Hurricane Katrina transformed the Gulf Coast into a surreal, swiftly changing landscape of devastation and survival. In the days that followed, a photographer and a Mississippi writer traveled along the coast to New Orleans, documenting the impact of the biggest natural disaster in American history.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
A FEW DAYS after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, I met a geologist in Waveland, Mississippi, whose parents' home had been moved hundreds of feet to the dead center of a railroad track. He worked in what was left, pulling out family photos and mementos as he talked about the sea-floor muck that had churned up into the 20-foot surges as they beat on the house.
Hurricane KatrinaA patron of the destroyed Day Dreams bar, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
Hurricane KatrinaA New Orleans street
Hurricane KatrinaSubmerged mausoleums in Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans.
Hurricane KatrinaThe Gulf of Mexico, viewed from Beach Boulevard between Waveland and Bay St. Louis.
Covered in brown mud, he explained his M&M theory. “Civilization is just the candy coating,” he said.
I believe he was talking about the homes and businesses and roads that humans build. But in the days after Katrina, as photographer Larry Towell and I traveled the Gulf Coast, that candy coating was scraped away from normal social behavior, too. As law enforcement, public works, and the availability of gas broke down, the coasts of Mississippi and Louisiana mirrored the Mad Max movies I'd watched as a teenager.
People were stealing fuel. Looting to survive became acceptable. Survivors with demolished homes broke into nearby dwellings for shelter. There was paranoia and fear, and we were in it.
Riding a Jeep loaded down with tanks of gas, jugs of water, military-issue meals ready to eat (MREs), junk food, and beef jerky, we headed down to see it all, traveling from Mobile, Alabama, along the coast of Mississippi to New Orleans, and farther south to Grand Isle, Louisiana.
KATRINA STARTED OUT as a blip. A few clouds in the Atlantic.
She debuted as a Category 1 hurricane with the potential to ruin the MTV Video Music Awards in Miami, where Eva Longoria emerged on stage in a bathing suit, saying that a “little hurricane” wasn't going to stop her fun.
But Katrina skipped across South Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico, the warmer water powering her up like rocket fuel. She grew and raged, becoming one of the strongest storms of the past century. Then she headed north.
She hit southeastern Louisiana, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast on the morning of Monday, August 29, with sustained winds of 140 miles per hour and a storm surge 200 miles wide and 25 feet high. She was a Category 4, officially less powerful than the legendary Camille, a Category 5 that hit the coast in 1969 with nearly 200-mile-per-hour winds. But Katrina was larger and meaner, with a more destructive storm surge and hurricane-force winds extending out 120 miles from the center. She sliced across three states and 250 miles of coastline.
Before it was all over, Katrina had killed more than a thousand people and wrecked three large cities and dozens of smaller communities. More than half a million homes and businesses were destroyed, and 1.4 million people were displaced. The storm swept entire towns out to sea and let America know that poor people really did live in New Orleans. She broke through reinforced concrete with the power of a dozen locomotives, the surge hitting the coast like a giant hand, scraping everything away.
EXPLAINING THE SOUTH to an outsider is difficult. Explaining the South after Katrina was even more difficult. Driving down from my farm outside Oxford, Mississippi, I talked to Larry about Robert Johnson and William Faulkner. I told him about the black-and-white photographs taken by Eudora Welty, and Charley Patton's recording “High Water Everywhere,” a song about the 1927 Mississippi River flood. We talked about New South race relations; I'd recently covered the trial of 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen, found guilty in connection with the 1964 murder of three civil-rights workers.
Near the central-Mississippi city of Brandon, we started seeing toppled church steeples and houses sliced in half by pine trees. We followed SUVs and dualie pickup trucks loaded with scores of gas canisters and water jugs and food. Church vans and cop cars were journeying from other states, people on their way to the rescue.
Larry had never been to the South, but he wasn't a stranger to new cultures; he'd covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and war-torn Nicaragua. All you have to know about Larry is that he's devoutly Canadian, mountain-man-bearded, and that he carries a business card that lists his profession as HUMAN BEING.
“Do you know the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men?” Larry asked. “Walker Evans.”
The Depression-era portraits Evans took to accompany James Agee's text exposed the country to the plight of poor white southern sharecroppers. They were taken in Alabama, in the next county over from where my father grew up.
“Yeah, I know it.”
“Is it still that bad?”
On the outskirts of Gulfport, we met the Jones family sitting on the front porch of their battered house—Walker Evans style—drying clothes they'd cleaned in trash buckets, everything they owned a sodden trash heap by the road.
In the reddish-black light, Larry and I bypassed checkpoints and parked in the center of downtown Gulfport, a major city on the coast. We were alone, not a sound but cicadas, whipped and beaten palm leaves shifting in the wind, and the patrol car of an occasional prowling cop. It was past seven, past curfew. Electrical lines dangled loose, blinds hung in busted-out windows. Bulldozers had scraped boards and Sheetrock and sofa cushions to the side of the road. The trees looked skeletal, like they would in the middle of winter.
A helicopter passed along the coast. Gulfport was dead.
THAT NIGHT WE FOUND a place to crash with a friend of a friend at a generic apartment building hit hard by the winds. The metal security gate had been twisted away, so we drove through, one unit indistinguishable from the next. No lights on in any of the apartments. Up ahead, Larry pointed to a backhoe chugging away, and I slowed. Two shirtless white guys emerged. One carried a TV set, and both squinted like feral animals, wild-eyed and bristly-bearded and sunburned, as they walked toward the Jeep.
“Excuse me,” Larry called out. “Sir? I'm a journalist from Canada and I'm lost.”
They ambled over. The guy carrying the television put it down near the backhoe. The other craned his head into the passenger-side window.
“Y'all can't be in here,” he said. “I don't care who you are. No one suppose' to be in here.”
I whispered, “Let me talk.”
I did my best to translate in High Redneck. They soon grinned—and, I believe, spat—and led the way to the apartment on their backhoe. Larry asked what they had been doing.
“You know,” one man said. “Survival of the fittest.”
ON SUNDAY MORNING, we drove into downtown Biloxi and met Pastor DeBruce Nelson at the Lighthouse Apostolic Church. His church had made it through Katrina, but he'd moved his pulpit onto Division Street, taking the word of God to the heart of the city.
Nelson is a black preacher in a black church, a man of undetermined age, with perfect relaxed hair and an easy smile. At 11 o'clock, Nelson began to roll. “Tell the devil we outside right now,” he shouted, “but we going in!”
My soul will be restored. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
“Yell,” he said. “Shadow of death.”
SHADOW OF DEATH!
Women sang and yelled “Amen.” Gospel music filled the street. The curious slowed their cars as they maneuvered around the folding chairs. Nelson wandered from the podium and jumped in front of moving cars to make sure he was heard. A man handed out paper towels to the sweating women in pink Sunday hats and their best dresses and men in sharp suits and some in NFL jerseys. Nelson's sermon reached into the audience to Sister Carrie Jackson, who had clung to a tree for life and survived because God was good.
He shouted out to Brother Atlas Brown—a heavyset man wearing a scavenged chef's outfit—who'd found an elderly man drowning and carried him to safety.
God was good. He saved them all. He beat the devil. We are still here.
In the middle of this, a battered Mitsubishi truck stopped cold on Division Street. The driver, a white woman in a John Deere ball cap, and her 18-year-old daughter were both covered in mud, and the pickup was laden with all their possessions. The mother honked and yelled to the congregation, then cried and closed her eyes: “He is the beginning and the end!” she shouted. “Thank you, Jesus!”
A ring of large black women pulled her and her daughter out of the truck. The two women hugged them. Then they yelled and praised God and drove off.
WE LEFT BILOXI and followed the Gulf Coast to Long Beach, Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Clermont Harbor—Gulf communities that for days we'd heard nothing about. Biloxi and Gulfport were all cracked wood and rubble and high piles of debris. Long Beach and Pass Christian—small towns to the west—were a clean wash of everything. They smelled of fresh salt air, not the sickly sweet decay of food and bodies that pervaded Biloxi.
Ankle-high waves rolled ashore. Occasionally a helicopter passed, but we were pretty much alone to stop the car and walk the ground of the lost communities. The only things left were ghosts—torn bedsheets and clothes and plastic trash bags that hung in leafless trees and flapped in the wind. The pine trees still standing had needles the color of burnt copper.
Down the road, I met a newly formed pack of dogs, family pets left to fend for themselves. Purebred animals, mostly Labs with collars. In the noonday heat, a couple of the unneutered males started growling and circling. A scroungy mutt bitch had come between them.
They reared up on their hind legs and tore into each other, until one lost and hid under my Jeep.
PEOPLE WERE FRIENDLY, scared, anguished, sad, and mistrustful. In Biloxi one afternoon, a man who'd just looted a corner grocery for beer stared me down, thinking I was a cop. But most times, people grabbed us by the back of the arm and stared into our eyes and made sure we were listening. Days after, they weren't too sure it had happened themselves.
In Long Beach I met Ed Reed—”Ed the Survivor”—in what had been a subdivision called Picture Point. Ed came out of nowhere, strutting down the road singing the theme song to The Dukes of Hazzard. He was sunburned and shirtless, wearing shorts, socks, and flip-flops, and as he walked toward me I wasn't sure if he wanted to say hello or fight. He carried a hoe in his hand like a staff.
“Ain't this some shit,” he said. “Can you believe it?”
During Katrina, Ed and his wife had evacuated, but they came back the next day. The National Guard stopped him at the train tracks cutting off the most damaged parts of Pass Christian and Long Beach, less than a mile from the Gulf. When one of the guardsmen turned the other way, Ed ran for it, over the tracks and to the main road, where he climbed a giant mountain of garbage.
He stared down into his neighborhood, bordering the Gulf. Everything was gone. Every house swept out to sea.
“I felt like Charlton Freakin' Heston in Planet of the Apes,” Ed said. “You know, when he sees the freakin' Statue of Liberty and all that shit.
“There wasn't a sound,” he said, wild-eyed, and pointed to the trash in the trees. “Just this white stuff. Just blowing as easy as laundry on the line.”
He blamed the dead on Camille, the storm that had become a benchmark for folks on the coast. If they had made it through Camille back in '69, the reasoning went, if Camille's storm surge hadn't gotten that far and its winds hadn't taken their home, they could make it through anything.
“I bet Camille has killed another 500 people,” Ed said.
THE NEXT DAY we followed Beach Boulevard west and met Kelvin Schulz, a master mason who installs air conditioners and sells snow cones to tourists in the summer. Kelvin's XXL T-shirt was soaked in sweat as he picked through piles of debris. The entire street was nothing but debris and garbage.
Kelvin owned an old brick movie house close to downtown, a place he'd hoped to turn into a restaurant. As the storm approached, he thought it would be the safest refuge in Bay St. Louis. But on Monday morning, when Katrina rolled ashore, he said to himself, What have I gotten my family into?
With his 21-year-old daughter, Alison, ten-year-old daughter, Suzanne, 17-year-old son, Buddy, his mother-in-law, four dogs, and two cats, he made camp in the movie house. His wife, Emily, a nurse, was on duty at a VA hospital in Biloxi.
Monday morning, Kelvin watched as the building next door started coming apart like an apple being peeled. Water rose in the blinding wind, and huge commercial refrigerators floated by.
It was dark when the water started coming into the movie theater, and his family retreated upstairs. The balcony was built on top of 40-foot timbers, but soon the water slammed in from below, causing it to roll up and down. About 9:30 a.m., the Schulz family decided to abandon the building.
“Actually, the building abandoned me,” Kelvin said.
He yelled for everyone to get out as the brick walls began to fall.
“My oldest daughter and son yelled, 'Come on, Grandma!' ” Kelvin said. “But she had asthma and was on an oxygen tank. She told us to go on. She said, 'I'm too old for this.' “
When Kelvin opened the outside door, an entire exterior wall collapsed. The family and the animals floated their way to the roof. Kelvin had one life preserver and gave it to his younger daughter. They stayed on the floating roof for hours. They floated forever.
For Kelvin, time stopped. He performed feats of massive strength his kids remember but he doesn't. At one point, Alison's leg got pinned while she was trying to rescue her cat. Kelvin yelled to her, “Fuck the cat!” and, with his son's help, pulled her out.
The rain felt like a sandblaster on their skin. The girls curled into fetal positions, riding the old theater's roof. But the roof started slowly sinking, and Kelvin knew it wouldn't float them much longer. After that, the story stalled. He couldn't recall. “Things happened,” he said. It would be 48 more hours before his wife would know they were safe. Her mother had disappeared.
A block away, I helped another survivor, 64-year-old Robert LaMulle, heat his MRE food pack in a neighbor's house—his was a trash pile—where he'd set up a table and soggy mattress. He told me about a body that had been in his backyard.
He led me to the orange flag in the rubble. “It was an old woman,” he said.
EARLY THE NEXT morning, we went out with rescue workers from the Navy, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, riding 19 johnboats into the Back Bay of Biloxi. We followed the water about 15 miles toward Gulfport and into a sewage-choked canal, where the goal was to deliver supplies to hundreds of Vietnamese who were stuck in their shrimp trawlers. They'd gone days without food or water after coming far inland to escape the storm, getting stuck behind a broken bridge.
Lieutenant Glen Jackson, a wildlife officer, had found the stranded shrimpers the day before and tried to call FEMA and the Red Cross for help, only to be put through endless phone calls and red tape.
“They sat there for eight days and no one asked them anything,” Jackson said.
The canal was an endless wall of sun-faded and sea-beaten red, green, and blue boats. Green shrimp nets hoisted high, old tires used as buoys. About 70 huge boats, some with four to five families on board, were tied to scraggly pine trees down the canal. We saw beaten remains of some, half protruding from the water, while others had sunk whole.
They had names like Sea Angels, Viet Pride, Ivana, Captain No II. The canal had become a city, with clothes hanging on the lines and the smell of the diesel from a dozen sunk or battered boats. People had gone down with them; the Navy planned to send divers into the wreckage later.
Raw sewage colored the water a light, sickly brown. Some of the hardened wildlife agents wore masks against the smell as they passed out bottled water and MREs.
Thank-yous came in broken English. On the way out, a man waved his gratitude. Unable to speak English, he simply said, “My boat,” and then pointed down into the canal. He smiled and shrugged.
AFTER DAYS on the Gulf Coast, we finally made our way to New Orleans. New Orleans was everywhere. We had a radio, and New Orleans—with its people dying from dehydration and neglect—had dominated the airwaves. George Bush was in New Orleans. So was Oprah. Sean Penn was in there somewhere, on a boat.
I love New Orleans. I've been going there all my life. I hated what it had become, a fishbowl for TV journalists who wanted to pontificate about the unknown poor in the city. You'd have to have been pretty unobservant not to know there was poverty in New Orleans. Unlike in New York, it's woven into every block. Million-dollar homes sit in plain sight of housing projects like Magnolia and Calliope, famous for the rap stars they've spawned.
When we arrived, Canal Street was lined with TV trucks and reporters. The city I love had been flooded and gutted and looted and raped. It smelled of fetid water and decaying food; the French Quarter was quiet for the first time in hundreds of years. The refugees were gone. Now New Orleans was Dodge City. The day before we arrived, police officers had been shot at. People were setting fire to shotgun houses. New Orleans was wide open.
Troops camped out in Audubon Park. The train station was now a jail run by some gun bulls from Angola State Prison. It was powered by an electrical line hooked up to a diesel locomotive.
We met a corrections officer named Troy Poret, lean-jawed and tough-talking as he described the cages they'd installed on the train platforms in about a day. But he confided that he'd nearly broken down on the Interstate 10 overpass while lending a hand after the storm. He'd been working as an armed guard, watching prisoners, when a young child grabbed his pant leg and begged him for water, and an old woman asked, “Are y'all gonna fix our city?”
LATER, LARRY WANDERED into the the Metairie Cemetery, up to his waist in foul water, to catch the perfect light at sunset while I waited on the interstate and gave directions to lost emergency workers. No one had replaced signs in the city. We drove to the Bywater neighborhood and the edge of the flooded Ninth Ward. The evacuees were gone, and we had the whole place to ourselves. We went to the zoo. I took Larry to Jackson Square. I sat on a highway overpass and looked down into Mid-City at the Rock 'n' Bowl, where I'd spent countless nights drinking Dixie beer, to see the first floor submerged.
As the sun set, we heard a gunshot and decided to drive on.
We stayed nights in Lafayette—an inland town that hadn't been hit. We ate Cajun food in the evenings and by day drove south on Highway 1, hugging the bayou, passing dozens of airboats being used to check downed power lines on crooked poles, and running the marsh to Grand Isle. We spent the day on the little island, populated by fishermen and shrimpers who lived in stilt houses. Even the trailers were on stilts.
There I met Louis Estay, a rough old Cajun whose shrimp company had been destroyed. He and his partner, Mike Oliver, took it all in, looking at the wreckage and smelling the rot of shrimp and lost diesel. They smiled as they talked about the two homes, the ice plant, and the 16 shacks that were all gone. No insurance.
“We're going to clean up and drink a beer, and after that I don't know,” Louis said, before leaving the island by truck. “You just kind of have to laugh about it.”
DAYS BEFORE, we'd been in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, which was a hollowed-out shell, roads collapsed on top of eroded shoreline, railroad tracks stretched and turned on the horizon like taffy. More than anywhere else, people came here to stand at the end of the little town—once populated by quaint restaurants and cafés, bars and bookshops—to look at the oddity of destruction.
On the edge of the beach, Jimmy Bodden asked if we'd like to join him at the bar he managed. For a few moments I thought Jimmy had gone a little nutty.
Jimmy walked us down to the edge of the beach, where two support beams still stood. Todd Key, the bartender, searched for a two-by-four to nail across the beams. Todd laid out liquor bottles and even found the sign for the place, Day Dreams, in the wreckage.
Someone brought out a battery-powered radio. They played oldies for Jimmy. Beer was poured and the sun set over the Gulf. Everyone toasted the bar's owner, Ernie, a former marine who'd had his leg nearly blown off in Vietnam and had driven a United cab in New Orleans for 20 years to buy the place.
“Hey,” said Rick Barbera, a regular, to anyone who joined the party. “There was a hurricane here, unless you didn't know.”
They were still drinking, laughing, and listening to oldies when we left.