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Covering a disaster in your hometown

By Kathleen Koch
CNN
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[Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news. Kathleen Koch, who grew up on the Gulf Coast, covered the devastation in the area in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.]

(CNN) -- I am a journalist. Tough, unemotional, detached. Until Katrina. It was my worst childhood nightmare come true.

One year ago I covered the devastation of the Gulf Coast, including Bay St. Louis, the Mississippi town where I grew up. I saw the desperation of people who lost everything -- their homes, their businesses, even loved ones. I felt helplessness at its core. There is no worse feeling than seeing people you know and love suffering and being powerless to help them.

The year since then has been the longest of my life. (Watch how the people of Bay St. Louis have struggled for a return to normal -- 2:24)

The dreams came first. For weeks after returning from Katrina's destruction, every night I returned to the rubble, climbing through the debris-covered streets, guiding my producer Janet Rodriguez on foot as she navigated the SUV through the destruction. They weren't nightmares: It felt comfortable, it felt right.

I've made more than a dozen trips back to Mississippi over the past year, reporting, working on two documentaries and gutting houses as a volunteer. Every trip I see progress, tiny, baby steps forward. And I leave frustrated that more isn't being done to help.

The calls and e-mails still come. Some still ask for help. Most just want someone to listen, understand and care.

I go back and do what I can. Each trip is like ripping open an old wound. There's new loss each time; finding that a place that was special is now gone, that someone you knew has lost everything.

My parents, three sisters, brother and I moved to Bay St. Louis three years after it was devastated by Hurricane Camille. Barren lots still dotted the beachfront; driveways and steps leading up to nothing. Our home had a pile of bricks in the yard -- all that remained of the previous house.

When a hurricane neared, we always evacuated. It was the same drill each time. Pull out the ladder. Push the plywood over the windows. Carry small furniture upstairs. Drive away with your most precious possessions. Memorize every detail of the house as it disappears from view. Pray that you won't return to a driveway and empty steps to nothing.

On Monday, August 29, 2005, Bay St. Louis was in Katrina's bulls-eye, and I wanted to be there. I watched with dread as Katrina followed Camille's path. Bay St. Louis was my hometown, and it was where I belonged.

But reporters don't get to choose assignments in a natural disaster. I was assigned to report from Mobile, Alabama, on Sunday and Monday as Katrina roared in. Mobile was hit hard: left with no power, hundreds of downed trees, damaged roofs and three feet of water in parts of downtown.

At the height of the storm, incredibly, my cell phone rang. It was my brother, Mark, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He, his wife, Maureen, and four young children were riding out the hurricane at the Keesler Air Force Base hospital in Biloxi, where Maureen worked.

"We're OK," he said. "But the power's out. The generators are in the basement, and it's flooded. Water's coming up on the first floor now, so they're moving us all up to the higher floors. ... Maureen and the nurses are keeping patients alive using batteries and whatever they can ...But don't worry ..." Click.

The line went dead.

Tuesday, we raced west. With every mile, my heart sank. I noted the damage as we drove, until we got to Gulfport, Mississippi, and turned south toward the water. I stopped writing. There was not enough paper or ink. That's when I realized that if Gulfport was this bad, Bay St. Louis was gone.

As unreal as the scene was, even eerier was the reaction of the survivors. They walked calmly through the rubble, around the smashed cars, the 18-wheelers stacked like toys in the middle of Highway 90, over roofs that now blocked sidewalks. Their clothes were dirty, torn. They wandered emotionless through the devastation -- storm zombies.

Using the phone and computer in the satellite truck, we managed to reach CNN, check our messages and e-mail. That's when it began. Pleas for help, desperate family, friends, old classmates, strangers, all looking for loved ones, some crying. The Gulf Coast was cut off and I was the only lifeline they could reach. The e-mails were so poignant I couldn't bear to erase them:

"I unfortunately have not heard from my fam. They live in Bay st. louis and ...its bad there..."

"James (my Uncle), lives at 2 Gulf View Dr, in Ocean Springs. My mother spoke with him at 7am Monday morning, and we fear he didn't get out..."

"I'm particularly concerned about Dad since he is a stroke victim and is wheelchair bound. I am grasping at any lead or contact to try to find information about him..."

"Do you have communication with the police or sheriff's office? We are trying to find out if my home is still standing..."

So we did our job -- interviewing victims, reporting live from before dawn until after dark. As soon as we were done, we went looking. Wednesday night we made it to a senior citizens center. We were able to let a frantic woman know that her grandmother had been safely evacuated.

The next morning CNN freed me to go to Bay St. Louis, and we headed out.

Devastation seven miles inland

I was stunned after we turned off the interstate. We were seven miles inland, yet every building was flattened. Crushed cars littered the roadway. I imagined the drivers inside, fleeing as the winds buffeted them, before the storm surge swept over them.

I took the camera on a tour of my hometown, what little was left of it. Strangely, the camera helped me keep myself together. I was working. It was my fragile link to sanity.

I ran into high school friends. Each time, the story was the same. We hugged. Our eyes welled with tears. They had nothing left but the clothes they wore. Yet they refused everything I offered and asked only that I let their families know they were alive.

I found an old classmate, Kathy Cox, in our destroyed church. She'd lost everything, but begged me to let the country know that no help was getting through. "There are people getting sick, because they don't have food. I mean, they're getting sick ... vomiting and diarrhea," she explained, horrified at her own words.

I nearly lost it. I wanted to rip off the microphone, commandeer the SUV and start driving and handing out the food and water we had left. But I knew I couldn't do that to Janet, to my crew. If I did, we'd be the victims. We'd already had close calls with people desperate for gasoline or transportation.

"I'll do what I can," I assured her, knowing full well that nothing could be enough.

I was consumed with the calls, the pleas to find the missing. I looked for a roster at my damaged high school, now a shelter. No luck. I asked people on the street, quizzed police officers. But I was just one of many on a desperate search.

We found a shelter run by citizens at the Second Street Elementary School. They had not just a list of occupants, but of survivors. Every resident who walked by was asked to sign in, so someone would know they were still alive. No luck there, either.

One voicemail kept ringing in my ears: Lydia Schultz's. She was my mom's best friend, and had lived around the corner from us with her husband, Van. Growing up I regularly babysat her daughters.

"Kathie, I have not been able to get in touch with Van in any kind of way ... and was just wondering if there was some way you could possibly help me."

But the sheriff's department told us the roads there were blocked. Even if I could get there, streets signs were gone. Mailboxes were gone. Near the water, most houses were gone. I only found the house where I grew up because I recognized the driveway. It was a driveway and empty steps to nothing, a pile of bricks in the yard.

I found someone who had talked to Van around 8 a.m. He already had six inches of water in the house then. From the stories we'd heard about how fast the water rose, I knew he was probably dead.

Help the living or look for the dead?

Saturday morning, the day we were to return to Washington, we had a terrible choice to make: Help the living, or look for the dead. We chose to help the living.

Friday night, one store north of I-10 had reopened. I had been appalled that the people at the Second Street citizens shelter were sleeping on the ground. There were no pillows, no dry blankets, no sleeping bags.

Janet and I hit the store as soon as it opened, buying all the blankets, socks and underwear we could carry, as well as lanterns, batteries, games and other supplies. There were kids in the shelter. One little girl named Hope. I wanted to give her some.

We took everything to the shelter 40 miles away, took a dog we'd rescued from the rubble to a vet, and dashed to make our flight in Mobile.

Oddly, I was not happy to be home.

Having water, power, beds, intact buildings and plenty of food and drinks felt alien. I sent an e-mail to my friends:

"I'm still adjusting to being back ... feeling oddly out of place... It's as if I'm a citizen of a strange foreign land and no one here speaks my language."

The call I dreaded came eight days after the storm: Van was dead. Brooke had made it to their home and found him while digging through the rubble.

I was consumed by guilt. Somehow, I felt I had let them down.

The other friends and neighbors I'd searched for had all survived, as had my brother, his family and their home. Of my high school friends in Bay St. Louis, only three had houses they could live in.

My Katrina dreams are fewer now, but more powerful.

On July 29 the approaching anniversary was on my mind. That night, in my dream, I was back in Bay St. Louis and a hurricane was roaring in. Tornadoes dropped from the clouds. We hit the dirt, clinging to anything to keep from being blown away. After the first one passed, I stood up looking at the roiling, blackening sky with the mayor, Eddie Favre. "I feel like I'm looking into the belly of the beast," I told him.

Hurricanes will always threaten my town. And I know I can't control the forces of nature, any more than I can walk away from the place I still call home. So on this one-year anniversary, I do what the brave people there do. Keep moving forward. Refuse to give up. And never forget the past.

I made a vow to the survivors that Saturday as we pulled away from the Second Street shelter. "I promise I won't let anyone forget what happened here!" And I won't.


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Koch surveys the devastation in her hometown. She has returned to Mississippi more than a dozen times.

SPECIAL REPORT

• Rebuilding: Vital signs
• Gallery: Landmarks over time
• Storm & Flood: Making history
• I-Report: Share your photos
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