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Fieldwork

Special Feature:
Post-Katrina Cleanup in Biloxi, Mississippi—a Volunteer's Reflections


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index map showing approximate path of Hurricane Katrina
 
His name was Tuli and he'd been sleeping on a soggy mattress for two months. After he had dragged the remnants of his bed from his house, he'd wrapped it in plastic and put it under a blue tarp suspended by bent chainlink-fence posts. Leaning against broken cinder blocks around him were framed wedding photographs of his son and daughter-in-law. Welcome to post- Katrina Biloxi, Mississippi.

I arrived in Biloxi on November 7, 2005, for five days of volunteer work but quickly realized that even 500 days would not be enough. From fallen 150-ft trees to flattened neighborhoods, this city of 50,000 people endured some of the worst damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina when it slammed into the Gulf Coast on August 29 as a category 4 storm. With the sixth-lowest atmospheric pressure on record, Katrina brought sustained winds exceeding 145 mph and a storm surge of 20 to 30 ft.

How did the storm's statistics translate into impacts on the city? Roof shingles peeled off, exposing attics packed with diplomas and books, while sediment-laden seawater poured through shattered windows. Shoes floated through hallways, saturated teddy bears tangled with sewing machines, and Cheerios boxes wrapped around bedposts. Closet rods snapped from the weight of soggy clothes. The violence was absolute and unrelenting. The tale of the Three Little Pigs took a perverse turn in Biloxi. Many houses were wooden boxes elevated on 2-ft-tall brick footings. When the winds roared in, the structures slid off their anchors and collapsed. Brick homes with solid foundations resisted the air attack but could not contend with the surging water.

At the base camp, we volunteers armed ourselves with sledge hammers, pickaxes, crowbars, and shovels to drag out a family's wrecked belongings and then strip the house. Walls, insulation, ceilings, flooring—anything that was not a 2-by-4 had to go. The work dislodged showers of dust and muck that mingled with our sweat. Face masks blocked the airborne riffraff but did little to filter the stomach-churning stenches that emanated from kitchens. What had been food was now blackened masses of quivering rot, fermented in the subtropical heat of a late Mississippi summer. Once our task was complete, the frame of the house could be sprayed by professionals, killing the toxic mold that had blossomed as the floodwaters receded.

Typical scene of hurricane destruction Doug George pulling down a wall with a pickaxe.
Above Left: Typical scene of hurricane destruction in the east half of Biloxi, Miss. [larger version]

Above Right: Doug George pulling down a wall with a pickaxe in Biloxi, Miss. [larger version]

The human capacity to bear suffering was far greater than I had imagined. A 78-yr-old diabetic woman, Delphi, had slept in a wet La-Z-Boy recliner for two months outside her home before FEMA delivered a trailer. A wheelchair-bound man, Ralph, put his face in his hands as I pushed his dishwasher to the street but remained stoic as we dumped his personal items—ruined clothes, bedding, religious pictures—along the curb. And then there was Tuli, who donned blazing white rubber boots to wade into the wreckage of his home and help us purge his house with countless wheelbarrow trips.

My own lessons were strings of dichotomies. Though raised in drought-prone California, I learned to take showers with only two sun-warmed bottles of water. Despite years of backpacking, I discovered the difference between camping and living in a tent. As an oceanographer at the U.S. Geological Survey, I am paid to research a childhood fascination—mud—but it became my enemy when I slipped in 4 inches of it and my arms were nearly crushed by a toilet that two of us were carrying. My travels in developing nations with open sewers only marginally helped me face Biloxi's unsanitary conditions.

Trees and boats mingling together more than two months after Katrina hit.
Above: Trees and boats mingling together more than two months after Katrina hit. [larger version]

Relief efforts in disaster zones shove people to the edges of their physical ability, mental strength, and emotional endurance. Yet the moment a victim smiles in genuine appreciation as you stand with legs bloodied, shoulders aching, body caked in mud and soaked in sweat, nose raw from the rubbing of a face mask—that smile turns you around to swing the sledge for one more hour. I hope to see Tuli's house a home again and return his smile.


Related Sound Waves Stories
USGS Center in Lafayette, LA, Provides Aid in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
September 2005
Before-and-After Aerial Photographs Show Coastal Impacts of Hurricane Katrina
September 2005

Related Web Sites
Hurricane Katrina Disaster Response
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
Hurricane Katrina Impact Studies
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

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in this issue: Fieldwork
cover story:
USGS Scientists Investigate New Orleans Levees

special feature:
Post-Katrina Cleanup—a Volunteer's Reflections

Offshore Impacts of Hurricane Katrina

Sediment-Toxicity Studies in Western Long Island Sound

Sea-Floor Geology Off Massachusetts Coast

Alvin Dives to Deep-Water Coral Habitats

Research Study Links Urbanization to Amphibian Decline

Outreach San Francisco Bay Floor Explored

Briefing on Coastal Research in Hawai'i

USGS Research on the Kona Coast, Hawai'i

Meetings Third International Symposium on Deep-Sea Corals

Awards Award for USGS Map Hawaii's Volcanoes Revealed

Staff USGS Citizen Soldier on the Move!

Native-Plant Landscaping in Florida

Publications New Book on Benthic Habitats and the Effects of Fishing

Dec. 2005 / Jan. 2006 Publications List


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