BILOXI, Miss. – You could call it ground zero – except that there was precious little ground to be had.
Much of Biloxi was underwater Monday night, including the town’s famed waterfront casinos.
The same scene played out in varying degrees all along the Gulf Coast – from New Orleans to Pensacola – after Hurricane Katrina stormed ashore with 140 mph winds Monday. In Mobile, Ala., much of downtown was flooded and whole neighborhoods were swamped by Mobile Bay. Pensacola seemed to avoid serious damage, but streets were flooded and trees toppled.
But no places appeared to be hit any harder than Biloxi and nearby Gulfport, towns that 36 years ago endured another horrific hurricane named Camille that assaulted Mississippi in nearly the exact same place.
“I had no idea it would be this bad,” said Greg Bankston, 27, of Biloxi, who owns a paint store. “My parents, who were here for Camille, said Camille was not this bad.”
Biloxi police said they knew of fatalities along the beach but weren’t sure of how many. Officers in scuba gear were searching the bay for victims.
Police said those who didn’t flee might have paid with their lives.
“The problem is that a lot of people were complacent,” said Windy Swetman Jr., police chief of nearby D’Iberville. “Older people don’t want to leave their homes, and younger people were complacent.”
Some who fled the rising water had to endure the storm outside. Late Monday, 15 to 20 people were huddled on their own rooftops still waiting to be rescued, police said.
Tom Banish, 40, his wife, Theresa, 42, and mother-in-law Angie DeFeo, 68, and their four dogs were on the roof of their house from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. until the water finally receded.
“I’m a die-hard, hard-core guy who always wanted to ride it out,” Banish said. “I know now that it’s best to heed the advice of police. The wind is one thing, but I never knew that water was such a destructive force.”
Sean Hebert, 37, said he awoke to find that water was up to his couch. He escaped with some friends, including a woman who couldn’t swim that well, so they tied an ice chest to her to help her float.
Together, they reached a bridge at Interstate 110 and hid underneath it for hours, before Hebert made a break for D’Iberville High. The fate of his friends was unknown late Monday.
“I should have stayed,” he said.
In town, storefront windows were blown out everywhere, with merchandise strewn in the streets. Already, there were reports of looters. Trees and power lines scattered across lawns and roads.
Some buildings seemed virtually untouched, while others nearby had seemingly exploded. The storm surge, estimated at 20 feet, devastated homes and businesses along the Gulf.
The first two floors of the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino were swamped, officials reported.
A shrimp boat had run aground against a drawbridge across Biloxi Bay, which was impassable. A flock of pelicans spread their wings to dry them nearby.
Sixty miles east of Biloxi, floodwaters also were playing havoc in Mobile.
In the heart of the city, Water Street became a river, as did many other downtown streets. Some buildings were surrounded on all sides, and at least twice, floodwaters caused electrical shorts that sparked fires.
In some places, the water flowed 8 feet deep, said Steve Huffman, a spokesman with the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency. In other areas outside of downtown, he said, it was 2 feet deeper.
Residents in the Orange Grove neighborhood of Mobile scurried to the second floors of their houses as the storm surge caused Mobile Bay to swamp the area’s streets.
Officials with the Mobile Fire & Rescue Department said they had reports of at least 100 trapped people there.
When rescuers were finally able to reach the neighborhood, some people had been stranded for more than six hours.
“We thought nobody was going to come,” said Samantha Green, 29.
Green and her eight children were among the first to be rescued by firefighters who had paddled the neighborhood streets in a boat.
“I was relieved and kind of scared cause I thought it (the boat) was going to flip,” Green said, adding that she can’t swim.
As they made it to dry land, the Orange Grove residents were loaded into a police bus and taken to a nearby shelter.
“I obviously don’t want to leave my home but yeah, I don’t have any choice,” Green said.
Sixty miles east of Mobile, several trees were down along Palafox Street, the main artery in downtown Pensacola. Some businesses appeared to have been flooded, but the water had receded.
Across storm-tossed Pensacola Bay, Blaine Willis could only peer through binoculars and worry about the condition of his home in Santa Rosa County’s Navarre Beach.
“I suspect that some houses damaged first by Hurricane Ivan and then by Dennis are going to be gone,” Willis said, citing storms last year and in July, which pounded Florida’s Panhandle coast “I can only hope that the house is still standing.”
About 117,000 Gulf Power customers were without electricity in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, but many area residents said they felt Katrina had delivered only a glancing blow to a community still struggling to rebuild.
“This was just like a passing thunderstorm to us, after all we’ve gone through,” said Marvin Wolfgram, 53, a roofing contractor watching as bay waters lapped at the end of his street, only 20 yards from his front door. “But I know if this had hit, it might’ve been the end for all of us.”