By JONATHAN TILOVE
September 1, 2005
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
BILOXI, Miss. _ Jefferson Davis’ home is gone. So are the Olive Garden and the Red Lobster.
Colleen Schneider is kneeling by the wreckage of her apartment building, Imperial Terrace, on Seal Avenue, picking up the pennies from her collection, the only piece of her past that she can lay her hands on. Lost in the rubble is her black bag with $600 in cash. Buried in the rubble is her partner of the last 20 years, Patrick Conway.
A block up the road, Bill Conn, retired military, is on the sixth floor _ make that the fifth floor now _ of his apartment building, Gulf Towers, smoking a cigarette and sipping a vodka and Sprite, recalling the most terrifying day of his life. It’s not yet 8 in the morning. He’s on the terrace of the apartment of his downstairs neighbors, the Garlocks, who are just back from a wakeup bath and shampoo in the Gulf of Mexico, now placid as a postcard.
In a matter of hours, with chilling caprice, Hurricane Katrina transformed this happy-go-lucky beach town into something that looked more like Hiroshima, or Pompeii. It was truly, as the mayor of Biloxi, A.J. Holloway, described it, “our tsunami.”
But as much as anything, the aftermath in Biloxi, a gambling town, underscores how much fate is a roll of the dice.
Plastic bags for sure _ they’re all over Biloxi, seeming to grow from trees.
And, on closer inspection, love, devotion, and neighbor helping neighbor.
Gary Michiels, whose historic home lies just past the fire hydrant that marked the high-water mark of Camille, the 1969 hurricane that was, till now, Biloxi’s worst nightmare, abandoned his home with wife Lisa as the storm surged higher, moving to a neighbor’s house a few doors up. From there, they espied a head bobbing in the water and proceeded with the rescue that pulled Colleen Schneider from the swirling tempest before them. And there were others.
“I think that’s why I was here,” says Michiels, who talked Biloxi through previous hurricanes as a local radio host. The Michielses’ home, built around 1900, fared remarkably well, especially inside.
“I don’t know why the house is still standing,” says Lisa.
“Storms are strange,” says Gary. “The paintings were left on the wall; it left the dining room table set with a bouquet of flowers, while it’s tearing down the porch.”
These days the Michielses publish Art Gulf Coast magazine. Lisa randomly grabs a copy from last fall, splattered with a splotch of mud. It falls open to a column she wrote, quoting William Wade Guice, who saw Biloxi through countless storms as the county civil defense director. In the column, she quotes Guice recalling how, the morning after Camille, they awoke to an “alien world.” But, he said, “We bound our wounds, we buried our dead, and commenced to rebuild.”
Guice, who lived next door to the Michielses on Seal Avenue, died in 1996 but is survived by his wife, Julia, and, as it happens, here she comes with her son Reed, ready to step back in the house for the first time since the storm.
“The house is not that important to me,” says Julia Guice, a small, sure woman who traces her Biloxi roots to 1700, and the second voyage here of the explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville. She was Biloxi’s civil defense director when her husband served in the same capacity for the county. But, after discounting her attachment to the house, she allows, “We lived together in that house for 40 years. There’s a lot of him in that house. Losing it would be like losing him again.”
It is not, it turns out, lost.
But across the street, Melvin Bell is less sanguine.
On Monday, as the storm surged, Natalie Bell, on oxygen at all times, asked her husband, “Mel, are we gonna make it?”
“Sure,” replied Bell, a career Sea Bee, as they sat on their sofa with water lapping at their feet.
“I survived Korea, Vietnam and Kwajalein,” he assured her, the last being a spot of sand in the Pacific that provided the U.S. military a strategic air strip during the Korean War, and where he faced a flood that submerged the island for a week.
But Katrina pulled the “new” 1946 addition to Bell’s house an inch or so away from the 1904 original structure, and he fears, “I think it’s lost.
“I’m in a hell of a big mess right now,” says Bell, unaccountably buoyant in his demeanor.
Bell came to Biloxi from California. He was born in the Mojave Desert. His wife is a native. She was Queen Ixolib _ that’s Biloxi backwards _ in the 1947 Mardi Gras, the year of the most fearsome flood before Camille.
People come here _ the ones who aren’t already from here _ in search of the good life, a lucky turn, a way out, a last resort, or a peaceful end.
A newsletter for the Redemptorists, the Catholic order that has converted a convent on the beach road into a retirement home for a handful of old priests, describes the idyll of Biloxi’s “lazy waves” as they “come in from the Gulf of Mexico.”
On Monday, the priests waited the storm out on the second floor of their brick and cement building, surviving without a scratch, though Father Earl Toups acknowledges, “We were yakking with the Lord.”
Another of the priests, Al Babin, 78, who is the superior of the house, suggests the fate of the casinos just up the road might make a compelling photo. By Mississippi law, the gambling houses must be on water, but Katrina cast them whole landside, leaving their slot machines strewn in the gulleys along the highway.
Over at Gulf Towers, Conn came from California after his daughter was murdered and his wife died. The Garlocks _ Terry, his wife, Carla, and their 19-year-old son, Michael _ moved from Rochester, N.Y.
“I always wanted to move south, but I was afraid,” says Carla. “Forty-seven years in Rochester. We came to get away from the cold and snow, and here we are.”
She worked at Mario the Baker. “Gone,” she says. Michael worked at Biloxi Beach Park. “It’s gone,” he says. Terry works for a brick mason. He’s set.
The Garlocks are just emerging from their morning bath in the Gulf. Considering all they, all Biloxi, had been through in the last 48 hours and would be going through for weeks and months to come, the Garlocks look refreshed, as if in their submersion, the next Biloxi had just been baptized.
“It felt good, huh?” says Terry.
“Yeah it did,” says Carla.