In Mississippi

Wire Fence Cuts Deeper Into Coast's Morale

By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 11, 2005

LONG BEACH, Miss., Sept. 10 -- South of the railroad tracks, this once-pretty town is starting to look like an armed camp.

National Guard crews are setting up double rows of coiled razor wire in front of the tracks and will continue to do so until the fencing blocks the ravaged coast for 30 miles.

The razor wire will block the beach fronts in Long Beach, Pass Christian, Gulfport and Biloxi, which are devastated not only south of the tracks, but also well north of them.

In a region that already looks and feels like a war zone, the coiled razor wire is not proving popular. Residents have said that it makes the already-defeated coastal neighborhoods look like concentration camps. Local officials have grumbled privately that the razor wire is going up against their better judgment.

Col. B. Joe Spraggins, who directs emergency operations for Harrison County (population nearly 200,000, pre-Katrina) said he ordered the razor wire to protect people who might otherwise wander around or camp out in the ruins. The piles of what used to be houses, he said, could contain hazardous debris and toxic organisms.

"We don't know what washed up from the sea, from the Gulf," Spraggins said at a news briefing Saturday. The area may hold bodies of hurricane victims.

"We need to be able to find them without having their remains displayed to the public," he said. He also said that the razor wire -- he prefers to call it by its prettier name, concertina wire -- protects what is left of residents' belongings by thwarting potential looters.

South of the tracks, no one will be allowed past breaks in the razor wire, at railroad stops, without showing government-issued identification indicating they were residents there. Even then, they may visit only during limited hours, for a limited time, with armed escorts.

Throughout the devastated Gulf Coast, which includes virtually demolished Hancock County, there is not much to salvage south of the tracks. What is left is piles of houses -- the insides and outsides -- that have attracted some pilgrims and treasure-seekers, as well as devastated residents. Some structures still have their roofs; some, including a number in Long Beach, still have their roofs and walls. But even those buildings are uninhabitable, Spraggins said, with flooded rooms creating growth medium for mold, and walls that could collapse.

The razor wire, which is thick but short, like a giant, unfurling Slinky, acts like an evacuation device for the south-of-the-track beach towns. At least until Friday -- when the fencing began going up in Long Beach -- some residents were seen sifting through wreckage and camping out by their property for hours.

Robert Johnson has lived in his five-room house north of the tracks in Long Beach for 40 years. In the hurricane, his house lost its rear bedrooms and an oak tree he planted 35 years ago. Johnson watched the wire go up and shook his head.

"Somebody's gonna get hurt on it," he said. "If they wanted to get across the tracks, all they gotta do is get themselves a pole and jump over that thing."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company