Nothing would’ve prepared us for what we saw. The damage was so incredible Scott asked “With this much devastation, how do you even know where to start.” It was, in a word, a wasteland.
In late September 2005, Aspen Times reporter Scott Condon and I traveled to Pearlington, Miss., to document the struggles the town needed to overcome. The valley our newspaper covered adopted Pearlington to help in its recovery. All donations and relief efforts were focused on this one little town. Why did we go to Pearlington? Here’s an editorial from 2005 stating why: Why We Visited Pearlington
We caught a red-eye flight from Denver International Airport to the closes available commercial airport: Pensacola. From there got a rental car, stopped by a few stores for supplies such as water, food, snacks, power converters (12 vdc to 110vac) so we can charge our laptops, extra AA and AAA batteries, and other stuff. We wanted to be prepared as we were going into a disaster zone. We didn’t want to take chances.
Scott Napping at DIA –
Before leaving Aspen, I contacted a few local papers. One was the Sun-Herald in Biloxi. They had a conference room set up so visiting journalists and photographers could file on deadline. More than half the staff lost their homes in Katrina, yet they still continued to work 60, 70, or more hours per week to put the news out. They won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 in Public Service for their continuing coverage of Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans Times-Picayune also won for Public Service as well as one for Breaking News for their coverage of Katrina.
So we had a place to file our stories and photos. It is an hour east of Pearlington, but not a big deal. Now we needed a place to stay. Since we figured our chances of getting a hotel room were slim to none, we did bring our tents.
Nothing Left –
While driving from Pensacola to Pearlington along Interstate 10, I noticed something interesting. The billboards along the interstate in Pensacola had mild damage. A few rips in the paper. As we progressed west, the billboards went from a few shards of paper torn, to the adverts stripped off, to the metal frames completely bent over.
When we arrived in Pearlington, we were shocked. I’ve viewed images from Katrina since it hit land a month earlier. But to see what a 20 to 30 foot storm surge could do was shocking. Whole buildings and homes flattened. Roads choked with debris. Trees snapped like toothpicks. Boats and ships sat in the woods like toys in a toy box. And at times you could smell rot.
Trying to Clean –
To survive and protect their property, some residents erected tents and lived in them while awaiting FEMA trailers. Some homes were completely abandoned. Despite circumstances, almost everyone we met was helpful, cordial, and wanted to tell their story.
Telling her story –
Our first mission was to contact the Pearlington Recovery Center. This is where all the donations for the Roaring Fork Valley were being sent. It also gave us a good place to set a base of operations. A place where we can interview people before heading out further into town and talk with residents.
Looking Over the Damage –
Once we had a few story ideas to work on, we began driving around Pearlington in search of people in their homes. We found George Ladner and his wife Margaret outside their home. They evacuated to avoid the storm. The did not expect what they found when they returned: their home was almost completely destroyed.
A Waiting Game –
After staying with them awhile, we found Tim Smith outside of his. He said he stayed during the storm as he rode out Hurricane Camille in 1969 and figured it wouldn’t be as bad. He regretted the decision. His wife and two kids evacuated to a shelter about 10 mile in land. His home, 5 miles from the coast, was inundated with water and high winds knocked over two huge pine trees.
Read more on The Aspen Times website here: After Riding Out Hurricane Katrina, Survivors Say Anything is Possible.
Seeing Old Friends –
The first day was exhausting, both physically due to the heat and mentally as I tried to come to grips with this level of devastation. 60% of Hancock County’s population of 45,000 were homeless according to Steve Sauter, Public Information Officer with FEMA. The storm surge reached 20 to 30 feet depending on what part of the county you were in.
Laundry Day –
So after spending the day in Pearlington, we headed to Biloxi to use the conference room at the Sun-Herald. The most important thing I learned during this trip was I needed to buy a laptop to handle digital files. The laptop, and old Macbook, had a slow processor and was even slower transferring the files from my card to the hard drive.
Surveying the Damage –
But we made deadline. And after filing, we headed to a shelter in north Hancock County. The Emergency Operations Center was established at the high school in Kiln (a town everybody kept reminding us is the home of Green Pay Packers quarterback Brett Farve.) When we arrived, the director told us they had no available cots for us. But that was OK as we were smart enough to bring our tents. And our first night was camping under the stars next to the Hancock County Airport.
Beginning Repairs –
The next day we got lucky and found a gentleman who lived in Pass Christian where his house was pretty much unscathed. Joseph Runnels, who works as an attorney for the state of Mississippi, was assigned to Hancock County to field complaints of price gouging. He had no internet available, but that was no problem. It made for a good base of operations so-to-speak as we headed out from there to explore and document other areas such as Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and other areas.
He’s Watching Over –
With our housing taken care of, we felt more at ease and could concentrate on working our stories and finding new ones. In fact, one of the disturbing things we discovered was the incredible amount of clothing and supplies not reaching their designated areas. Truckers could not make it to their destination so they just found places and dumped their load. One was a tennis court not too far from the Runnels’ house.
Wasted Resources –
Recovery Center in Pearlington –
Praying for Help –
Outside Church –
Pass Christian Waterfront –
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Paul “pablo” Conrad
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Paul Conrad is an award-winning, nationally and internationally published freelance editorial photographer living in Bellingham north of Seattle, WA, in the Pacific Northwest. His work has been published in newspapers and magazine throughout the United States and in Europe. He is available for assignments anywhere in the Pacific Northwest.
His clients include Getty Images, Wire Image, AirBnB, The Bellingham Herald, and many local business in Whatcom County. Previous clients are Associated Press, the New York Times, L.A. Times, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, and many others.
His specialty is photojournalism covering news, sports, and editorial portraits, he also is skilled in family portraiture, high school senior portraits, and weddings.