On the Gulf Coast

Tiny and Devastated, Waveland Waits for Help

Hurricane Katrina left few buildings in Waveland intact. Hancock County authorities do not have an official death toll for the remote area.
Hurricane Katrina left few buildings in Waveland intact. Hancock County authorities do not have an official death toll for the remote area. (By John Bazemore -- Associated Press)
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 2, 2005

WAVELAND, Miss., Sept. 1 -- Four generations of the Mollere family have weathered hurricanes along Mississippi's Gulf Coast, staying at home and swimming it out, if necessary, to escape the storms. Then Katrina struck.

Jane Mollere, 80, drowned in one son's house in nearby Bay St. Louis. Brian Mollere, 50, survived by swimming out of his home in Waveland into the 20- to 25-foot sea surge and clinging to treetops until he and the pet Chihuahua he carried reached a house hundreds of yards away.

Though he made it, he is not sure what happened to his younger sister or his older brother. With no communications and no car, Brian has not been able to find out about his siblings. He found out about his mother from another brother while wandering around in a daze during the storm.

Mollere's tale symbolizes the fate of this historic seaside hamlet. Like him, it is battered and bewildered and unable to find out the fate of many of its residents.

The federal rescue teams are calling it Mississippi's ground zero. Unlike larger cities including Gulfport and Biloxi, this town of 10,000 people, and surrounding Hancock County, have virtually no intact local infrastructure. And because of its size, it has been placed at the end of the line when it came to the initial search-and-rescue efforts.

"We are following the state's priorities, " said Larry Collins, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's effort in western Hancock County. "The less population, the lower down the chain. We're triaging, putting the resources in the bigger cities. Now we have enough resources to handle this end of it."

The lack of attention, however, seems in inverse proportion to the devastation.

The city's historic downtown, with its stately columned structures dating to 1888, is gone -- city hall, the fire department, the police department, the post office, the town's two finest restaurants, beachfront condos, bungalows and Victorian homes. There are, in fact, no buildings left in Waveland -- only concrete slabs. "We basically have nothing left," said Mayor Tommy Longo, his voice soft and calm, but his fingers shaking as he took a sip of bottled water. "We're dealing with the heartbreak, and we're trying to keep up morale, and we're trying to get more help."

The federal and state support has just started to pour into this remote corner of Mississippi, and there's no telling how long it will take to deal with the cleanup, the reconstruction, the rescue or even the death count.

Houses, cars and boats are strewn along the highway leading out of town, pushed for miles by a massive storm surge that reached tsunami levels, according to witnesses. Local officials say they do not have a precise death toll.

At least two areas in Waveland and neighboring Bay St. Louis have been declared off-limits by FEMA until more cadaver dogs arrive. Many residents did evacuate as urged by local officials. But for those who did not, said Bill Dotson, a canine search-and-rescue handler for FEMA's Virginia Task Force 2: "This one is about body recovery."

None of Waveland's 26-member police force died, though the officers had to swim out of their building's second story and spend five hours partially submerged in the storm surge. They clung to the top of a tree while Katrina roared around them. The 35 members of the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency, who passed the hurricane in the county building, made it, too. But they weren't sure they would. As the water rose in the multilevel building, they marked their hands and arms with numbers and wrote a list of names and corresponding names on a clipboard for rescuers to find.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company