Sept. 4, 2005, 7:07 p.m.
We heard that a local funeral home in Gulfport (search) had dozens of bodies in refrigerated trucks that usually transport bananas. The bodies need to be kept cold, and with no power, there's nowhere else to keep them.
We went and checked it out. The trucks were there. Three of them. Big tractor-trailers.
I asked the crew to wait by the car. I didn't want the camera to upset any grieving families, or anyone desperately searching for a missing loved one. I climbed the porch and found Chad Riemann, a fourth-generation Gulfport resident. The funeral home is the family business.
He told me they had six funeral homes before the storm. Three were destroyed, and the one under our feet was heavily damaged.
He told me about DMORT, the Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team (search), responsible for identifying and preparing the bodies of storm victims. He also told me about the Family Assistance Center (search), set up at the county coroner's office a couple blocks away. That's where he's been sending the people who keep showing up at his door, asking to see the bodies in the trailers to see if they're a missing father or mother or sister or cousin.
Chad was clearly shaken by the events of the past few days. He spoke warmly of the volunteers who showed up to help with the recovery process, people who brought supplies and expertise.
He talked about his newly homeless neighbors, who in many cases have lost their cars, their jobs and most of their possessions too. And he talked about the strength and resilience of the people on the Gulf Coast.
"This was more than anyone could imagine,” he said. "No one would've stayed if they knew, but hurricanes are a part of life on the coast. No one expected a 30-foot storm surge."
I asked Chad how his house fared, and he turned away and started to cry.
After 30 seconds or so, he composed himself, and turned back to me.
"My house is fine. I almost feel guilty about it."
His wife just had a baby Thursday, three days after the storm hit. He drove her to the hospital in Jackson, and has a healthy new daughter. He was still wearing the maternity ward plastic bracelet on his wrist.
I asked him if he thought Gulfport would be OK.
"We'll bounce back,” he said with confidence. "We'll rebuild. Maybe things will be even better than they were before."
* * *
Four blocks down 25th Avenue along Coastal Highway 90, tractor-trailers and chassis litter the roadway, tumbling there in the storm surge from a large container port on the Gulf. Buildings are blown out, and the stench of rotting chickens fills the air.
The Copa Casino rises above the road amidst the trailers and trash, a barge now hundreds of yards from its moorings, in the middle of a vast parking lot.
I climbed a ladder to talk to some guys working on the boat. They told me they were from the casino's IT department: computer specialists, retrieving hard drives and equipment that escaped the flooding. The records were saved, along with half a million dollars in nickels. The slot machines were a busted mess.
A few hours later, Rick Carter stopped by our satellite truck. There are lots of casinos on the Gulf Coast, but Carter told me he's the only local who owns one.
"What are you gonna do?" I asked him, as we looked at his hulking, broken ship.
"I gotta cut it up and haul it off," he told me. "But I've got good insurance. We'll build another one, but they gotta change the law."
Mississippi requires casinos to touch the waters of the Gulf or the river, but many have argued for years the restriction is silly and, as it now seems clear, dangerous. Besides, Carter told me, he'd never be able to insure another casino on the water.
He gave me a hat. It says "COPA CASINO" in big letters on the front. Underneath, it says "Rick's Place."
He thanked me for our coverage. I wished him the best.
We continue to be amazed at your outstanding reporting both here and abroad and especially during the Katrina disaster coverage. It's kind of nice these days to see a person who exudes professionalism, competence, drive and should I dare say it, "common sense."
Thank you for your sensitivity and also your ability to not become the story itself. I cannot imagine how awful it is to see, to hear, to witness the horrors everyday, but you manage to (somehow) keep the story about what you are covering, not about your emotions..I thank you for that.
Take good care Rick..come home safe.
Thank you so much for covering what is happening in Mississippi. We are located near Jackson and have been without power for a week now. Today we finally went to visit my mother who has power. I am so sick of hearing about the mess in Louisiana and the blame game. It's almost like everyone has forgotten about us because all they want to do is blame George Bush for the TOTAL incompetence of the mayor of New Orleans and the Governor of Louisiana. We in Mississippi have been doing our best to take care of each other regardless of color or social status.
The compassion that you show during your reports inspire all of us to help.
Just a note to tell you how much I appreciate the job you do. Between you and Shep I feel like there is somebody out there with both a mic and intelligence. It's refreshing and rare and you do a helluva job.
(this is actually my first fan letter to anybody. I am very much part of the silent majority out here in the Midwest. I don't say a lot but I do listen carefully.)
Amazing. Moving. Cutting. When I turn on FOX, I do so in the hopes of seeing your reports.