Driving along Highway 90 here on the coastline, you see no houses. Katrina swept up the neighborhood's waterfront houses, shredded them furiously and flung them back down to the earth as scattered piles of rubble. Not a beam was left standing.

What the storm left along the Mississippi coast are toppled power lines and millions of tons of scattered bricks, wood, furniture, torn clothing and pieces of metal.

"It's going to take years -- years -- to haul all this off," said water company subcontractor Curtis Byrd, glancing to his right and left at the expanse of damp dreck and fallen trees. Byrd was part of a work crew turning off water lines in this uninhabitable area.

Here and across the coast, authorities are still clearing the roads of sand and rubble so that cars and emergency vehicles can pass through. They have not yet begun hauling away any of the debris spread along hundreds of miles of coastal land because they are still sending out crews to look for bodies.

Donny Jordan, a sheriff's deputy from Putnam County, Fla., was patrolling the area to make sure nobody got hurt in the rubble and to keep looters away. He said he has seen many hurricanes in his years in Florida, but the damage he has seen there does not come close to the devastation Katrina brought.

"I haven't seen nothing like this," Jordan said.

Chris Wills, who was trying to dry out one of the waterlogged resort hotels two towns away, said getting rid of the rubble will be such an enormous job it's hard to imagine how it could be done.

"I don't know where they're going to haul it to," Wills said. "That's going to have to be one big landfill."

What was striking about the debris was its stench, Wills said. "It smells like a Dumpster out here."

Unlike the houses, some of the large hotels on the coast withstood the storm, sustaining severe damage rather than being destroyed.

Amid the rubble, several homeowners came back Wednesday to see the damage for themselves. They went to their seaside homes -- or at least to the slabs where they used to stand -- to see whether there was anything salvageable in the wreckage.

Homeowner Helen Carver, 75, stood in the space where she once lived in a two-story, three-bedroom house. She slowly lifted bricks and planks of wood to see whether anything remained unbroken beneath.

"I wanted to get in here and see what I could save before they bulldoze the whole area," Carver said. "You wouldn't believe the beautiful things I found under the bricks."

She discovered a black porcelain jar and a few pieces of china that had not broken.

What she really wanted to find were things that belonged to her son, who she said died from AIDS in 1995.

"I'm still looking," she said.

Down the road a bit, Yvonne Smith, 65, and her husband Frank, 69, returned to where their house stood to find its green roof scattered across the neighborhood, along with the house's walls and contents. The white, wrap-around porch was nowhere to be seen.

They came by with their daughter Michelle Cuellar to try to salvage anything they could. They were looking particularly for a silver lockbox that held their passports, because they are supposed to take a cruise in October for Frank's sister's 50th wedding anniversary.

Cuellar, wearing heavy utility gloves and a protective mask, found one bowl from a china set her mother received when she married in 1962. "We didn't expect to find anything," Cuellar said. "But we're finding all kinds of treasures."

Then she gestured to her mother: "Look, Mom, here's another one of your knives."

Yvonne Smith found more serving utensils and became exasperated. "Why did all my spoons from the dollar store survive?" she asked.

Then, across the street, the Smiths happened upon their green metal filing cabinet. It was twisted and a bit mangled, but with a crowbar they were able to open the drawers.

There, they found personal items such as tax forms, Yvonne Smith's grade-school report card and Cuellar's commencement program from her University of Florida graduation in 1985. Everything was soaked, but the Smiths and Cuellar were thankful.

Like Carver, the Smiths were looking for items that belonged to their son, who was slain four years ago.

"His ashes were in here," Yvonne Smith said, looking at the concrete slab that marked the spot where her house once stood. "Now they are gone."

She said losing her house feels like enduring another death in the family. She was just beginning to cope with the death of her only son.

"You get better with it, then it starts all over. It's too much," Smith said. "Everyone is calling with sympathy."

In Long Beach, a search-and-rescue team from Florida works in a debris field stretching for miles on the Mississippi coast west of Gulfport and Biloxi.

With a photo of her son Eli, Karen Dykes weeps and searches through debris in Long Beach, Miss.