WAVELAND, Miss. - For five hours, 14 members of Waveland's police department held on desperately to a spindly bush as they watched the town they swore to protect being torn apart by Hurricane Katrina.
Debris shot past them; tin roofs fired up into the air; a shrimp boat swept past in churning sea waters as they clung to the 8-foot-tall bush. Blasted by a storm surge some say was 30 feet high Monday morning, this town got some of the worst of Katrina.
Three days later, the anemic-looking, red-tipped bush in front of the police department has become a shrine to Waveland's men and women in blue. There's now a hand-carved wooden cross placed in the bush to highlight its role in a remarkable story of survival — a sign of hope as police go about the grim duty of recovering bodies and trying to help shocked survivors in the town of 7,000 about 35 miles east of New Orleans.
"You can see where there's no bark," said Lisa Parker, the chief's secretary. "That's where we were holding onto it."
Added patrolman Todd Blake: "The death grip hold."
Waveland took a storm surge Monday morning some say was 30 feet high. When water rose through the police station, about a mile from the beach, those inside punched through a window that had been covered by plywood and climbed outside. There they found water pouring through their parking lot.
They then formed a human chain through the swirling waters and howling winds with the plan to reach higher ground on a highway median in front of the station. But the sea surge was too strong, breaking up their chain.
While 14 of the officers, dispatchers and other personnel held onto the bush, the rest were being swept away until they were able to grab onto the station and climb up to the roof or onto trucks where they waited for the water to recede.
"There was a family with two children that was trapped in the waters," said patrolman John Saltarelli. "And we couldn't help them."
But the family was able to cling to a tall motel sign and walked away when the waters receded.
Then, the officers found their cruisers waterlogged, their communications dead, their guns soaked. Their station was a mess of dangling wires, mud and darkness.
"The best description I have is that it was tsunami-like," Saltarelli said.
Police recovered at least five bodies Wednesday. Authorities would not confirm a death toll, but Mayor Tommy Longo has told The Clarion-Ledger that at least 50 residents died.
All 26 members of the police department survived Katrina. Police are already making plans to transplant the bush for a permanent memorial when a new station can be built.
For Waveland's peacekeepers, there is a feeling of great gratitude amid the devastation.
They recount that a few months ago, an officer accidentally plowed into the bush with his car, but the bush bounced back. And, they said, the chief had been talking about chopping the bush down because it was ugly and obscured the view of the highway.