Everywhere you look, there is something wrecked or someone crushed. An oysterman sleeps in a tent in a Kmart parking lot. A senator's daughter digs through rubble like a scavenger, and finds her childhood bed in a strange street. An Elvis impersonator's wig lies caught in a box hedge.
These are the kinds of things you see, and the sorts of people you meet, along Highway 90, the beach boulevard that runs the length of the state's coastal region. Once it was a tour of faintly seedy romanticism, of garish casinos and oil refineries, sagging tin-roofed cottages, and antebellum and Greek Revival mansions. The beaches were fine and white as sugar, the air damply and gently corrupt, and hundred-year-old oak limbs hung over blue-green bays with an ache-inducing grace. Or, that is what memory tells you.
Now the road is buckled and, in places, impassable. The houses and casinos are splintered. Huge metal structures lie crumpled like tissue. The air reeks of spoiled shrimp, and corpses. The residents wail with grief by the roadside at all the harm and spoil, or contemplate it with that peculiar local symptom called southern humor.
"When God decides to clean house," said Jo Rusin, standing in front of the pile of loose bricks that was her retirement home in Waveland, "he doesn't just use a Swiffer WetJet."
Several blocks inland from the beach, a dank little canal called the Ditch snakes through the side streets. The homes along the Ditch, which are mostly trailers, doublewides and small brick houses, were gutted by the storm surge. People's whole lives are piled into their front yards -- soaked sofas and Barcaloungers with the guts spilling out, and thick, twisted skeins of wet clothing.
In one front yard along the Ditch, hundreds of pictures of Elvis Presley were scattered across a lawn. Regina Moore, 30, was trying to dry them out. Moore, who works at a local car dealership, rode out the storm in the attic of the tiny brick home along with her boyfriend, Keith Hicks, 47, an Elvis impersonator and collector of Elvis memorabilia. They probably should have evacuated, but Hicks, who is disabled and a former policeman, is only five years from paying off the house, so "like dummies" they stayed put and fought the storm for five hours.
Starting at 8 a.m. last Monday, the water rose at a rate of two feet every 10 minutes or so. They tried to start a truck and get out of there, but the water came over the hood and drowned the engine. When the water rose up past the light switches, and the refrigerator and big-screen TV were drifting in the living room and the dogs were swimming for their lives, they decided to go to the attic.
"Everything was floating and banging into us," Moore said. "We were trying to save the Elvis stuff, but we had to save ourselves."
Since the storm, they have slept in the front yard to keep away looters, who stripped everything, including household appliances, for the scrap metal -- copper is going locally for $1.50 a pound. They have found odd things scattered in the yard. In the hedge, there was a round pillow, and something else, something dark and hairy.
A jet-black Elvis wig.
Down on Beach Boulevard, the town's most elegant avenue, the homes should have blocked the views. Instead, daylight shone through halves of houses. Foundations were wiped almost clean. Driveways led to nothing. Stairs climbed to nowhere. On one property, an undisturbed wooden wind chime hung from an oak, dangling in the breeze.
Signs were hand lettered or spray-painted on plywood, and stuck in the grass lawns. Some were ruefully witty, some angry. "House For Sale by Owner" one read. Another announced, "You Loot, I Shoot."
At 1001 Beach Boulevard, a southern "cottage" style mansion dating from the early 1800s lay in smithereens, its proud piazzas collapsed into indecipherable wreckage. That house was Sen. Trent Lott's pride. He used to sit on the grand porch and stare out to sea. "Lott's Landing," he called it. When the silver-haired senator arrived from Jackson, and stood in the blank space where it used to be, he wept. Then he found a bedraggled American flag, tied it to a stick and stuck it in the dirt.
In the midst of the property, a gigantic oak tree stood unmoved, spreading its branches as if in consolation. Lott's daughter, Tyler Armstrong, 34, a luminous blond example of southern poise, despite her work gloves and a coating of sweat and grime from digging all day, gazed at the tree. "That tree is 300 years old," she said. "My aunt and uncle were married under that tree. I had my rehearsal dinner right there."
For two days, Armstrong and her husband, Matt, 34, and other members of their family searched for what precious articles might be left. Their things had been carried to strange places by the storm surge. Amid oyster shells and wreckage, her mother was delighted to find an antique shrimp dish, and some teacups. Her father came across his bronzed baby booties. A bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne lay on its side in the front yard, unbroken. They placed it on a rock and vowed to drink it at the New Year.
"It's like a treasure hunt," Tyler said. "At least we've been able to find little things."
But then her eyes filled up, and tears trickled down her cheeks. "It's just things," she said.
Where the hurricane passed along this resort village at Highway 90, the things by the roadside are not small and curios, but huge, surreal horrors. Wrecked speedboats lie on the medians a mile inland. Pickup trucks are flipped on their backs like bugs. The prow of a large fishing boat, from Kiln, Miss., is lodged prow-first on the sidewalk at a strip mall, with no water in sight.
The parking lots of the malls have become impromptu refugee camps. People whose homes were destroyed have pitched tents in the parking lot of the Kmart. The front windows of the store are broken and a horrible smell wafts from the black inside. There is no looting because everyone is afraid of what's in there -- the rumor is corpses and snakes.
Next door to Kmart, a speedboat is piled into the front door of Payless Shoes, a white propeller straight up in the air. Across the parking lot, landscaper David Carpenter, 55, sat in his white undershirt in a garden chair he dragged out of Kmart, listening to a radio and staring at the highway.
"I didn't mean to loot," he said. "But my back was hurting from sitting on the pavement for so long."
The roads to the beaches are mostly inaccessible because of the sheer density of the debris. The houses imploded into splinters, and the pine thickets that surrounded them were shredded, in a cruel blender. Now the streets are filled with massive, indistinguishable heaps of wood. An ominous sweet-sour odor emanates from the piles. K-9 squads, led by their corpse-sniffing dogs, were going from lane to lane on foot, searching for bodies.
On Friday morning, a freckled, skinny 18-year-old named Serena Bane stood in the driveway of her home at 1006 Rue de LaSalle, watching in disconnected shock as her mother, father and two brothers were pulled from their home in body bags. How do you bury four people, at just 18?
Her mother, Christina Bane, was a 44-year-old housekeeper at a local hotel. Her father, Edger Banes, worked at Wal-Mart. Her brothers, Edgar Jr., 15, and Carl, 12, were mentally disabled and one of them was incontinent. Christina did not want to evacuate because she was afraid her sons might be made fun of at a shelter. So they stayed.
Serena and her boyfriend, Ralston Hughes, 21, and her older sister, Laura Bane, 25, went up to Pensacola, Fla., to ride out the storm with friends. They learned their family had been wiped out from CNN.
Serena leaned against a car, her view of the driveway only partially blocked, as, one by one, the bodies were bagged and removed from the house by local sheriffs and emergency workers in surgical masks. "Well, we got one brother," Serena said, as a boy was carefully removed to the van.
Behind her a sign said "SLOW -- Children at Play." She still wore her Bay View High School T-shirt, along with a pair of rolled-up jeans and muddy sneakers. She graduated in June, moved in with Ralston, and got a job as a manager at the local McDonald's. She already has a 2-year-old daughter, Alexis, with Ralston.
Serena, Laura and Ralston drove back to Waveland after the storm, but when they could not get through to their homes, they slept in their cars in the parking lot of Bay View High, where people were breaking into the concession stands for something to eat. The bodies of her family remained locked in the house until the emergency crews could get to them Friday morning.
After Serena has taken care of her family, she and Ralston will leave Waveland. They have rented a hotel room in Pensacola and applied for jobs at a local McDonald's. They want to earn enough money to come back and reclaim the house.
"My mother worked her whole life to own this house," she said. "She'd at least want me to save it for her, and have her grandkids grow up here."
The last body was gently carried to the van. Serena looked around at the group of officers and rescue workers. In the next few days, she would have to learn how to bury an entire family. "Where will they take them now?" she asked. "Where do we go?"
A few blocks down Waveland Street, Judy Yarborough, 54, sat on the back fender of her family station wagon, and sobbed disconsolately. Behind her, a small A-frame house belonging to her brother, Charles Piazza, was gutted by water. Her sister Emily was missing for days, until they found that she had broken her leg and been evacuated to a hospital in Texas. A friend located her through the Internet.
Now Judy was exhausted. Her job at the Wal-Mart was gone along with everything else, and the family was packing up whatever was not wet, and trying to get to Dallas. All up and down the street, the K-9 crews continued to search for bodies.
"I can't look at it no more," she said, her breathing hitched with sobs. "I'm just so tired of looking at it."
Down on the beach, Johnny Rusin, 60, and his wife, Jo, 58, kicked around the ruins of the retirement home they bought just three months ago. Both retired as full colonels from the U.S. Army. Johnny served in Vietnam, and Jo was the senior female commander in the Persian Gulf War.
All that remained of 414 S. Beach Blvd., a one-story Acadian with two big porches and a swimming pool, was some timber, cement and a few dishes. But the Rusins count themselves lucky. They have full insurance and can afford to rebuild. They say they will. "Next time you come," Jo said, "we'll have a glass of sweet tea."
Jo gestured behind her at the small beach roads filled with so much destruction, the jobless, the forlorn and the dead, where no one knows what the casualties are, and won't for weeks.
"The only thing that prepared me for this," she said, "was the Highway of Death in Kuwait."
Pass Christian, Miss.
As far as anybody can tell, the only things Hurricane Katrina left in this once lovely antique of a town are about 15 houses along the beach and some sheltering oaks. How does an entire town disappear? And why are some of the smallest things untouched, when everything else disappeared?
Where Pass Christian used to be, there is now just a deserted, eerie outline, covered in colorful string. A Greek Revival mansion belonging to Terri Jones, the 50-year-old town dentist, and her husband, Malcolm, the municipal attorney, was one of the few houses that made it. Sort of. Inside, the gracefully curving staircase was left standing, but everything was covered in streams of wet, white confetti, a kind of a strange Christmas scene. It was the roofing insulation. The inner ceiling was gone, stripped to its rafters. Hanging oddly, and perilously, from a single board, was a giant swaying chandelier.
There used be 10 white columns fronting the house. Only two of them held. The rest are gone. Jones and her daughters, Brittany, 17, and Chelsea, 14, found four of the columns in the back yard.
In front of the house, the beach was deserted. The once-charming two lanes of Highway 90 were buckled and filled with sand. Lying in a pool of water was a dead black dog, swelling in the sun. In another pool, a deer rotted. On the sidewalk lay a sodden carton of heavy cream, intact and unopened.
In the middle of a street corner, Sammie Barnes, 81, sat on a large overturned clay flowerpot, eyes staring straight ahead. He wore a USAF cap and a neat white shirt, blue pants and mud-splattered white shoes. He just sat there, unmoving. Barnes was staring at what used to be his three-bedroom house, now a five-foot high pile of splinters and fragments. A retired Air Force sergeant who served in Europe in World War II and finished the war in Munich, Barnes had been paying off the house since 1992, $880 a month.
"Man can't do nothing with nature," he said. "Lord didn't make it like that. You can get more houses. You can't get more of yourself."
In the street, someone found a carton of eggs.
Only two of them were broken.
Perhaps it's silly to feel the loss of the home of a man long dead, especially when the destruction all around Gulfport and Biloxi is so epic in scale. But out on a serene stretch of lawn shaded by hundreds of those heart-rending oaks, sat the gorgeous wreck of Beauvoir, the place where Jefferson Davis tied his horse, and at last died.
A white mansion on a rise, Beauvoir was completed in the early 1850s. Davis lived there as a man without a country or citizenship, so his attachment to Beauvoir was surely deep. After Davis's death, Beauvoir became a home for Confederate soldiers, and when they, too, died, they were buried in the back yard, which remains their cemetery today, while the house and an adjacent structure were transformed into a museum and library. The home had withstood any number of hurricanes, including Camille in 1969.
But Katrina stripped the white mansion of its elegance. The piazzas were torn away, and so were most of its roof, 12-foot doors and impossibly beautiful oval windows, leaving just a doomed hulk of Confederate memory.
When the museum staff evacuated, there simply was not time to pack up or spirit away many of the things in the house. Among the items left behind were most of Davis's original furniture, including his chair from Congress, many of his books, much of his clothing, a piano, a harp and his hearse.
"We're digging things out of the dirt," said caretaker and security chief Jay Peterson. "Sabers, and other weapons, clothing." He shrugged sadly. "You got tens of thousands of people without homes and jobs."
Down the deserted beach, the wreck of the Treasure Bay Casino could be seen listing, a sinking phantom ship. Along the bay, shredded curtains streamed from the shattered hotels and apartments.
Along the borders of Beauvoir, even in its wreckage an oasis of refinement, a grove of oaks and palmettos stood in the lowering sun. They were covered in a strange, ghostly storm dressing. Thousands of shreds of white plastic and fabric had caught on their branches. They twined around them, like shrouds. In that eerie place, some of Davis's final words seemed appropriate. "The past is dead," he said. "Let it bury its dead, its hopes and aspirations."
Up in the treetops, the shape of something peculiar became apparent, something that clearly did not belong there. A closer inspection revealed scrollwork in brown wood, the leg of a piece of furniture.
It was an antique piano. Up in a tree.