Biloxi's Battered, Not Beaten

Hurricane Katrina did two things to people along the Mississippi Coast - it tore down the structures they built. It toughened their spirits. Everyone here at this church Saturday lost everything. These hot meals their only source of food.

Faces tell the story. They're battered, but not beaten. It's almost impossible to grasp the scale of destruction - even for people here. In Biloxi, Mississippi's coastal playground, mile after mile of twisted metal, block after block of battered houses and everywhere people's lives wrenched upside down, CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker reports.

"I looked death in the eye," Ida Punzo says.

Punzo lived on the top floor of a once stately, 130-year-old mansion.

"It was absolutely breathtaking," she says.

It had weathered countless hurricanes sweeping off the Gulf of Mexico, but the old, columned house succumbed to Katrina. As the 35-foot storm surge pounded the ceiling below, Punzo and three friends huddled in the back of the third floor.

"I knew we were gonna drown. I knew," Punzo says. "There was no doubt. But I wasn't gonna give the faith up. "I had the faith. I said a lot of Hail Marys, a lot of Our Fathers."

She thanks God she's alive, but never expected to be living like this.

"I'm having to sleep wherever I can find a place to sleep, beg for food, beg for water, but every time I do it, it makes me a little bit stronger," Punzo intimates.

In this city of 55,000, there are as many stories of surviving or fleeing Katrina.

Katrina's strong storm bands lashed and flooded Biloxi for more than 10 hours.

Casey Williams works on the water; for 16 years, a cook on oil rigs in the Gulf.

"In my water survival classes they taught us this stuff: if you take your pants legs and tie them together you can make a floating device out of it," Williams explains to Whitaker. "I floated all the way to the side of that house over there."

He survived on a neighbor's roof. His uncle, cousin and next door neighbor drowned in the storm. With bodies still being recovered, people here call this a test. They're determined their will won't crumble like their buildings did.

Mary Rose has no house, no insurance and no idea what to do.

"It is what it is," Rose says. "I didn't even shed a tear. What's crying going to do? I need to stay strong."

And also show the world, Rose says, what they're made of here: part grit, part graciousness, a lot of faith.

They need it all. A week after the hurricane they still have to wait in endless, hot lines for gasoline. They wait for water, wait for food.

"Everybody's not doing like they're doing in New Orleans, and there's not so much happening like there is over there," one woman says.

But even here the combination of thirst, hunger, heat and lines can be combustible.

"It's very frustrating. I can understand why they are looting. I can understand why they are taking everything they can get their hands on, 'cause there ain't nobody trying to help them," a man says regarding the situation in New Orleans.

The most frustrating wait of all is for federal aid to arrive. It started trickling in only at the end of the week. Friday, President Bush promised Biloxi more help is on the way.

"The tasks are enormous and it's going to take a while," Mr. Bush said.

Too little, too late is the complaint most often heard about help from FEMA and the National Guard.

"The Mississippi Guard is in Iraq and the ones that are back left their equipment behind," explains Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss.

Biloxi hasn't had a crisis like this since Hurricane Camille in 1969. That Category 5 hurricane mauled the Mississippi coast, killing more than 250 people.

Since then, Biloxi not only has rebuilt, it's had a complete makeover into a mini-Las Vegas by the sea, with glitzy casinos bringing thousands of jobs and millions of tourists pumping millions of dollars into the city and state. all of it now gone.

mayor holloway sot: "We was on a roll, I tell you. We had a lot going for us in Biloxi," says Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway, now in his fourth term.

"At least 85 percent of our tax base was destroyed," Holloway admits.

Camille turned many people in this gambling mecca into gamblers themselves, betting that if they could make it through Camille, they could make it through anything.

Lifelong Biloxi resident Patricia Rowell, however, says Camille barely compares to the destruction Katrina has caused.

"I lived through Camille. Camille was a yo-yo compared to this," Rowell says.

Katrina almost drowned Rowell and her family.

"My mother didn't get but 18 inches in Camille, so we thought 'Aww, we'll be alright.' But, when the water come up to here I knew Camille was done long gone. This was a different thing," Rowell says.

It now seems too many people thought they could ride it out come hell or high water until Katrina brought both.
  • Sean Alfano

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