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`Steps to nowhere' stand in mute memorial to Katrina's power

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss.—A set of brick stairs stands sentry over heartbreaking piles of wood, furniture, toys and china that just weeks ago made up Jeffrey and Angie Giddens' gracefully aging beach cottage.

The home had nurtured generations of families and withstood the legendary fury of Hurricane Camille. Nearly 40 years later, Hurricane Katrina washed away everything but the Giddenses' children, their memories and that set of lonely steps to nowhere.

In the Giddenses' beachside neighborhood, stairs are everywhere, but not homes or people. Each staircase—and the piles of debris that remain—represents an untold story of broken lives.

Staircases served as iconic memorials after Camille ruined homes and took lives along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969. Residents left the steps there for years afterward, and they inspired books, murals and a movie. The term "steps to nowhere" became part of the local lexicon.

Katrina's fierce water and wind created a new set of steps to nowhere, and its legacy will reach even farther than Camille's, Mississippi historian and author Charles Sullivan said.

"What it looks like down there is the atomic blast without the radiation," said Sullivan, the archivist at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. "The steps to nowhere represent shattered lives and having to start over. With Katrina, it's on a grander scale than it was with Camille."

Orrin Pilkey said he remembered the steps where his parents lived in Waveland, one of the areas that Camille hit hard and Katrina nearly wiped clean.

"I remember after the storm we would drive up and down the beach. Seemed like for 10 years or so we would see those steps going to nowhere and plainly cleaned-off cement slabs," said Pilkey, a geology professor at Duke University in North Carolina. "For us, they were a symbol of the storm and its enormity."

Camille claimed 250 lives and caused $1.42 million in damage. The cost of Katrina continues to mount along the Gulf Coast; the death toll in Mississippi stands at 221, with most victims in the state's three coastal counties.

Along U.S. Highway 90 in Biloxi, John Felsher and his wife, Alison, thought their solidly constructed 1890 home would withstand the storm, since it had survived Camille.

But the beachfront cottage crumpled when Katrina hit, leaving a huge pile of splintered wood about 20 feet behind the home's graceful front staircase.

"Like many, I was Camille-blind. It's just very humbling what Mother Nature can do," John Felsher said. "The steps represent for us starting over." Felsher said he and his wife were about 75 percent sure they'd rebuild in the same spot.

The Giddenses' home is one of many that were destroyed in Bay St. Louis and Waveland, where cars and boats were upended in ditches, buildings shredded and groves of trees uprooted and snapped in half.

"Years of your life in 12 hours are totally blown away. It's grief, like a death," Jeffrey Giddens said. "How do you move on from that?"

The Giddenses bought their 1940s-era home just before they got married about three years ago. It's the only home their 21-month-old son, William, has ever known, Angie Giddens said. She won't take the baby back to the house until it's restored.

"Our baby would take his nap out here every day," she said, outlining her lost patio with her hands. "He loved the fan I put up here."

Angie Giddens said she was grieving the destruction of her "perfect little cottage" but was more upset over the loss of sentimental items, such as the furniture that her husband had had as a child.

She said she'd like to rebuild their home using the still-standing front steps. But her husband, an emergency room physician, said it was more likely that the family would bulldoze everything that was left and use the steps to create a type of memorial.

"Those steps, just to stand on, feel so strong," she said.

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

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