2006-02-20 03:00:42 UTC
The tragedy of the Tivoli: Katrina claimed at least 9
Tragedy at Little Tivoli
By KAT BERGERON
Dynamite exploded when John Porter ran to the second-story balcony of
the Little Tivoli. At least that's what it sounded like when the
two-story apartment-motel crumbled under Hurricane Katrina's surge.
Porter found himself wedged between the parking lot and a chunk of
cement from the Tivoli overhang, darkness and water engulfing him.
"Somehow I squirmed around and twisted around and I got free," said the
ex-Marine and avowed beach bum attracted to Biloxi's mild weather and
laid-back lifestyle. "The only reason I'm alive is because I was
standing on the balcony. The ones inside didn't make it.
"It happened that fast. It sounded like a stick of dynamite going off.
In the decades that follow the nation's worst natural disaster, the
Tivoli will rise to the top of a sea of chilling and remarkable stories
of survival and tragedy. At least 15 were on the Tivoli compound during
Katrina. At least nine died. At least six or seven survived, Porter
Tony Olier is another. He was the only one with foresight to move
belongings to higher ground, meaning 100 yards away to the unused,
six-story Tivoli Hotel: "I had a premonition. Something wasn't right."
Olier, who has a fused knee, toted two TVs, clothes, food and his
beloved fishing equipment. As water rose, Olier's attempts to get others
in the Little Tivoli to join him failed.
As the Tivoli tragedy is pieced together, those documenting it hedge
their statements with indefinites like "at least" and "likely." Puzzle
pieces are missing.
The dead can't talk. The living disappear, or rarely speak publicly if
they remain in the region. Sometimes survivor memories are conflicting.
That is the way of tragedy retellings, but their stories are no less
real, no less poignant.
"The only point that I'm trying to make is that if they tell you to
evacuate, you do it," said Porter. "That's the only reason I'm talking -
if it will help one person, if it will save one life."
Porter's story is one of a decision to weather the storm in what he
thought was a safe building. He'd evacuated his girlfriend but stayed to
help a friend move that weekend. That friend, Scotty Michael, is a
For months, the Tivoli stayed on the back burner of attention, lost
among so many Katrina stories. But as Sun Herald staffers wrote "We
Remember" features on each of 169 known Katrina victims, they realized
the Tivoli played a role in at least nine deaths, the most in one location.
Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove said only three bodies are
documented as being pulled out of Little Tivoli rubble, but others were
found nearby. It is the memories of Olier and Porter that tie others
into the complex on Beach Boulevard.
Even the Tivoli name is confusing: "Little Tivoli" is used by locals for
the 1950s motel built near the historic 1927 Tivoli Hotel.
Unlike its Roaring '20s sister hotels long gone to the wrecking ball,
the Tivoli Hotel stood but in sad state. It gave up its sweeping front
lawn for a yacht club and the building was so outdated that attempts by
developers to bring it back failed.
The Aug. 29 storm used a Grand Casino barge as the battering ram to
assault the old hotel, but much of its brick tower still stands, which
allowed at least four to take refuge there.
The Little Tivoli is a slab.
The Little Tivoli provided moderately priced month-to-month apartments
along with a few motel rooms. The people who lived there liked to fish,
crab and sometimes party together. Some were day laborers, some on fixed
incomes, some had regular jobs. They weren't necessarily close, nor did
they necessarily know complete names, but they looked out for each other.
A week after Katrina, the Sun Herald published an article on Olier, who
paid $550 a month to live in apartment 108 of the Little Tivoli. He told
the reporter seven of 15 had survived.
Porter, who lived in a nearby apartment complex, had agreed to help his
friend move into the Little Tivoli that weekend, and afterward hung
around with Jerry Gist, another Little Tivoli resident.
Porter and Gist worked together at Famous Joe's, a Point Cadet oyster
bar where they bused tables and shucked. They loved it because it was
paid beach-bumism at its height, and they could wear their flip-flops
and shorts to work.
The owner asked Gist and Porter to help prep the restaurant for the
storm, boarding windows, moving furniture higher. They did it, then went
back to the Little Tivoli.
"Famous Joe asked Jerry and me how we were set for money," Porter
recalled. "That was about 9 o'clock at night... He came back with $500
and a bottle of Jim Beam for us."
They played poker and shared the Beam with their Tivoli acquaintances.
About 11, the two headed to Kuhn Street Pier and returned with news that
the "tide" was as high as the pier.
"The manager, Herb, said the building had gone through Camille, so we
should be safe enough," Porter said.
Gist and Porter went to bed; some of the others stayed up, many with
"Uncle George" Buckland, whose health was poor. Meanwhile, Olier toted
his belongings to the old hotel. About 7 a.m. on Monday, Olier tried to
convince others to move over there as water crept higher. No one listened.
The first big surge brought a battered young man Olier remembers as just
"Joe" into the old hotel's lobby. Manager Herb (last name uncertain)
joined them, clinging to a rope tied between the hotel and Little
Tivoli. The three climbed to higher floors as water rose.
Over in Little Tivoli, chaos reigned but, "we said we'd stick with Uncle
George no matter what," Porter said.
"Six of us were in one room. Sunshine (Debbie McKay) came running back
in and said, 'The building's falling down.' I walked out on the balcony
to see what was going on and boom, that's when it went."
The rest of Porter's story involves hoisting one female survivor on a
floating refrigerator, then leaving it to put a floundering man on
floating plywood. Eventually, Porter took off his belt and tied himself
to an oak tree.
When waters receded somewhat, Porter made it to the old Tivoli, thought
he was climbing in the first-floor window and fell 15 feet because it
was the washed-out second floor. Groping in the dark, he found a muddy
blanket, wrapped himself in it and fell asleep from exhaustion. Hours
later he was found by Olier and given dry clothes, a lifesaving Twix
candy bar and a tomato before he set out to see if he could himself help
Olier and the Little Tivoli manager took bits and pieces of sheets to
make a tent and stayed until recovery crews removed the bodies.
Nine known Little Tivoli dead
Debbie "Sunshine" McKay, 42, earned her nickname for her sunny
disposition. Just days before Katrina, she learned her cancer was in
Susan and John David Allen, married 18 years, were described as "free
spirits" and "sweet" people. Both were part-time casino workers and he
also did construction. They'd lived in Biloxi about three years.
Joseph Campbell, 48, liked to hang out at the American Legion post in
Biloxi. The Tennesseean used his painting skills as a day laborer, and
loved rock 'n' roll. He decided to ride out Katrina with his friends,
the Allens, at the Little Tivoli.
Timothy Francis McCree, 50, was a longtime Casino Magic Biloxi table
games supervisor and had started at Treasure Bay Casino a few months
before the storm. Originally from California, he loved fishing and golfing.
Scotty Michael, 52, always had a joke to tell. He was a cook and
dishwasher at the Biloxi Yacht Club, and friends say he lived to make
people laugh. He moved to Biloxi from Pascagoula 10 years ago.
Jerry Gist, late 40s, wore a walrus-style handlebar mustache. Originally
from California, he loved this Coast because it was affordable for his
self-proclaimed beach-bumism. He worked at Famous Joe's Oyster Bar and
"Uncle George" Buckland, 78, was a retired Army man who settled in
Biloxi after retiring from the military. The father of five, he chose
living at the Little Tivoli because he loved being near the beach.
James "Jimbo" Madison, 50, was a top-notch angler. He worked at the
popular Schooner Restaurant as a cook and had stayed at the Tivoli
during Katrina to be with his ailing Uncle George. His dream was to buy
- From "We Remember," a Sun Herald feature, which chronicled the lives
of Katrina's victims
John Porter, 50, grew up in Anniston, Ala., and was in the U.S. Marine
Corps until 30. He was studying criminal justice when a Marine buddy
called about a job at a Texas horse-breeding farm. Back in Alabama 10
years later, he heard about Mississippi job opportunities and moved to
Biloxi in 1996 to work in construction and live in an apartment near the
He currently lives in Woolmarket.
Tony Olier is a Biloxi native who had lived at the Little Tivoli for
about seven months, loving it because he could walk to fishing spots. He
is 47, served in the Navy and before Katrina was doing custodial work at
the VFW hall near his apartment. He has a fused knee and is legally blind.
He currently lives in a FEMA trailer in Biloxi.
Jimmy Ellzey and his girlfriend Rhonda Moulder, were quoted in an Aug.
31, 2005, story in The New York Times. According to the Times, they
"climbed through a window of the Tivoli and jumped into the surging
water as the cinderblocks swayed and cracked, giving way behind them."
They likely did not live full-time at the Tivoli because they told the
reporter they assumed the trailer they lived in was gone.
Tivoli manager Herb is one of the Tivoli survivors. At the height of the
storm he safely made it from the Little Tivoli to the old Tivoli Hotel.
Neither Tony Olier nor John Porter knows his last name, and they both
say he left Biloxi not long after the storm.