We are home after 11 days covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s strange to be back in Tampa with plentiful gas, electricity and cellular phone reception.
I was in a local CVS an hour after we dumped off the rental cars and ditched our rented recreational vehicle.
The normalcy was bizarre, even strangely comical.
Humor is an important part of covering a hurricane. ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s a release valve for the grizzly things we see and horrific stories we hear.
Photographer Crystal Lauderdale and I had stopped at an intersection in Long Beach, Miss., when saw a kid scream around the corner on a tiny motorcycle and wipe out. Lauderdale and I immediately erupted in laughter at the hilarity of surviving the most deadly hurricane in U.S. history only to crash while horsing around on a motorcycle.
We felt bad about laughing it until we saw the occupants of another car at the intersection doing the same thing.
The kid was fine. He got up, shook his head a few times and sped off.
On our last day in Louisiana we met up with my good friend Ethan Hyman, a photographer with the Raleigh News and Observer. He was covering the story with a reporter who was born and raised outside New Orleans.
The reporter, Ben Niolet, told us about going to see his home after being in the city a few days.
His mother told him a giant tree fell and crashed into his childhood bedroom.
He opened the door to the bedroom and saw the limb had caused his entire room to be blanketed in soggy pink insulation.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“It looked like my room was covered in cotton candy,Ă˘â‚¬Âť Niolet said. Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“I just broke out laughing.Ă˘â‚¬Âť
I am sure it was rather strange for NioletĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s parents to see their son laughing at what I am sure was pretty traumatic damage for them.
But it couldnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t compare to the tales of heartbreak he saw in the city, like the grim sight of seeing several bloated bodies floating in the coffee-colored water. How could his damaged bedroom compare to being at the scene were authorities found 20 bodies strapped together around a tree?
In that context, a little insulation in your old bedroom is pretty funny.
State, local and federal authorities have become pretty fanatical about keeping everyone other than emergency vehicles and residents out of heavily damaged areas.
Trouble is, thatĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s where the best stories are
So each day we are posed with the same dilemma: Happily obey the wishes of law enforcement and be miles away from the best stories, or sneak into forbidden areas.
We are getting good at being sneaky.
Sometimes we go to a series of heavily guarded entry points chatting up local authorities until someone lets us through. This worked pretty well in Long Beach, Miss.
We struck out about six times with, of all people, Florida law enforcement officials who had come up to help the relief effort. We finally met a friendly Long Beach police officer who let us through.
Tuesday in Gulfport, Miss., we had a run in with a soldier (though he barely seemed 18) who I will call Private Skippy.
Photographer Crystal Lauderdale and I are pretty savvy getting into off-limits places that need exploring. We have become good at selecting targets, sizing up the threat (out-of-state cops are usually a no-go) and charming our way in.
Private Skippy, who I am sure is excellent at warding off looters, was having none of our shenanigans.
We pulled up to his check point and I calmly said in my best I-am-not-a-looter sort of way that we are journalists from Tampa and wanted to be on the inside. In short: Back off Skippy, we have work to do.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“CanĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t let you through, sirĂ˘â‚¬Âť he said.
Private Skippy had orders, and was adamant that we were not getting by without an escort from an official escort.
That could have taken hours, perhaps longer.
We bid farewell to Private Skippy and turned around, while hatching a plan.
Surely they couldnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t guard every street.
We drove down a few blocks to a tiny, side street that had no guard and we made our way to the epicenter of GulfportĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s destruction.
See ya, Skippy.
Once you are on the inside you get no guff because everyone assumes you have permission to be there. ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s great. Law enforcement and military authorities gestured to us like we were part of the cool-kids club all of the sudden.
We spent hours in the forbidden zone Tuesday, traversing destroyed roads and interviewing residents who were unfailingly eager to talk and share their stories.
Today we are off again to play with the cool kids.
Baird Helgeson retrieves the antenna from the RV after clipping a downed power line.
We are not coming home until everything is broken.
ThatĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s our new motto.
ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s catchy and, as a unified team, we like it.
The TribuneĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s top brass sent Bob Bellone to be our resident gas and supply gopher. We secretly think editors sent Bob to be a father figure to us youthful staffers and keep us from breaking too much stuff. He suspiciously arrived the day after we nicked a downed power line and tore the air conditioning unit off our RV.
So far, our corporate peace keeper is not doing his job.
Here are MondayĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s casualties and assigned blame:
1. A power outlet in our rented RV (unknown).
2. The stereo in the RV (unknown, or Tom Petty)
3. cigarette lighter power adapter (Crystal Lauderdale)
4. video camera zoom lens (Kathy Moore)
5. Broken shower door in the RV (Moore and team)
Even Bob is starting to understand that things break when you cover hurricanes.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“I havenĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t broken anything yet, but itĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s only a matter of time,Ă˘â‚¬Âť he said.
After a hurricane passes, the best roads are littered with millions of nails, tacks, glass and other sharp objects. The worst roads are muck-covered debris fields.
Bob had dreams of keeping his rented Ford Expedition in pristine condition.
We howled at the very notion. In just a few short days, it now reeks of gas and swamp mud like any other vehicle within 100 miles.
Now Bob is getting into the groove, sloshing fuel cans like a veteran, getting his feet muddy.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘m starting to enjoy this life of grime,Ă˘â‚¬Âť he said last night.
We smell funky.
WeĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ve been living out of an RV for a week now, sustained by only one shower a few days ago.
We are careful not to stir up an offensive breeze when we pass each other.
Is that swamp mud?
No, thatĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s just Baird.
Staff photographer Kathy Moore and Reporter Baird Helgeson
Photographer Kathy Moore finally had enough and washed her hair with bottled water.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“I feel like a new person,Ă˘â‚¬Âť she said afterward.
Reporter Ben Montgomery washed in suspicious smelling well water.
Photographer Crystal Lauderdale has found new and unusual ways to hide her hair.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“I want my hair back,Ă˘â‚¬Âť she said recently.
We try to run air condition in the RV sparingly because it burns precious gas out of the fuel tank.
Gas is such a problem that we decided weĂ˘â‚¬â„˘d rather be mobile than comfortable.
ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s a tough call during these warm nights. Cracking the windows does little to ease the grip of the Mississippi heat.
Many storm victims and law enforcement officials have taken to sleeping outside.
Rain forced us to run the air conditioning last night for the first full night this trip.
It was our best and longest night sleep yet, perhaps six hours.
We leave today for Louisiana to find some communities that might not be getting the attention of New Orleans.
But first weĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ll need to put all the fuel from our gas cans in the RV.
We need to get it rolling again.
We found a bizarre pocket of cell phone reception at the edge of a washed out bridge in Bay St. Louis, Miss. Cell phone reception is almost as cherished as gas in these parts. Even with no power and running water, news of this place spread fast.
A nasty sludge of marsh mud, oil and sewage covers much of the ground. The most sure-footed trucks slide around like they are on ice. The glop could easily suck loose-fitting boots right off a foot. When the muck dries, it cracks and looks like the rubber from a 30-year-old car tire.
We are camped out in the parking lot of a nearly-destroyed motel on the edge of town.
ThereĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s a sign in the motelĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s second floor indicating the height of Hurricane KatrinaĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s storm surge, higher than the roof of our rented RV.
The land is a vast and flat network of rivers, swamps and marshes. When Katrina hit and rivers rose, the devastation sprawled for miles, like when a glass of milk spills on a kitchen table. Several feet of water was reported 15 miles away at the airport.
Debris is everywhere.
At first it looked like dozens of cars were parked along side a road, as if for a sale or a celebration.
Then we saw a Chevrolet pickup resting on top of a Ford sedan. Then we saw a Jeep turned over in a ditch, a Honda sitting in the middle of a crushed mobile home. It was more common to see huge boats resting in yards or along the road than on the water.
We finally reached what seems to be the epicenter of the storm. Several storm survivors talked about the calm eye of the storm lasting 20 minutes, followed by the second savage pounding as the back half of the storm moved through.
In hurricanes Charley and Frances, residents who were in the middle of the storms talked about the gradual re-strengthening of the storm after the eye wall moved by. Katrina wasnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t that way, toggling from serene to torrential in mere moments.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“It was the most eerie feeling of my life,Ă˘â‚¬Âť said Allen Smith, 21.
Authorities are still recovering bodies, using high-tech locators and cadaver dogs. They are quick to correct that it is no longer a search and rescue mission. Now itĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s just searching.
Immediately after the storm, authorities didnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t want to waste time recovering bodies when there was a chance others could be saved. Rescue teams marked bodies of the dead with global-positioning tracking beacons and now are returning to retrieve the bodies.
Authorities believe there are at least 40 or so of these bodies that still need to be recovered, and many more are missing. TheyĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ve recovered life jackets in power lines. Authorities donĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t know if they broke free from a storm-hijacked boat, or were once attached to people captured by rising water.
WeĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ve run into countless Florida law enforcement authorities, including sheriff deputies from Polk and Orange counties. About 100 members of the Florida Highway Patrol are aiding in the effort, working 10-day rotations at a time.
We met up with a couple members of the highway patrol from Miami. They said Katrina is far worse than Hurricane Andrew, which roared through south Florida in 1992 and became the gold standard for storm destruction.
According to people here, Katrina is the new gold standard.
So maybe we are cheating a little. Residents all over the Gulf Coast must wait in long lines to get gas. We have Bob. Everybody should have a Bob.
The Tribune’s famed sports reporter has joined our journey to serve as gas gopher and general errand runner. We give him high marks. While I spent the day repairing a flat tire and writing a story, Bob was out scheming to get us gas, braving long lines and fighting $20 gas rations.
Here is Bob Bellone’s account, in his own words, of his adventure in search of gas, at whatever price:
Paying outrageous fuel prices has been the least concern of our gang of five covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Three, four, five dollars a gallon ... bring it.
Please, bring it!
We left Tampa a few days ago for the battered Mississippi Gulf Coast in a recreational vehicle and a pair of sport utility vehicles. The latter came with a warning: Return them with full tanks of gas or pay six-plus dollars a gallon for your laziness.
If these are one-way rentals, we lunge at that offer. Tracking down stories of hardship has been a cinch on this trip. Instead, we have exhausted ourselves in pursuit of service station owners willing to reach deep enough into our company coffers.
Saturday was a roller coaster ride. In the wee hours, we filled the tank of one SUV and a half-dozen large gas containers with liquid gold the company had delivered to Media General partner WKRG Television in Mobile, Ala.
Not a dollar was removed from our bulging pockets. Same deal for the other SUV—fresh off its journey through the former beach towns to the west—when the sun came up (we told you it would).
By mid-afternoon, the RV rolled in just as our luck ran out. Time to spread the wealth to other news teams.
Fair enough. We hit the road. As had been the case for days, operating fuel pumps were few and far between. Finally, I came upon one station with a short, fast-moving line. A $20 limit at these prices tends to do that.
My turn comes and the schmoozing begins. I greet them with an appreciative smile, call them heroes for being there for us and explain I’m with the media. All that was good for an extra $10 worth of regular unleaded.
Plan B: I return to the station, transfer six empty gas containers to an SUV and hand the keys to photographer Crystal Lauderdale. We’ll outsmart them with a fresh face and a different ride.
We return to the scene of the grime ... I jump out at a nearby motel and wait for the getaway car full of fresh gas. God doesn’t like sneaks ... the station attendants shut down the line as our gal pulls in.
Next stop, a station down the road also is moving things along for 40 cents more a gallon. Not our money ... we plead for 30 gallons and get the nod.
Eighty-seven dollars. Freedom isn’t free.
An aspect of hurricane aftermath seldom conveyed by television or newspaper is the soul-stopping stench.
Crystal Lauderdale sweeps the carpet to get rid of Katrina’s mud in the rental RV.
ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s everywhere, lurking in the next twist of the breeze. The stink of garbage cooking in the Mississippi heat has begun to fill nearly every storm damaged town. Residents are mostly living outdoors and donĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t want to fill their homes with the garbage they create. That leaves barrels in yards and next to buildings spilling over with rotting milk, meat and other foul refuse.
ThereĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s no odor more halting than when victims enter their sloshed homes for the first time. Teary victims sift through debris sustaining themselves on shallow sips of air.
Alan and Janine Neumann fought the urge to vomit as they went through their Long Beach luxury apartment that had a water mark four feet up the wall. The unit was about a quarter mile from the Gulf of Mexico, and now opens to a hurricane-made landfill of trashed apartment buildings.
Hurricane Katrina blew open their doors, filling their unit with swampy sewage, fuel and muck. By Friday, it was 100 degrees of muggy stink. After a hurricane, salty water from storm surge gives everything a stench of urine, particularly soaked clothing, carpet and furniture.
Janine Neumann kicked open the door to a second-bathroom and was overcome with the foul smell of days-old sewage and salty sludge.
She gasped, Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s like the smell of death.Ă˘â‚¬Âť
On her patio, Neumann lit a cigarette and looked out over the devastation. For the first time, she could see the water from their front door.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s unbelievable,Ă˘â‚¬â„˘Ă˘â‚¬â„˘ she said.
A friend came by and Neumann wanted to show her the damage inside.
Out of habit, she put out the cigarette before going inside.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“DonĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t know why I did that,Ă˘â‚¬Âť she said. Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Guess it wonĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t matter anymore if I smoke in the house. You wouldnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t even notice the smell.Ă˘â‚¬Âť
EQUIPMENT UPDATE: Our other crew topped my famed RV air conditioning fiasco from a few days ago. As some might recall, photographer Crystal Lauderdale and I nicked a downed power line and mangled the roof-top air conditioner on our rented RV. Just a few hours later, reporter Ben Montgomery finished the job.
Montgomery and photographer Kathy Moore traveled the same offending roadway when Moore reportedly said: Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“DonĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t forget about the powerĂ˘â‚¬Â¦..Ă˘â‚¬Âť
Rest in peace trusty AC unit. The remains were later scattered (by accident, really!) all over a Mississippi highway.
The air conditioner was replaced today in Mobile, Ala.
We plan to push into western Mississippi and Louisiana by tonight.
We hope the AC unit makes it that far.
ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s tough to tell your parents you banged up the cherished station wagon.
ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s even more difficult to tell your employer you tore off the air conditioning unit from the roof of the recreational vehicle they rented to cover Hurricane Katrina.
This seemed as good a venue as any to break the news.
Katrina swatted down so many trees and power lines that itĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s daunting to traverse many of the rural roads near Pass Christian, Miss.
Reporter Ben Montgomery had wrestled the RV down a tattered road, under some downed power lines onto a flat piece of land near the swollen banks of the Wolf River.
Everything was fine until some cranky old guy in a neighboring motor home said in no uncertain terms that the land was his, not ours, and that we were to be off it immediately. I tried to explain that we were journalists and that our other team was off reporting. I promised to leave the moment they returned.
But he was adamant, and gassed on a few beers.
It was time to leave.
He suggested a nearby camping area that would potentially require us to navigate our RV through several feet of standing water.
In haste, photographer Crystal Lauderdale and I decided to drive to a nearby service station (can you call them gas stations when they donĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t have gas?) down a road Montgomery had traveled earlier in the RV.
But somehow a power line he snuck under clipped our roof-top air conditioning unit, jettisoned the plastic cover and slightly mangled our trusty cooling system.
Our roof-top diagnosis: no cold air.
Some residents said we can get it fixed in town, but we were afraid to abandon Montgomery and photographer Kathy Moore while they were out reporting. Perhaps we will try to fix it tomorrow.
The lack of air conditioning is not a major problem. Katrina has proven that to tens of thousands of victims.
The real problem is lack of fuel. There are reports of gas shortages well into Florida.
Our tanks are low and we are rapidly guzzling fuel in our ten or so five-gallon cans.
The Tribune has sent someone with extra gas and supplies, but with no cellular phone service itĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s nearly impossible meet up.
Our minor concerns are nothing compared to what residents face here. On Friday, Lauderdale and I plan to spend the day with an elderly man who will have sipped from his last canister of oxygen over the tonight. Friends plan to take him to a hospital in the morning.
Tampa tribune reporter Baird Helgeson files a web log in the rising sunlight on the deck of a fortunate Dauphin Island home. Crystal Lauderdale/Tribune
ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s tough to imagine a more beautiful morning. The sun is edging its way over the horizon creating a canvas of lavender, pink and blue. A slight breeze off the southern Alabama shore has given the Gulf of Mexico a slight, glimmering chop.
A soft pastel haze gives the destroyed homes on Dauphin Island an almost dreamy feel.
Photographer Crystal Lauderdale said her night sleeping on a deck 12 feet over the sand and water was better than in the hotel the night before. ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s easy to love the sound of the water lapping against the beaches, and birds frolicking above.
We need to get on the move fast. Amid the ruin of dozens of homes, we are staying with the only resident on the west end if the island who decided to stay in his home for the night.
Our Ford Expedition barely got through all the sand to get us out to this remote sandy outpost. Now the rising tide threatens to cut off our last sliver of dry ground.
WeĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ve already seen enough cars submerged in the water. We donĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t want to be the next.
ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s possible to fool yourself into thinking Hurricane Katrina wasnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t that bad until you see Dauphin Island, just off Mobile, Ala.
The west end of the 14-mile long island is a wasteland of homes that were ripped from their pilings and wiped into the sea. Others are so steeply raked that it appears a change in wind direction will send them crashing down. Sometimes a toilet seat or a piece of siding is the only evidence a home was once nearby.
A Chevrolet pickup and a Subaru wagon poked out of the water 50 feet off the island as a token reminder of the power of storm surge.
A few four-wheeling residents who were able to traverse the sand dunes that replaced washed out roads kept asking, Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Where are the homes?Ă˘â‚¬Âť
Photographer Crystal Lauderdale and I found a nice man on the very edge of the island who agreed to let us stay with him for the night. HeĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s believed to be the only person staying on the west half of the island.
The house is hot, so we are sitting on a deck that is about 12 feet over the water and sand. The only sounds are of the waves washing against the beach, and a gentle breeze coming off the water.
The peace is shattered only by authorities racing around on ATVs enforcing the curfew, or the occasional boat or air craft.
Tonight, I will sleep under the stars, a block from the water and miles from the nearest people.
Tampa Tribune staff photographer Crystal L. Lauderdale sits atop the team’s Ford Expedition to shoot video footage of storm-ravaged Dauphin Island. Baird Helgeson/Tribune
Photographer Crystal Lauderdale and I got on the road later than expected. Around 4 p.m. was the dream, but 7 p.m. was the reality.
I was mostly to blame for the late departure. I had no idea I was going to cover Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath when I came to work in the morning, but Crystal had been packed for at least two days waiting for the call to go.
Katrina’s is on everyone’s mind, in Tampa and elsewhere. A photographer friend in Raleigh called during the drive to tell me about the latest reports of the slow-rising waters in New Orleans. He described what he saw on television - submerged homes, heroic rescues and looting. He talked about reports of the dead floating in the brownish flood water. He said he had to stop watching the television because it made him crazy not to be there. He and I are wired that way. We both love to be there.
Crystal and I stopped for dinner at the Outback Steakhouse in Ocala. We were tired and punchy. There were two TVs over the rear of the bar. One was tuned to the Florida Marlin’s baseball game and the other had CNN’s coverage of flooding in Louisiana.
Crystal noted the strange dichotomy on the television screens.
The waitress asked where we were headed.
“We are off for a romantic get-away in New Orleans,’’ I said in a deadpan style that my friends hate.
The waitress looked mortified, like we didn’t know what had happened.
I let her off the hook with a laugh, and Crystal quickly followed.
“Are you going to help?” she asked.
In a way, I said. We are going to help by telling the untold stories that Katrina left behind.