Sunday, September 25, 2005 (SF Chronicle)
I saw people on the Gulf picking up the pieces, not weeping
By Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
The question surprised me, coming as it did from a colleague in the
normally hard-bitten culture of the newsroom, where gallows humor is
more the norm.
"Did you cry?" she asked, after we discussed the chaos, heartbreak
and ruin I had observed during my 10 days walking and wading through the
tragedy that is the Gulf Coast and New Orleans.
I knew that television reporters had cried during interviews with
victims of Hurricane Katrina, boosting at least one network career. But
"I couldn't write if I didn't feel for the people I was talking to
or understand in some way their pain," I replied. "But it takes a lot to
make me cry."
One might think that seeing people picking through the remnants of
their flattened homes and shattered lives or fleeing, perhaps forever,
their flooded neighborhoods would immediately elicit tears. The
out-of-place items of home and hearth -- a filthy teddy bear on top of a
splintered roof in Waveland, Miss., or the Spider-Man lunch box floating in
the ruined city of New Orleans -- were disturbing, no doubt.
But the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was emotional, at least for
me, in a deeper way. Maybe it was because I was reporting the tragedy,
and concentrating more than the average person on what was in front of
me, but life seemed more vivid amid the rubble of the Mississippi coast,
in the crowded Houston Astrodome and in the vacant city of New
We have all heard how tragedy makes a person realize what's
important in life. But, more than that, a calamity like Hurricane Katrina
brings into plain view the delicate balance of nature, and humanity.
There, amid the stench of death, I did not see many people crying.
Instead, I saw them trying to pick up the pieces. I saw them hugging
their children tight, cherishing a friendly gesture, savoring the taste of
a donated apple.
I saw Dennis Dickinson slogging around Bay St. Louis, Miss., trying
to figure out how to remove his friend's van, trailer and boat, which
had been blown off the road and were now buried in mud. Never mind that
his own home, where he had raised two children and was raising a third,
had been destroyed.
"I'm just thankful I have a job," said Dickinson, 46, a construction
Even when forced to confront all they had lost, most of the victims
still found something to be thankful for. Tony Lewis, 50, pulled a
muddy pot out of the remnants of the 3,000-square-foot Victorian-style home
he bought four months before in Waveland.
"I worked as a health and safety officer for an oil rig and saved up
money to get my dream home," said Lewis, who was collecting things to
bring back to his wife and seven children. "It's disbelief that we're
starting over again, but we're just glad we're alive and we still have
our health. I'll let my family remember it like it was, and we'll
regroup and go at it again."
The devastation from the hurricane along the Gulf Coast was nearly
complete, with whole towns reduced to splinters of wood and debris. The
force of the winds snapped large pine trees in half, blew off roofs and
turned anything not fastened down into twisted roadside sculptures.
The vast, dirty lake that covered New Orleans was shocking and surreal,
like creeping liquid death.
It was, nevertheless, with both optimism and a sense of humor unique
to the South that people confronted the ruins of their former lives.
"My friend asked, 'What are we going to do now for entertainment?' "
quipped Celeste McInnis, 59, of Gulfport, Miss., as she stood in the
now-ruined gambling mecca of Biloxi. "I said, 'Entertainment? What are
we going to do for basic services?'
"You've got to laugh and just go with it or else you can't get
through it," said McInnis, who had six relatives whose homes were flattened.
Her sister had to be rescued from her attic. "This area has a
wonderful, united spirit and they will come together."
Many confronted their uncertain futures not with grief, but with
seeming nonchalance. Bob Burns chuckled at the craziness of it all and
acted as a tour guide through the mound of lumber that was his Waveland
"This was Dr. Lee's house here. It was a mansion," said Burns, 47,
pointing out the expansive lawn leading to a giant pile of debris.
"And this," he said, smiling and gesturing proudly at an
unrecognizable mass of splintered wood and material amid mud-caked stumps, "is my
Steve Kinney, whose house was one of the only homes left standing in
Waveland, looked around when he first arrived after the storm.
"This is interesting," he said, dryly. "I guess I'm not going to
have any neighbors for a while."
And there were wild tales of survival told, as often as not, with
whimsy and a glint in the eye.
Brian Mollere puffed a cigarette and stroked his scraggly pet
Chihuahua, Rocky, as he told how the two of them were swept from his home by
the storm surge and carried down the street. The incredible tale took
on an absurdist flavor as he described his urgent attempts to put his
shorts back on after they had slipped off. His curious decision to wave
at neighbors on rooftops as he and his dog rushed by them in the torrent
seemed preposterous, yet true to his nature.
People gleefully told about a seal found on a street in Gulfport, a
sea lion in a pool in Long Beach, deer swept off an island and planted
on the mainland, a person in Biloxi forced to swim 13 hours before
being rescued. They are tales that will be told to future generations,
until the next Katrina comes along.
Beth Fiorello, 37, of Waveland, was moved to tears, not by the sight
of her destroyed house, but by the discovery of her daughter's
communion dress in the rubble.
"That makes it a little better," she said.
Everywhere I looked there was the search, not only for remnants of
the past, but for something inspiring, positive, that would serve as a
vehicle for renewal.
Frankie Cade, 62, put up 33 evacuees in her Houston rental
apartments free of charge, then gave them the clothes off her back.
"I just emptied my closet," said Cade, who has had her share of
grief, losing a son in a car accident and a daughter to meningitis. "I can
always buy more clothes."
Even among the homeless and destitute, who endured the foul
indignities wrought by the slow federal response to the flooding in New
Orleans, there were signs of a new dawn.
"That shower felt like a million dollars," marveled Adrian Ory, 57,
after washing up for the first time at the Houston Astrodome.
She and her deaf daughter, "Peppy," and disabled granddaughter were
rescued from their flooded New Orleans home. Her first call after the
ordeal was to her niece on a borrowed cell phone.
"We're in the big ol' Astrodome, girl," she yelled to her relieved
relative. "Call everybody and tell them me and Peppy are safe!"
Tears did mingle with the floodwaters in Louisiana and the wreckage
in Mississippi and Alabama, but not as many as one might think.
I did not shed any, but I did notice the bright red sunset over New
Orleans, the powdery white sand on the beach in Biloxi and the smell of
pine along the highway in Mississippi. The reflections in the water
seemed more acute. The blue sky took on a brilliant hue.
I noticed a 3-foot-tall Santa Claus doll wearing glasses standing in
a parking lot, surrounded by the calamity that was Biloxi, seemingly
watching over the town.
I saw an amusement-park bumper car sitting there on Highway 90 as if
it had broken away from its confines and was preparing to flee the
whirlwind of debris that was once a resort town.
The bow of the schooner-shaped Treasure Bay Casino was beached in a
strange parody of what might have happened to a real pirate ship 300
years ago on the same coastline.
Bourbon Street was empty, silent and dry. Three things it had never
Life in the path of destruction was a surreal curiosity, abstract
yet oddly poignant. I took it all in, like a good reporter, and spat much
of it out on the page.
But there was something I could not put into words, something the
experience did, not only to my senses, but to my soul.
I told my sensitive colleague that the calamity of Katrina had not
made me cry. And it had not. But as I was writing one night near the end
of my assignment covering the hurricane aftermath, I opened an e-mail
from my wife.
"We love you and miss you," it said. "Kids want to know when you're
coming home. Please stay safe and don't let the mosquitoes bite you."
It came from a place that seemed so far away from the terrible
destruction I had witnessed. Many on the Gulf Coast had lost their homes,
their families, their feelings of safety. I still had those things. The
hurricane and its aftermath made me realize how much they all meant to
The tears just came, as much a surprise as the note. I missed my
family, my little children, but my emotions were more a realization of
just how thin the thread is that holds our lives together, that bonds us
with our loved ones, that tethers us to a world filled with wonder and
I stood up, walked outside and looked up into the Southern night
sky. Through the clouds I saw the brilliant, magnificent stars.
E-mail Peter Fimrite at firstname.lastname@example.org.