The Eye of the Storm Still Sees.

One East Biloxi man doesn’t want to remember the things he saw during Hurricane Katrina. He doesn’t want to remember the destruction he saw after it. So why can’t he forget?

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published September 17, 2010

About a year after the storm that Anthony Tryba won’t name, he got a phone call from a man in Jackson, Miss., a man whose name he doesn’t remember. And whoever it was — John C. or Bill A. or Tom F., or something like that — asked Anthony if he was the Anthony Tryba, and Anthony said yes, and the man started telling him that Anthony should write a book. Anthony told the man that maybe he had called the wrong Anthony Tryba. This Anthony Tryba was formerly an employee at the Grand Casino in Biloxi, Miss., and this Anthony Tryba hadn’t written anything since graduating from Biloxi High with the class of 1972.

The man from Jackson asked Anthony if he was the one he’d been reading about in the papers. The one who’d gone around in Biloxi shutting off gas lines after the storm. The one whose clocks had stopped right at 9:16, the moment time stood still on Crawford Street

Anthony said, Yes, I’m him, and the man from Jackson said, Well, then, you’re the one I’ve been looking for. And he said it again: I think you should write a book about what you saw.

Anthony Tryba does not remember the man from Jackson’s name. He does not have the man’s phone number. He does not know if the man is a book publisher or a literary agent. He didn’t think to ask, really, because Anthony Tryba is just a guy who used to work at the Grand Casino, and he’s not really a reporter or a writer or anything like that, and Anthony Tryba doesn’t ask a lot of questions. He doesn’t own a computer or a typewriter or even a cell phone — didn’t then, and still doesn’t, so you know.

But that day, Anthony Tryba decided maybe he needed to share what he’d seen. So he started writing a book.

¶ ¶ ¶

Before this story goes any further — into the magnolia tree that saved Anthony Tryba’s life, or the bodies he saw floating below the water tower, or the storm that destroyed Crawford Street and left it a skeleton of its former self — you need to know that Anthony Tryba suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. The case is, officially, undiagnosed. Tryba has never been to a mental health professional, and he may never go.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that’s frequently mis- or overdiagnosed, according to Jeff Bennett, executive director of the Gulfport-based Gulf Coast Mental Health Center. There are thousands of people on the coast who evacuated during the storm, or who stayed but were never in serious danger during Katrina. These are people, Bennett says, who might be depressed from what they saw after the storm. They’re suffering from anxiety, or possibly what Bennett calls “malignant malaise.”

But PTSD is a condition that’s brought on by much more severe conditions. It’s commonly seen among soldiers who’ve fought in war zones, and also among those who’ve lived through a severe accident or disaster.

In most cases, people who suffer from PTSD survived a near-fatal situation and then continue to re-live that experience long after the danger has passed.

I offer Bennett a few details of Anthony Tryba’s Katrina story, and Bennett cuts me off five seconds in.

“Oh yeah,” he says. Bennett says five years later, just based off a detail or two and a street address, he can tell whether or not a person is a legitimate PTSD candidate. Tryba’s information fits the profile perfectly.

But even if Tryba does eventually decide to visit a psychologist, or sits in on a group therapy session with other Katrina survivors, he will not forget. He cannot un-remember what he saw. He may be able to move on — but he wlll never forget.

In this, Tryba is far from alone. Bennett points me to a just-published report from the journal “Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness,” which studied the effects of Katrina on the coast’s youth. They found that only half of the children on the coast who needed help from a mental health professional actually received it. Some 20,000 children displaced by the storm are still suffering from mental health problems, they say.

But even if Tryba does eventually decide to visit a psychologist, or sits in on a group therapy session with other Katrina survivors, he will not forget. He cannot un-remember what he saw. He may be able to move on — but he wlll never forget.

Katrina is just part of the mental health crisis on the coast. Bennett’s team calls the current situation “KEOS”: Katrina, the economy and the oil spill. All three are sources of stress for locals, and when all three work in concert, the results can be devastating.

Since the Deepwater Horizon blowout, Bennett’s staff has distributed 800 surveys to current patients and others in the community. The surveys ask if locals are having trouble sleeping lately, or if they’re feeling angry, or depressed, or nervous, or if they’ve been using drugs or alcohol with frequency.

“Almost without exception, they’ll check something,” Bennett says.

Local leaders are particularly worried about the physical effects of these stressors. Roberta Avila, a mental health professional who also serves as executive director of Biloxi’s Steps Coalition, says domestic violence increased immediately after the storm.

“We saw a lot of that after Katrina,” she says.

Now it’s back. Daniel Le of Boat People SOS, an organization that offers social services to the coast’s Vietnamese community, says when the government shut down the Gulf to fishing this spring, the fishermen were forced inside, confined to their homes. The result: an increase in domestic violence. It’s a situation that Bennett’s also hearing about at his offices.

“If you can’t go out and boat, then you’re at home,” Bennett says. “These are guys, they’re used to being out for several weeks at a time. So they’re stuck. They’re not making any money, and domestic issues arise. Maybe they get to drinking. The wife said something. The next thing you know, there’s a fight, there’s physical violence. That happened before, but I think it’s more likely to happen now, just because of marital proximity.”

The problem is, as Le notes, as many as half of the Vietnamese on the coast are either illiterate or non-English speakers. Many would never even consider spending a few hours a month with a psychologist to discuss their stress — that is, if they could even find one who speaks their language.

The Vietnamese fit in with a coastal culture that takes great pride in its own resiliency. In my three months on the coast, I’ve heard stories of men and women who rode out the storm while sitting on their front porches, and even of some who sat on their roofs in a folding chair and watched the storm pass overhead. This is a working class city, and its citizens are not easily convinced that they should ask for help.

“They’re not people who traditionally seek mental health services,” Bennett says. “They’re macho fisherman, and they’re going to solve their own problems.”

Mental health also traditionally runs up against another aspect of the Biloxi lifestyle: God. Alice Graham — a reverend, mental health professional and executive director of the Interfaith Disaster Task Force — says there’s a disconnect that existed before Katrina, one that local religious leaders had inadvertently created.

“Too often, the way that they ministered to people was around a denial of mental health needs,” she says. “That if you were faithful enough, religious enough, you didn’t have mental heath needs.”

So the Interfaith Disaster Task Force worked to bridge that disconnect. They started a series of programs to teach clergy how to recognize mental health issues — anxiety, depression, addiction — and what to do when they spotted it. This year, the task force held its fourth annual Community Health Summit, and Graham says local religious leaders have started to embrace the goals of the mental health community.

But they need more — more money, more mental health professionals, more understanding, more education, more time. They’re still waiting. And there’s this catch: the people who are working to cure the coast of anxiety are themselves anxious about what happens if they can’t fix the problem.

¶ ¶ ¶

Anthony Tryba sits on the steps of his former home on Crawford Street

(At top) Anthony Tryba, on the steps of his home on Crawford Street. (Above) Buddy the dog, who rode out of the storm in Anthony’s arms.

¶ ¶ ¶

There is a wrench in Anthony Tryba’s hand and a thought on Anthony Tryba’s mind: do the right thing.

Down by the water, he saw where he used to work: the Grand Casino. This was back when the state legislature had decided that gaming was not allowed on land, so every casino bought a giant barge and docked it underneath their hotel. In the winds of Katrina, the Grand’s barge had defied state law and plowed right onto land, across Highway 90 and into some buildings.

Anthony wouldn’t be going back to work for a while, but he kept walking. He smelled the dead bodies underneath the water tower before he saw them. He walked past his own street — the one he’d grown up on, the only street he’d ever lived on in his 50 years — and didn’t even recognize it. He walked right past Crawford Street, there on the east side of Biloxi; it just didn’t look the same anymore.

He lived now at 211 Crawford, but he’d grown up two doors down, in the home his momma had lived her whole life in. Daddy wasn’t from here. Daddy was the man who’d grown up in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and had been sent to work in the coal mines at the age of 12. Daddy, the man who Anthony remembers walking in on when he was a child, and hearing the words, “Aren’t you going to say hello to the President?”, and Anthony looking around and not seeing anyone else in the room. But that’s the childhood of the son of a paranoid schizophrenic, of a man who lived in a world of his own creation. At 22, the man wanted out, and found his exit from the open end of a gun.

It went on. The mud was everywhere. The taste of gasoline was replaced by the smell of natural gas. Anthony heard a man yelling for help, and he helped. He guided a mom and children out of one home. He knocked down a fence and used it to give some elderly women a dry path to escape their home, which had been dislodged from its slab and crash-landed in the middle of the road.

He found a bike with a flat tire and started pedaling, down to Oak Street. Stevie was alive there, somehow, and Anthony found a ladder to help him out of his house. The stairs up to the front door had been destroyed by the water.

Stevie smelled it too: the gas, escaping out of pipes. Anthony pulled out the wrench and started shutting off gas lines, home by home, the first among the first responders. They went at it for hours. Anthony walked Stevie home, and then went back to Crawford Street. He found a banana in the mud, peeled it and ate it. It was the first thing he’d eaten since the storm. He still hadn’t gotten any water.

Months later, the city of Biloxi had to bring in counselors to work with their 911 operators. They couldn’t forget the voices: “I’m in my attic. The water’s up to my neck. This is my social security number. Tell my family I love them.”

Anthony woke up the next day and kept shutting off gas lines. He found a Salvation Army truck that was handing out food and water, and a man there asked him about the wrenches. Anthony told him what he was doing, and the man took him to the back of the truck and gave him a bottle of water and some fruit. Two reporters from USA Today stopped to ask him some questions, and Anthony gave them his story.

That night, sitting on his porch on Crawford Street, Anthony saw something he hadn’t seen since the storm: a car coming down his street. It stopped in front of his house. The man rolled down his window. “Would you like a ham po-boy?” he asked.

In his hand, he had half of a sandwich, a bag of chips and a bottle of water, in a box from McAlister’s Deli. Even five years later, Anthony wants to thank the man for that first meal after the storm, but he doesn’t know where to turn.

It went on. After the first article in USA Today, reporters started coming to Anthony to hear his story. They came from as far away as Chicago. Their questions were the same, Anthony remembers. His answers were the same.

Anthony kept walking, his feet blistering up until he started walking with a limp. He stopped walking past the water tower, where the stench from the bodies was overpowering. The eye of the storm had passed 40 minutes to the west of Biloxi, but it was here, in Anthony’s neighborhood, where they had suffered the most severe flooding. The streets were empty. His neighbors were the ones who’d called 911 that night, in tears. Months later, the city of Biloxi had to bring in counselors to work with their 911 operators. They couldn’t forget the voices: I’m in my attic. The water’s up to my neck. This is my social security number. Tell my family I love them.

Anthony’s family found him on the second day after the storm, but it wasn’t until a week had passed that they finally convinced him that he should get out of Biloxi for more than a few hours. At his brother’s home in the Back Bay, Anthony fell asleep for the first time in a week.

He woke up, and asked to be driven back to Crawford Street. His family insisted that he stay, sleep a few hours more, but Anthony refused. He’d gotten this unrelenting feeling into his head, this desire to do the right thing, and he couldn’t let it go.

That’s what he told his family. The day before the storm, his brother, Joey, called, and Anthony told him, I’m staying on Crawford Street. I’ll do the right thing. His friend, David, called and said, Hey, T-Man, why don’t you get out of there, and Anthony told him, Don’t worry, I’ll do the right thing. His niece, Wendy, called, and Anthony told her, Don’t worry, I’ll do the right thing. His baby brother, Johnny, called, and Anthony told him, Don’t worry, I’ll do the right thing. Johnny’s daughter, Melaney, called, and Anthony told her, It’ll be alright. I’ll do the right thing.

Anthony and the magnolia tree that he climbed to safety
Anthony and the magnolia tree that he climbed to safety.

Now Anthony was walking around streets he no longer recognized, and Anthony, man of God, was asking himself, Why did my God do this? Four hours he’d spent balled up on the roof above his home while 135 mile-per-hour winds whipped over him. Why had it happened? Why had he survived?

And Anthony started to think: Maybe it was so I could do the right thing. Maybe it was so I could do something to help.

So he stayed to shut off gas lines, to act as a guide for the relief workers who didn’t know their way around the neighborhood the way Anthony did. He slept on a mattress on his front porch for months, and every time a gust of wind rattled his front door, Anthony would wake up, convinced Katrina was back to hit the neighborhood again. The feeling never really went away. Living on Crawford Street, surrounded by the destruction, the homes shattered and bent and bruised, the neighbors dead or gone or forgotten, he couldn’t stop the storm from reliving itself over and over in his mind.

It felt like time had stopped on that day, and in some ways, it did. Anthony had two battery-operated clocks sitting in his living room. Both stopped five seconds apart at 9:16 a.m., the moment the flood waters reached the little hand.

He did more interviews, sharing his story with reporters, until one day, he just didn’t feel like sharing anymore. He couldn’t. He stopped referring to the storm by name. Giving it a name gave it an identity, and Anthony just couldn’t grant it that.

About a year after the storm, the man from Jackson called, and Anthony decided that it was time to share his story for the final time. So he started writing, longhand, on big legal pads, a story linear and haunting. He was living in a FEMA trailer by then. His sister took the pages and typed it into Anthony’s book. He called it, “My Side of the Eye,” after the center of the storm that had passed over his coast. Anthony’s not an author; he says he doesn’t know what to do with the words he’s written. So his book has sat on a thumb drive in his house, dormant, the story he meant to share but hasn’t yet.

This year, he moved across the Back Bay to D’Iberville. He still has trouble sleeping, away from the only other street he’s ever known, and the home he put his life into, and the humidity of those first nights on the front porch. The memories aren’t as close now, he says. But they’re still there.

I tell him about what Bennett told me, about PTSD, about it all, and Anthony doesn’t seem too worried. He tells me he doesn’t have it so bad. He asks me where a guy like him could even go to see a mental health professional, and I offer him a few options. But that doesn’t seem to take. He tells me he feels alright. He doesn’t talk about it much anymore, the storm, except to trade stories on weekends. His neighbors had it worse, he tells me. They’re the ones who stood up to their necks in water when the storm came in. They’re the ones who needed saving.

He changes the subject. When the weather cools down, and when his back feels better, he wants to do some more work on his Crawford Street home. The place is still a mess. After Katrina, he mopped the floors and moved some stuff around, but there’s plenty left to fix. He has a job with a shipbuilder in Pascagoula, but he’s been on leave for months because of his back, which continues to bother him.

Some pain is easier to spot than others.

¶ ¶ ¶

There’s this other part of the coast’s mental health problem that goes beyond any crisis of natural or economic proportions. What’s going on is easy to dismiss because, on its face, it sounds ridiculous. Consider it this way: in other cities, identity is partially linked to monuments [1] or buildings [2] or songs [3] or sports teams [4]. But the coast has none of that. Their ancestry is the only thing that gives them a sense of uniqueness. These are communities whose identity is wholly tied to their people.

And right now, the people are facing a crisis of confidence.

What it stems from is this coast’s unusual history with New Orleans. French settlers first landed on the Mississippi coast in 1699 and placed the capital of their new territory here. Two decades later, they founded New Orleans, and moved the capital there.

The coast was where New Orleans families traveled to — first by steamboat, and later by rail or car — to get away from the yellow fever that plagued the city in summertime. In 1892, after the Biloxi fishing fleet was destroyed by a hurricane, the city appealed to New Orleans for help, and help they received.

In terms of culture — especially food, art and music — the coast shares more in common with New Orleans than it does with the rest of the state of Mississippi. But the coast can never break free of their ties to Mississippi, and of all the things that come with it: a long history of poverty and racism; school systems that consistently rate among the lowest-ranked in America; and illiteracy.

New Orleans is considered an American treasure. The coast, it seems, is not.

The only things that break the malaise here are these spurts of irrational exuberance. The coast knows how to throw a party, especially on Mardi Gras, where the celebration rivals only — naturally — the one thrown by their neighbors in New Orleans. Graham, the executive director of the Interfaith Disaster Task Force, says the parties are a coping mechanism for the coast.

“It’s the way they manage the dismissal by the rest of the country….,” she says. “It’s the way that they survive, the way that they make sense of it.”

But since Katrina, the dismissal has only gotten worse. The eye of the storm passed over Mississippi, and the worst of the waves and winds hit the coast. Locals know the story well, though: in New Orleans, engineering failures caused massive flooding, and that’s what drew news reporters to the city.

Locals don’t like, as Bennett puts it, playing “second fiddle to the metro area.” They don’t understand why they’ve been forgotten, and they do feel forgotten.

On the Mississippi coast, locals wanted to show off their strength. Their governor flouted government aid — we don’t need the feds, he’d tell anyone who’d listen — but at the same time, his people wondered when their help would arrive. It’s a strange contradiction: the locals who pride themselves on resiliency also feel envious — not resentment, but envy — of their Louisiana neighbors, who received the majority of the attention and aid.

Every time the President heads to New Orleans for a stump speech, or the government pledges more money for schools there, or someone asks, But did the storm even hit Biloxi?, locals here cringe.

“It’s kind of like family, when you’ve got a favorite child, and then Freckles always takes the heat,” says the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center’s Bennett. “It has some impact on you. It kind of diminishes your self-esteem, maybe your general public self-esteem is diminished in some way. You feel less worthy, and then you get defensive: ‘We’re as good as they are. But nobody’s paying any attention to us.'”

Locals don’t like, as Bennett puts it, playing “second fiddle to the metro area.” They don’t understand why they’ve been forgotten, and they do feel forgotten.

For as bad as things were in New Orleans, things were worse here.

¶ ¶ ¶

Anthony's house, where the magnolia tree reaches the roof.

The magnolia tree meets 211 Crawford Street.

¶ ¶ ¶

Anthony Tryba’s parents always told him: when the flood waters come, open the doors. Better to let the house flood than to let the whole thing float away.

He needs to throw himself out of the home and into the magnolia tree, because if he does not, he is going to die in this home. The back door is open, and the house is flooding. And that’s about the point where Anthony starts to realize what he’s actually up against. He could die; he may die; he cannot say.

Anthony is a man of God, and out in his front yard is a tree of life, that big hundred-year-old magnolia just about as thick as it is tall. This is Anthony’s last-best plan.

Inside the house, it’s just him, his dog Buddy and Kym. Kym is Anthony’s ex-girl. They lived together on Crawford Street from ’87 until ’98, then broke up. In ’03, when her landlord jacked up the price on her apartment, Anthony let her move back in.

Stevie’s over in his house on Oak Street, 20 feet up on stilts, but he told Anthony the night before that he didn’t want to come over. They talked a few minutes earlier; Stevie says he’s watching refrigerators float down his street.

Then the water hit Crawford Street. The speed limit’s 25 miles per hour, but the water’s moving faster than that, Anthony thinks. It hits his front yard and starts rising, and Anthony starts talking back to it, like it’s a golf ball rolling past the hole: Slowdownslowdownsloooooooowdown. He wants a camera, to take a photo of what he’s seeing, but he doesn’t have one. He wants a boat, or a ladder, or a helicopter, or a second floor on his home to get him the hell away from this thing, but he doesn’t have any of those, either.

It’s not like Anthony’s not wise to the power of storms. He’s a veteran: Camille, Elena, Georges. In February 1988, he received a U.S. patent — number 4726149 — for an installable window protector that could stop debris from flying into your living room during a hurricane, because he’s seen what happens when bits of home and car get sent airborne. When a storm’s coming, Anthony turns on South Mississippi’s only local TV station, ABC-affiliate WLOX, and listens for one thing: the wind forecast. That’s what you’re afraid of in a big storm when you’re a half-mile to the tenth place from the Gulf of Mexico. The meteorologist on WLOX is Mike Reader, and Anthony heard what Mike had said: when it made landfall, Katrina would be moving at 135 miles per hour, and Anthony thought, Hell, that’s nothing. Camille hit us at 200 miles per hour, and we can take anything less than that.

He grabs the antique Coke machine, the one he’d promised Wendy, and stuffs it into a high corner of the kitchen. He has this thought that Wendy will kill him if he loses that Coke machine, but doesn’t want to consider the fact that the water might kill him first. Not the time, really, to let something like that in.

But the water keeps rising through the open back door, just like Anthony’s momma said to do, and Anthony’s chest is beating quadruple time. He can’t breathe; is this a heart attack? The thoughts start crashing in. Where do I go? What do I do? Could the water, maybe, just stop right there, and drain right back out? The water. Anthony doesn’t have flood insurance. He grabs photos and throws them in a box. He finds his still-unopened, original-packaging-and-all Mr. Potato Head, the one he’d gotten from momma before going under for hernia surgery in 1964. He puts it all on top of the mattress in his bedroom, which by now is floating on top of the water and debris. He grabs the antique Coke machine, the one he’d promised Wendy, and stuffs it into a high corner of the kitchen. He has this thought that Wendy will kill him if he loses that Coke machine, but doesn’t want to consider the fact that the water might kill him first. Not the time, really, to let something like that in.

His refrigerator has tipped over. Furniture that used to belong to his grandmother is floating. The water is up above Anthony’s chest. Anthony wrestles all 50 lbs. of Buddy off the guest room mattress — wrestles being the literal term here: Buddy can’t swim, and Anthony barely weighs a buck-twenty, and this is a pretty fair fight — and lifts him over his head, and starts wading across the furniture in his living room, hopping from island to island. Kym follows. There is a pack of D-cell batteries in his shirt pocket and a Maglite tucked into the back pocket of his jeans, and a 50-lb. dog whimpering above his head.

They get to the front door, but it’s swelling to cartoonish sizes. It won’t open. Kym holds Buddy as Anthony pulls and tugs and yanks on the door, but it doesn’t budge. The water is splashing up onto his face. His mouth tastes of gasoline. And then — Anthony doesn’t know why — the door does the right thing and nudges open, and Anthony grabs his dog and pushes outside. They get to the edge of the porch. The magnolia’s ten, maybe twelve feet away.

Kym jumps first, swims and grabs some limbs. She’s safe.

Anthony takes Buddy and tries to almost shot-put him into the tree. Doesn’t work. Buddy comes up eight feet short, and now the dog that can’t swim starts trying to paddle against the current, and the nails and debris that are coming with it.

Then Anthony jumps in, and he’s getting carried upstream, too. He’d once been a junior lifeguard, but that doesn’t really train you for something like this. He’s 25 feet north of the tree before he even gets in a stroke, he and Buddy simultaneously struggling against the water, swimming toward the only thing left that can save them.

Anthony keeps getting close. He works his way up to the tree and grabs, but can’t. He does it again, and misses. Buddy’s still a few feet back, trying to get to the magnolia. Kym’s calling out Buddy’s name. Anthony starts to think: maybe if I get a few strokes past the tree, I might be able to grab onto something. It’s the trunk of the tree that finally takes hold, and Anthony climbs up. Buddy reaches the tree. It’s been fifteen minutes in the water for both of them, and Anthony reaches down and gets his dog into the magnolia.

Then they start climbing, Buddy in Anthony’s arms, Kym behind. They climb back toward the house, out on the limbs of the tree, to where the branches hang over Anthony’s roof. To shelter.

Anthony balls up there on his roof just like a baby, getting as flat to the roof as possible, his face in the air, trying to wash the gasoline taste out of his mouth with rainwater. He’s thinking that even now, he does not know if he will live. ❑