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.
"The water was coming in, and in case we didn't make it, we could be identified," said Dee Lumpkin, the agency's deputy director. "I was number five."
Around the city and certain parts of the county, local and federal search- and-rescue teams are still finding bodies. Following local coroner regulations, federal rescue teams have alerted local officials about the locations of bodies but have left them in place -- angering residents who have complained about abandoned dogs mauling at least one body.
On Wednesday, a dazed man walked out of the woods miles from his home and told authorities he had been carried away by the sea surge and knocked unconscious. He said he had been wandering around the woods for two days.
Worried residents who left the city and returned to find their homes destroyed or severely damaged were relieved to see their neighbors. But they also received bad news, too.
"How's Mother?" a teary Ellen Breath shouted at Brian Mollere as she stopped her car in what was once downtown Waveland.
"She drowned," he said.
Since Katrina blew over, Mollere has been living on the concrete foundation of the building that once housed his parent's four-bedroom home, several family businesses and a lifetime of memories. In the mounds of rubble surrounding him, he found two treasured possessions: his father's American flag and the 1924 kerosene lamp that his father used when he worked on the old L&N Railroad.
Surrounded by scraps of furniture he recovered from what was once downtown, Brian Mollere does not really know what else to do but to sit out on the open air, on the tile floor. This has been his home for 50 years.
"I haven't cried yet; I'm in a survival mode," he said. "But I guess if we bury Mama -- if we find her body -- I will."