Katrina's ugly sister

Veteran
journalist Garry Lloyd watched history repeat itself last month, as 36
years ago he had reported for The Times on the death and devastation
brought to the Mississippi region by a hurricane

WATCHING the unfolding drama
of Hurricane Katrina devastating America’s Gulf Coast last month was a
reawakening. Journalistic déja vu. Thirty-six years ago I was in Biloxi
and Gulfport covering the catastrophe caused by Katrina’s older sister,
Hurricane Camille, for The Times. History was repeating itself.

Camille was a vicious sibling, her winds, at 200 mph, fiercer than
Katrina. She was born a benign rainstorm in Senegal, a fortnight
before, and became a ruthless destroyer that raked a path 350 miles
across. An estimated 200,000 people fled from floods and fires.

Waves
swept highways, brought down buildings, uprooted trees and telegraph
poles. A boat was blown three blocks from the harbour. Great tides
swept up the Mississippi river, leaving towns without drinking water,
electricity and gas. Hundreds died. The town of Waveland between New
Orleans and Gulfport was obliterated. Martial law restrained looters.

For
several days after Camille’s first appearance I filed copy from the New
York bureau where I was based. I was surprised when the foreign desk
ordered me south. I believed the show was over, milked of its
essentials by US colleagues. I was wrong.

At midnight I reached
the Biloxi bridge, which stretched for nearly two miles across the bay
and was the only access to the stricken town. At the bridge entrance a
tall National Guard man emerged from a hut with rifle and flashlight,
which he shone into my eyes. In a Mississippi accent as broad as the
river he enquired: “And where might you be going Suh?”

I explained that I was a British journalist covering Camille and heading for Biloxi.

Extending
a massive paw he responded: “Allow me to shake you by the hand Suh. Ah
have nevah met an Englishman befoah.” Entry to hurricane territory
seemed assured.

“OK to go over?” I asked.

“Absolutely not, suh,” he intoned. “Far too dangerous.”

“I’ll risk it,” I said.

“You
may, we caint,” he said. “There’s poisonous snakes, alligators, dead
bodies, power lines down, and no communications. Anyway, the bridge is
broke.”

“Broken?”

“Yep, snapped apart right in the middle suh. Even if you could get across, you certainly caint in the dark.”

Exploiting
his summary friendship I was advised to find a motel and return in
daylight to negotiate with his captain. When I returned at dawn the
captain was equally affable, and firm about the dangers.

“But what about the other journalists who’ve been through?” I questioned.

“What journalists? We’ve never seen any.”

“No other reporters have been over?”

“Nope. Anyway you’d never get to Biloxi in that car.”

Persistence and an English accent prevailed and he agreed to provide a National Guard 4×4 and a driver.

We
crept across the newly constructed four-lane bridge littered with
debris and broken in the middle, where a piano rested amid piles of
flotsam. Nobody knew how it got there.

Lurching across the bridge fracture we succeeded in reaching perdition. The destruction was awesome.

A
barge which had long been sunk nearly a mile out into the bay had been
plucked out by Camille and dumped on the coastal highway. Years later
when I revisited Biloxi it was a tourist attraction.

Fifteen
miles of sophisticated seafront properties between Biloxi and Gulfport
were in ruins. Entire homes disappeared, some picked up and deposited
in neighbouring gardens.

A yacht was wedged under the historic
colonnaded front of what had been the home of America’s only
confederate president, Jefferson Davis, now a museum. Caretakers were
marooned upstairs.

A Biloxi resident took me to the space that
had once been his home. A few inches of brick pilings were all that
remained. The circular Trade Winds restaurant on the seafront seemed
miraculously untouched until you stepped inside. It was rimmed out like
a lemon grater. Not a nail on the wall.

Behind it, 10-foot waves
had crashed into a sixstorey hotel. When terrified guests, sheltering
in their rooms, stole out afterwards a car was floating in the lobby.
The hotelier told me a house was in the grounds that hadn’t been there
before.

Townspeople were swept into trees and found battered and
exhausted the following day. A National Guard man told me he had picked
up the body of an elderly priest who would not leave his home. His
neck, arms and legs were broken.

In Gulfport three large cargo
ships were swept onto the beach. Hurricane Camille sank or grounded 94
vessels in the Mississippi. Nine seagoing ships were blown ashore.

Many
local fishermen and working families, who could not afford insurance,
lost everything. Some searched the ruins of their homes. Others could
not find one brick on top of another.

Refugee centres occupied
churches, schools and public buildings where the Red Cross and
Salvation Army distributed what rags of clothing they could muster.
Food and water were in short supply.

President Nixon declared the
entire Mississippi coast a disaster area. Later he did the same with
flood-ravaged Virginia. There were fears of tetanus and typhoid, and
explosions from fractured gas mains. Refugees were inoculated and
counselled not to drink water from the usual sources.

As with
Hurricane Katrina, rescue workers discovered bodies lashed together, a
desperate but futile attempt to survive. In the foundations of one
apartment block 23 were found dead.

National Guardsmen were
ordered to have no mercy on looters and bring in offenders “dragging or
standing. They’re just grave robbers”.

Much of the Gulf Coast was
a ghost town. But I did not encounter any other journalist, nor meet
anyone who had. The agencies had been active, probably relying on local
stringers. But even in the late Sixties it was becoming apparent that
America’s newsmen from the major papers did not seem to venture far
into the hinterland of their own country.

The rescuers of
Camille’s victims struck me as committed and compassionate. I heard
none of the criticism of relief efforts now voiced over Katrina’s
rampage.

The catastrophe in New Orleans, of course, is of a
different dimension. Built beside the Gulf, in a basin between Lake
Pontchartrain and the Mississippi, it has always been vulnerable to
flooding. But ample advance warnings were sounded. Complacency must be
a factor, especially in a region accustomed to hurricanes and
bureaucracy.

The intro I wrote to my piece from Biloxi seems less
than prescient: “It will be a long time before anyone here forgets the
vicious, capricious Hurricane Camille.” Nearly four decades on memories
are shorter than I anticipated and past lessons unlearned.

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