allowed to escape the shelter’s dark, airless corridors by sitting outside, but policemen stop them leaving the site. Local volunteers have been hauling tanks of dirty flood water to the shelter to flush its filthy toilets but the smell of human waste lingers.

The shelter is completely out of water or any other drinkable liquid. No one knows when supplies will arrive because, with both land line and mobile telephone lines down, the shelter has no means of communication.

Jason Fowler, 18, has walked to the shelter from his battered but still standing home in hope of finding water for his young children. He reports seeing a group of four men ambush a lone man carrying a gallon of water. Among the other “inmates” are Tessa Clarke, 21, and her two toddlers. One look at her 4-year-old son, Jason, munching on a dry cracker is enough to send me to the car for a half-gallon bottle of water. I hand it to Tessa as discreetly as possible so as not to cause a riot.

It is now late morning and I need to reach somewhere with cellphone coverage to file my story before the deadline for our Asian and early European editions. I drive back towards Alabama and pull onto the roadside as soon as reception returns. After hastily scribbling an account of my visit to the shelter, I read the words down the phone to the FT’s copy-takers in London – a throwback to the way reporters worked before the era of laptops and the internet. Without access to the web or television I am relying entirely on local radio for news about the broader situation. As someone commented at the shelter: “It’s as if we have gone back 35 years overnight.”

Once the story is filed, I must decide whether the car has enough fuel to return to Gulfport this afternoon. With half a tank left it will be a close call so I decide to return only as far as Biloxi.

As in Gulfport, it is impossible to drive more than a few hundred metres without encountering someone with an extraordinary story of survival and endurance. I stop beside a house with a tree fallen through its roof and a sign outside pleading: “We have no water please help.”

Most of my afternoon is spent with the residents of North Shore Drive, a riverfront cul-de-sac that was flooded by Katrina’s storm surge. A group of neighbours are outside cleaning muddied furniture and barbequing defrosted meat. They beckon me to join them with an offer of beef ribs – testament to the friendliness and civility I have found along the Mississippi coast in stark contrast to the mayhem of New Orleans. I am reluctant to accept on two counts: firstly because they need the food more than me and secondly because of wariness about meat that must have been defrosted for two days. But it looks charred enough to kill any bugs and Daniel O’Connor, in whose driveway the meat is being cooked, insists it would be rude for me to refuse. “It’s called southern hospitality,” he explains. The ribs taste good and I suffer no nasty consequences.

With so many stories to unload from my notebook and my petrol running out, I decide to head north to find a hotel with an internet connection and good shower. I nearly don’t get there. Petrol stations that were open when I drove south are now closed, drained of fuel by the evacuees heading out and the relief vehicles heading in. With the orange warning light showing on the dashboard fuel gauge, I take a risky decision to strike off the busy I-65 and head towards a rural town where I hope there will be less strain on the pumps. It feels like the longest 12 miles ever driven but eventually I reach an open filling station. Even here, cars are queuing and a policeman is on hand to maintain order. Most of the customers appear to be locals rushing to fill up amid fears of a national fuel shortage.

The next challenge is to find a hotel. I leave the I-65 a further three times in a futile search for a room but at every stop accommodation is fully occupied by evacuees and relief workers. It is not until Montgomery, 200 miles north of Biloxi, that I find a vacant room.


Tuesday, August 30

As the scale of the disaster along the Gulf coast becomes clear, I prepare to make the 400-mile drive south from the Financial Times bureau in Atlanta. First stop is the supermarket to stock up on bottled water and canned food.

Once south of Montgomery, Alabama, the traffic is heavy with relief vehicles heading towards the disaster zone, ranging from trucks full of electricity generators to crews of tree cutters and utility workers.

About 50 miles north of Mobile, Alabama, I join a queue to refuel at the last operational petrol station before the coast. A full tank will have to get me from here to Mississippi and back because there will be nowhere to fill up. That means no more fuel-sapping air conditioning and no speeding.

As I approach Mobile, shredded roadside hoardings and the crumpled roofs of petrol stations provide the first visible evidence of Katrina. But the darkness of night hides the full extent of destruction.

Soon after crossing the state line into Mississippi I lose cellphone coverage, removing my only means of communication with the outside world.

I am stopped outside Gulfport, one of the worst-hit coastal towns, at a police road block enforcing an overnight curfew. Told that I will not be able to enter until the morning, I drive on to a nearby truck stop to get some sleep in my car (all hotels in the area are closed). It proves to be a sweaty experience, with outside temperatures still in the 80s at midnight. Needless to say, my uncomfortable night will soon be put firmly in perspective.

Looking up at shooting stars and a dazzlingly clear Milky Way, it is hard to imagine the 100mph winds and horizontal rain that battered this place just two days ago. But as dawn begins to break, eerie silhouettes of wrecked buildings, snapped trees and downed power lines are revealed all around me.

More diary reports from the Mississippi follow in the days ahead

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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