By Alex Tresniowski Bob Meadows Daniel S. Levy
September 12, 2005 12:00 PM

Katrina seemed a fairly modest hurricane at first. But then it hit Florida Aug. 25, picked up strength in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and roared onto the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 as a category four hurricane-the second most severe possible. Its 145-mph winds, huge storm surge and torrential rains flooded whole towns and cut a devastating swath through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The full extent of the disaster won’t be known for months, but when the storm subsided, it had left hundreds dead or missing, more than 1 million others temporarily homeless and caused at least $25 billion in damage. “This,” said Biloxi, Miss., Mayor A. J. Holloway, “is our tsunami.”

All along the Gulf Coast, the scene was apocalyptic: thousands of cars out of gas and abandoned on streets and highways, downed power lines casting towns into darkness, stunned citizens picking through mountains of debris, no food, no working phones, no water. As rescue workers plucked survivors off roofs of submerged houses, volunteers manned shelters and food banks for the many thousands left without homes or power. But if the catastrophe brought out the best in people, it also invited the worst. Hundreds of looters and carjackers pillaged several cities, and National Guard troops were deployed in New Orleans, where looters loaded up shopping carts with items from a Wal-Mart. Here Katrina’s survivors tell their harrowing, and heroic, tales.

Residents of towns on the Gulf Coast began hearing reports that a major hurricane was headed their way as early as Friday, Aug. 26. By the weekend the mayors of New Orleans and other cities had ordered mandatory evacuations. Thousands fled, clogging the highways, but many others did not. Louisiana State Trooper Roy Thibodaux helped in the evacuation of New Orleans. A lot of people weren’t able to leave because they have no money or vehicles. The last group of people we saw evacuate had ragged children and beat-up cars. It was a pitiful sight.

Betty Vonderhaar, 70, decided not to evacuate and instead huddled with her son Mike, 41, and grandson Matthew, 13, inside her low-slung home in uptown New Orleans. As the storm worsened, she discovered that a grate on the roof was wide open, allowing water and wind to stream into the house. We took our ladder, and Mike had to climb onto the roof with a nail and hammer to nail it shut. He said it was the scariest thing he’s ever done. And then things just got worse and worse. The winds got stronger and stronger. The walls shook. I mean the whole house was shaking. It was really scary. And then it was over. It was so quiet. It felt like Twilight Zone quiet.

James Owens, 35, was in Biloxi, Miss., with his sister, his girlfriend and their five children, ages 3 to 10. We were asleep and woke up, and all of a sudden there was two feet of water. Then it rose to about 572 feet. I put the children on the top of a closet shelf, and my girlfriend and I stood on top of a TV. We stayed that way for three hours. The kids were crying and screaming, but I was really trying to stay calm for my kids.

Les Stiglet, 35, had just started a new job as a card dealer at a Gulf-port, Miss., casino when Katrina forced him to evacuate. His grandparents refused to leave, and at press time he had not heard if they were okay. I could not talk them out of staying. They said, ‘We’ve had to make these trips before, and it’s too much on us. We’re old.’ I packed up everything I could possibly stick in my car that was valuable. I wish I could have brought everything I owned. And now everything I’ve seen on the coastline is wiped out. I can only assume the worst. I hate the thought of going back.

James Guidry, 42, assistant manager for an oil-rig service company, helicoptered from Port Fourchon to Buras, La., just two hours after Katrina passed. There was no evidence of a road, and the water was flowing like a fountain. There were large houseboats in the middle of the roadway. The major hotel complex was devastated. Suddenly we saw nothing but water and rooftops. Shrimping vessels were beached on the levees. Barges were wrecked. Dead livestock everywhere. I wanted to cry. The only thing you could recognize were the high school stadium lights above the water. I’ve been through all kinds of storms, but I’ve never seen such devastation.

One day after Katrina hit, widespread looting broke out in several cities. Gulfport, Miss., Patrolman Al Orillion pulled into a convenience-store parking lot after spotting three men prowling through the rubble. He approached them and asked them what they were doing, putting his finger out and saying to the tallest guy, “All I want to hear from you is ‘yes, sir.’ ” And one of them said, “We just wanted to see what he had left to sell.” I chased them out but didn’t arrest them. You can’t arrest someone for just thinking about it.

Johnny Fayard, 48, a seafood packer, volunteered to help rescue workers search for survivors in Biloxi. From underneath all the debris, you could see a hand here and a foot there. I knew they couldn’t get the bodies out until they moved all the stuff, so I just kept looking for survivors.

Chuck Rosonet, 54, helped carry bodies to a funeral home in Biloxi. This is my second go-around for such a big hurricane. But Camille [in 1969] was nothing like this. Camille flooded houses, Katrina blew them away. It’s not fair. You shouldn’t have to live through two of them.

After the hurricane those without homes huddled together in shelters set up by the Red Cross and manned mainly by volunteers. Loretta Dixon, 51, manages a shelter in Mont Belvieu, Texas. The people arriving are exhausted and worried and very sad. A lot of people here have left family. They can’t call anybody. You see mothers cradling their infants, and they’re just afraid. We have a TV here and some newspapers, and they’re all watching TV. But they’re all so silent and quiet. We’ve had a lot of tears, and we’re just trying to be here for them. Just talking and listening helps.

Terrie Stephens, 52, volunteered to help at the same shelter. I saw a family with a 16-month-old baby who had just had a liver transplant and was on a feeding tube, and they’d fled the storm. There were so many families who left loved ones who wouldn’t leave. One girl told me she was begging family members to come. The faces of these people were so stunned. But then to see so much strength and faith and love was humbling. The whole community brought in food, clothing, toys, towels, blankets, and everyone is asking what else can be done. Any of us here on the Gulf Coast know that the next time it could be our city. We give today, and tomorrow we could be on the receiving end.