Searching for the Living, but Mostly Finding the Dead

Dozens of search and rescue teams on the Gulf Coast have punishing work ahead of them.


PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss., Aug. 31 - Dave Bernzweig saw them as soon as he peered inside the small brick house: two more lost souls, wedged among the soaked ruins of their belongings. He recorded the location of the bodies, between the front door and the flowered couch, then moved across the street, where another victim of Hurricane Katrina lay.

Mr. Bernzweig and his colleagues from Ohio Task Force One, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency hunting for storm survivors with dozens of other search and rescue teams on the Gulf Coast, have punishing work ahead of them. In this area of coastal Mississippi lashed hard when the eye of the hurricane passed just to the west, they are looking for the living in dangerous, putrid mountains of debris that too often hold only the dead. The heat is excruciating, and the stench of detritus, even in areas where no one has died, turns stomachs.

"We go now, on Day 3, by the smells," said Doug Cope, the search team manager, "just like the dogs."

The team from Ohio spent most of Wednesday in "blitz mode," searching Pass Christian, a community on the eastern side of St. Louis Bay, for people who might be trapped in pancaked homes. They worked in pairs with dogs that sniffed each rubble pile for traces of human scent, but had found no one by midafternoon. On Tuesday, other teams scouring the neighborhood found at least eight people. They also found many dead pets and two live snakes, including a poisonous copperhead.

"The locals say this section was really beautiful down here," said Mr. Cope, looking at tumbles of wood, bricks, trees, wires, furniture, clothing, mud. "A lot of summer homes for people from Jackson and New Orleans."

At one point, Mr. Bernzweig and Jack Reall went over to the Belle Rose subdivision, responding to calls from residents who had not seen their neighbors since the storm. That is where they found the bodies of the couple in their living room, and that of a third elderly victim buried under his collapsed ceiling. Up and down the street, there were bodies in houses that had been swamped by more than 20 feet of water.

"They found Don," Jennifer Noll told her sister, watching from her driveway as Mr. Bernzweig and Mr. Reall made their sad discoveries. "Betty and Charlie, too."

Mrs. Noll said she last saw the couple alive when her family fled the imminent storm on Sunday morning. The wife had just undergone hip surgery, she said, so they had decided to stay home.

"Their son was going to come and get them," she said, sobbing, "but they told him not to. You see this stuff on TV and you never think it's going to happen to you."

Mr. Bernzweig and Mr. Reall marked the houses to indicate there were bodies inside - the coroner's office, overwhelmed, would come when it got the chance - then moved on.

In Waveland, a coastal community to the west just across the bay, where many residents had stayed in their homes believing that the storm would skirt them, a woman drenched from the rain ran up to rescue workers from Virginia climbing through debris a few blocks from the beach.

"My mother, we saw her red Ford Focus under her house!" said the woman, Maureen Burnett.

"She might be alive," Ms. Burnett said, clenching her fists. "We heard knocking."

The rescue workers followed her directions over a pile of debris where refrigerators mingled with branches and mattresses and up a roof that lay flat in the middle of Grosvenor Avenue. "Look down!" Ms. Burnett hollered. "See that car? That's her car. See that kitchen table? That's her table."

"The house ain't there," she added softly.

"Mom!" she bellowed. "Ma!"

Ms. Burnett and her family had gone north to friends', but her mother, who was 76 and worked at Wal-Mart even at her age, had insisted she would not leave.

"I made her leave for Ivan," Ms. Burnett said of the storm last year that, it turned out, did not cause much damage here. "She never forgave me."

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