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Reporter's Dispatch: Seeing Katrina's Devastation Up Close

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The drive from Charlotte was long and treacherous. What awaited us at the end was worse than we could imagine.

Observer photographer Patrick Schneider and I left Charlotte late Sunday, heading out to help our fellow Knight Ridder paper in Biloxi, Miss.

In a massive Ford Excursion with three gas tanks strapped to the top, we skirted Hurricane Katrina's powerful east side the whole way down Interstate 85, reaching Mobile, Ala., on Tuesday as 60 mph-plus winds still buffeted the city.

The river and bay had flooded downtown, filling the convention center with up to 12 feet of water. Whitecaps whipped down city streets, and the tree-lined historic district had nearly every tree shredded of leaves and branches.

But far worse damage awaited us farther west. We took Interstate 10 toward Biloxi, still fighting strong winds that tried to wrest our truck off the road. In Moss Point, Miss., we found flooded hotels and a daughter seeking her missing parents, who were rescued after nearly seven hours cowering in an attic.

We arrived in Biloxi, seeking a route to the paper two blocks off the beach. A Mississippi Power guy told us to forget it -- all the bridges were out.

Another guy directed us to the long way around. It was dark by the time we made it off the highway. Patrick shone a searchlight out the window to help me spot debris. It wasn't hard in some cases -- entire pine trees lay across the road, forcing detours.

We knew the city had been blown away, but it wasn't until the next morning that we could truly see. Bridges gone. Casinos gutted. Entire neighborhoods missing. SUVs crashed through brick walls by the storm surge.

We're here to help tell the story, but I fear neither our words nor pictures can ever truly do justice to the devastation everywhere you look, or the shock and sorrow of people who lost not only their homes and businesses, but their entire city.

I visited Hatteras Island two days after Hurricane Isabel ripped a new inlet two years ago. But that was a single fishing village. This is an entire city, and all the cities around it.

Half the newspaper staffers we're here to help lost houses themselves. The paper's being printed in the next state and flown or trucked to emergency shelters, since home delivery is impossible when people have no homes.

We have no running water, the generators are spotty, and gas is running out fast. Some staffers can barely hold back tears, but they're working around the clock to serve their communities.

We're glad to help.

The Sun Herald's coverage of Hurricane Katrina was awarded a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for public service.