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Death is everywhere in Biloxi's nightmarish landscape

BILOXI, Miss.—Stunned residents of the Mississippi Gulf Coast staggered Wednesday through a jarring landscape shorn of the people and things that had made it home and offering bleak and even dangerous prospects for the coming days.

"It looks like Hiroshima," said Blake Beckham of D'Iberville, just north of Biloxi.

The death toll along the Mississippi Coast passed 100 and continued to climb. Two silver hearses and a truck eased through debris-covered neighborhoods in Biloxi collecting bodies. Neighbors and loved ones arrived to search for the missing, sometimes breaking down in hysterics. On Oak Street in Biloxi, overwhelmed police could only cover one body and leave it there as they moved on their grisly rounds.

"I've never seen devastation so bad," said Maj. Dalton Cunningham of the Salvation Army. "I've been through Andrew, Hugo, Charley, Ivan—this is by far the worst."

A search-and-rescue team from Florida helped, but its black Labrador retriever found only bodies. Lacking heavy equipment to dig bodies out of the rubble, the team marked most houses with a red "X," meaning it was unsafe to enter, and a number showing the number of bodies inside.

Survivors had no electricity, scarce water and no way to reach the outside world to let others know their fate. Many resorted to looting. Police imposed a 6 p.m. CDT curfew.

Looting broke out in Gulfport, where water, food, cigarettes and beer were some of the most sought-after items. The police department's normal force of 195 was reduced by an unknown number because of the storm, and the remainder were struggling. The hurricane demolished the main police station.

"We are very overwhelmed," said Gulfport Police Cmdr. Alfred Sexton.

In Biloxi, Municipal Judge Eugene Henry ordered the release of 20 to 30 Harrison County jail inmates being held on lesser charges. "It will make more room for looters and anyone accused of a violent crime," said Biloxi City spokesman Vincent Creel.

In the hardest hit areas, parents wandered the streets begging for water for their babies. Local officials grew frustrated at the slow relief response and feared that they were being overshadowed by the disaster in New Orleans, where the television networks anchored their broadcasts.

"We're lost," said Steve Loper of Pascagoula, lamenting that he hadn't seen any sign of relief. "We have no direction, no leadership. People are in bad trouble."

The Salvation Army's office manager in Gulfport lost her own home and has been sleeping in her office since the storm. "Help has to come from the outside because there's nothing here to help people with," Sally Lohrbach said.

"We're not getting any help yet," said Biloxi Fire Department Battalion Chief Joe Boney.

"We need water. We need ice. I've been told it's coming, but we've got people in shelters who haven't had a drink since the storm."

Everywhere there was death.

At Biloxi's Quiet Water Beach apartments, where 30 people were believed to have been swept out to sea and their deaths, only a slab of concrete remained.

Along Howard Avenue in East Biloxi, the search for survivors was shadowed by the hearses and a truck for the bodies of the dead. In a five-block area, firefighters recovered five bodies in a few hours. Debris was 12 feet deep in places.

There were shared stories of survival among those who couldn't or wouldn't evacuate.

Bob Stump approached two firefighters with Bonnie, a blond, curly-haired 2-year-old, in tow. "You got any water for us?" he asked. All they had was a bottle of Gatorade. They gave it to him.

His family of six lives in East Biloxi. They rode out the storm in a center bedroom. The winds picked up their home and shoved it into the street.

Only the room they were huddled in survived. Their neighborhood is thigh-deep in mud, and all their clothes are caked in it. The family's youngest child is 9 weeks old.

"Her mother's breast-feeding, but we've got to find something for her," Stump said. "They ain't brought one bit of food into this town."

He finally found his way to the Salvation Army's cantina and carried away all the supplies he could.

A.D. Oates sat Tuesday in what was left of his nearly roofless, tattered mobile home, smoking a cigarette and gingerly moving his right foot, which was covered in plastic to keep it from bleeding where he lost part of his big toe.

Oates, 75, said he didn't remember cutting it, but he remembers moving out of his dining room five minutes before the roof collapsed. He said he never thought about leaving home.

"Where would we go?" Oates asked. "Next door? That's a trailer, too."

Richard Wright floated to a perch in his neighbor's attic and rode out the storm there. When the waters subsided, Wright found the body of his 90-year-old neighbor in the living room.

Pets kept Charles Parfait's family at home. They survived Katrina in the attic, along with two dogs. He lashed 5-year-old Hannah Mays to the rafters. Why did his family stay in their homes? "Shelters don't accept animals," Parfait said.

Several people said they perched in the treetops for Katrina's duration. Huong Tran, 50, and her fiance were among them.

As the water rose, they climbed an oak tree and stayed there for six hours. "I thought I was going to die," Tran said. "The water was over the house."

She prayed to a Buddhist goddess. "I called to her, `Help me, help me. I think I'll die.'"

Although most of her possessions washed away, Tran found her goddess statue on the ground near a tree. She hugged it to her chest on Tuesday saying, "I love her so much. I'll keep her forever."

At the Crossroads Shopping Center in Gulfport, Kiwasha Shears, who's six months pregnant and has three children at home, waited in line for two hours to get three cases of bottled water. She was among the fortunate ones who managed to get the precious water from one of four trucks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Aid workers promised that more help was coming.

The American Red Cross had 250 trucks loaded with water and supplies coming from all over the country to Mississippi and Alabama, and 1,700 people to hand them out, said Oscar Barnes, the agency's director for the Gulf Coast.

Ninety-five mobile Salvation Army cantinas also were headed to the disaster zone, capable of serving 400,000 meals a day, but even that may not be enough.

"This is a drop in the bucket," said Mike Cuatt, a driver for FEMA. A mobile cantina from Oklahoma and Arkansas parked on top of the remains of the Salvation Army's crushed building in downtown Biloxi. Mud-caked residents carried away armfuls of bananas and cornflakes—the first meal some had eaten in two days.

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(Lee reports for the Sun Herald of Biloxi, Dodd for The Charlotte Observer and Fineout reports for The Miami Herald. Also contributing from Mississippi were Jim Butler and Robin Fitzgerald of the Sun Herald. Steven Thomma of the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau contributed from Washington.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA

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