OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. – The only word 1-year-old Leah knew was “Da-da.” She lay in a stranger’s arms as her mother, Christi Scott, floated away in a hot tub.
“I thought, there’s no way I’m going to find her,” said Scott, who drifted in her makeshift lifeboat atop Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters for 20 minutes before reaching land. “She doesn’t know her name. She can’t say my name.”
The Scott family was one of thousands in anguished limbo after Katrina scattered loved ones across 150 miles of destruction.
Power, telephones and cell phones remained cut off along much of the Gulf Coast. Too many were missing for authorities to launch individual searches. Online lists of survivors were confusing, incomplete and inaccessible for those without power.
So Scott, like many others, resorted to old-fashioned searching: by foot, car and word-of-mouth.
The search brought some to Reimann Funeral Home in Gulfport, where dozens of bodies were being stored in refrigerated trucks once used to ship Dole bananas. Jason Green, the funeral home’s director, said 30 people came to him Thursday asking if family and friends were among the dead.
He offered sympathy, but no answers.
“You try to be compassionate as you can,” Green said. “Some, I just hug their necks and cry with them and then take them next door to the church for counseling.”
Officials say many recovered corpses have been too decomposed or damaged to identify. Richard Rose, city manager of D’Iberville, said it could be two weeks before officials begin publicly releasing names.
Henry O’Neal left Slidell, La., with a three-car caravan of 10 children and eight adults. Many of the children’s parents – O’Neal’s brothers and sisters – were still missing.
“We look at the television. We call everybody and anybody. We ask everybody. We’ve talked to the Red Cross here but they don’t have anything on them right now,” said O’Neal, 32. “We’ve run out of ideas. It’s nothing but dead ends.”
D’Iberville Deputy Fire Chief Danny Miller said his department has received dozens of missing persons reports in the town of 8,500 people. Though firefighters will check at a missing person’s address and talk to neighbors, there’s no time for much else.
“We go out and do our best, Miller said, “but we have to move on to our next missing person.”
The Red Cross has been collecting missing person reports through a nationwide hot line – 1-866-GETINFO – though most survivors are unable to phone in, and some who can get a busy signal from jammed lines, said Marvine Hamner, a Red Cross volunteer in Pascagoula.
“They were getting thousands of calls an hour at that number,” Hamner said at the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center, where the Red Cross has a single phone for incoming calls.
Scores of evacuees, plus family and friends of those who stayed, have flocked to the Internet to plead for information on sites such as hurricanekatrinasurvivors.com and the Biloxi and New Orleans newspaper Web sites. But few along the stricken Gulf Coast have access to computers, so for many the desperate search continued.
Scott, 23, was one of the lucky ones.
After two days of scouring the battered Mississippi coast in a storm-damaged pickup, Scott spotted Leah on Wednesday along a crowded street in D’Iberville. Her daughter was being carried to a police officer by a woman she’d never seen. The woman told Scott she was the last in a chain of caretakers.
“She said the family before her thought she had gone through four families already and they were just trying to get her to a Red Cross shelter,” Scott said as her sleeping baby, wearing only a diaper, sucked a purple pacifier in her mother’s arms. “(Leah) gave me a look like, ‘I’m OK,’ and then she went straight to sleep on me.”
Scott said their random reunion should give survivors hope:
“Don’t give up.”