Published August 30, 2005
BILOXI, Miss. – Joy Schovest swam for her life, fighting Hurricane Katrina's (search) storm surge and its angry winds, brushing aside debris and floating cars to reach higher ground.
Behind her, at least 30 of her neighbors in the Quiet Water Beach (search) apartments were dying, trapped in their crumbling two-story building as it was swept away with much of this Mississippi coast community Monday.
"We grabbed a lady and pulled her out the window and then we swam with the current," said Schovest, 55, breaking into tears. "It was terrifying. You should have seen the cars floating around us. We had to push them away when we were trying to swim."
The tragedy at the apartment building represented the biggest known cluster of deaths caused by Katrina. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (search) said the death toll in the county where Biloxi is located could be as high as 80.
The only remaining evidence of the Quiet Water Beach apartments was a concrete slab surrounded by a heap of red bricks that were once the building's walls. A crushed red toy wagon, jewelry, clothing and twisted boards were mixed in with the debris. The four-lane road that separated the building from the beachfront was buckled and covered with rubble.
"This is all that's left of my house," said nearby resident Jack Crochet, 56, shaking his head and looking at the rubble. "It's never going to be the same. It's over."
The storm also inflicted a punishing blow to Biloxi's waterfront casinos, down the beach from the apartment building. The Grand Casino gambling barge and a second casino broke away from their moorings, ending up in a ditch now filled with water and slot machines.
"Basically, it's a total loss, and that's in excess of $100 million to replace what was lost here," Bernie Burkholder, president and chief executive of Treasure Bay Casino in Biloxi, said as he walked around the casino property.
People examined the slot machines to see if they still contained coins, and looting broke out in other areas of Biloxi.
"People are just casually walking in and filling up garbage bags and walking off like they're Santa Claus," said Marty Desei, owner of a Super 8 motel in Biloxi. "I haven't seen anything like this in my whole life."
The lucky ones in the Quiet Water Beach apartment building and other vulnerable areas of Biloxi described a scene of pandemonium as they fled the rising water. When asked why they ignored evacuation orders, some said they did not think the storm would be that bad; others would not give a reason.
Apartment tenant Landon Williams, a 19-year-old construction worker, said he and his grandmother and uncle ran from the crumbling building as the storm hit. As they later swam through the swirling water and debris, "we watched the apartments disintegrate. You could hear the big pieces of wood cracking and breaking apart."
He said the winds flung two-by-fours and drywall.
"I lost everything. We can't even find my car," he said. "I'm looking through this wreckage to see if I can find anything that's mine. If not, I'm moving on. I think I'll move on to North Carolina and do some work over there. I can't take it here anymore — not after this."
Williams said six of his neighbors in the building who remained behind also survived. "As the second story collapsed, they climbed onto the roof and part of it floated away and they floated to a house that made it," he said.
Paul Merritt, 30, surveyed the damage in Biloxi with his 18-year-old wife and their 3-month-old son, Brandon. He said the water rose to the second story of his townhouse, which is less than a block off the beach.
"I've never seen destruction of this magnitude," Merritt said. "You see this stuff on TV and you hope that it never happens to you. Everything's gone."
Ida Punzo rode out the storm with a friend and two neighbors in her 130-year-old home on the beachfront in Biloxi. The first two floors of the old house were almost completely gone, but she survived.
"It was a miracle," Punzo said. "This place is held together with God's spit. We're not supposed to be alive."