Hurricane Katrina forced my longest road trip

September 9, 2011 · 0 comments

in About Us

One of the facts of life is that every region has a unique natural calamity which recurs frequently in that region. The Gulf of Mexico is known as Hurricane Alley because of the frequent track which tropical storms take through its waters and onto the coastal regions surrounding its warm, beautiful waters. As the water draws millions to its shores, the storms come to frighten them away.

Dealing with Hurricanes is a skill no one wants to learn.

I was a lifelong resident of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I’m not a young’un so when I say I remember ‘how it was’ it goes back to the 1940’s. That’s when I had my first run-in with a hurricane. The 1947 hurricane was simply named Hurricane Number 4 because Atlantic Hurricanes weren’t named until after 1949. Incidentally; when a storm makes landfall they never re-use the name.

I was a child in 1947, but I remember standing by a window in my bedroom watching a large Pecan tree sway back and forth in 100+ mph winds. Then finally the wet ground and the high winds won the battle and the tree fell in a westerly direction. It did not fall on the house … if it had I would not be writing this post … it would have fallen on me. My family had never evacuated for hurricanes. Running from bad weather was a foreign concept. Folks thought of bad weather as they thought of breaking a mare for riding. They  just rode it out and hoped they didn’t get hurt so bad they couldn’t ride again. This mindset is probably still responsible for some folks not leaving their homes when threatened by  severe weather.

But for this storm we went to the storm shelter set up in the school in Long Beach, MS. I watched row-boats work their way up and down Jeff Davis Avenue, bringing people to the shelter. As frightening as the storm is the worst part isn’t realized until the storm is over. The hurricane aftermath is where the pain and suffering begins.  Most of the homes on US Hwy 90 were totally destroyed by the storm. Wind and water damage affected everything from the MS Coast to the city of New Orleans, LA. Help from emergency agencies was sparse and and even less help came from the government. We were on our own. The damage estimate from this storm was $53 million. This didn’t upset anyone, we just said let’s “git ‘r done”. Our family was large and the children under guidance of my father re-roofed our house and made other needed repairs.

Hurricane #4 first struck Fort Lauderdale, FL on September 17th. It crossed the Florida peninsula, then strengthened as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico. The storm made landfall on Sept 19th as a category 3 storm. Official landfall was said to be between Mississippi and New Orlesns, but the worst part of the storm, the North East quadrant, passed directly over us. As a child, I viewed this hurricane as a great adventure.

The Storm to fear is always: The Next One!

For more than 2 decades hurricane watchers on the Mississippi Coast compared each hurricane to old #4 of 1947.

But a shift in thinking was on the way. When Hurricane Camille approached I asked my employer if we should move files from our office which was about 100 yards from the Gulf of Mexico. He laughed and said “no” because this building had survived hurricane #4 in 1947. This was unwise to about the 14th power. After the storm we couldn’t find but a fraction of our files.

We  experienced a radical paradigm shift in 1969 when Hurricane Camille visited us. They gave Camille a woman’s name, but the Sun-Herald headline screamed:  “Camille was no lady.”

We were  buying a house and had moved our furniture and clothes into it, but the deed was not signed, we couldn’t buy insurance until the deed was transferred into our name. My wife and children left Long Beach, MS early Sunday morning to escape the oncoming storm. I lingered far too long, but finally convinced my mother, aunt, uncle and sister to leave the area.

The hurricane aftermath from Camille was even worse than the hurricane of 1947. We returned to the MS Coast the day after Hurricane Camille and stared with disbelief and shock at the devastation . We were all veterans of the 1947 storm and countless others that had intervened, but had never seen anything comparable to this. Lives were lost, homes destroyed, businesses decimated and roads were literally turned upside down. Sections of concrete on Hwy 90 looked like a monster had tossed them around like toy horseshoes. Camille killed 259 people. There were holes big enough to lose a school bus. Schools closed, life ground to a halt. Marshall Law was declared, highways were closed, curfews were initiated, shelters were opened as far north as Jackson, MS, 25 tons of dead animals were collected, airplanes sprayed for mosquito infestation, new building codes were established and in 1973, hurricane hunters and their associated reconnaissance aircraft relocated to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, MS.

This was the aftermath of “The Greatest Storm.” Most observers of a hurricane stricken area comment that it looks “like a war zone.” Damage estimate from Hurricane Camille exceeded $1.42 billion.

It took nearly 15 years after Camille to put pieces of our life back together. We were a young family with small children trying to establish a career. Building a life is a large enough task when it us all one has to do, but a disaster like a hurricane sets you back immeasurably.

The next 36 years flew by like a weaver’s shuttle. Time flies when you’re having fun. I can’t say we forgot what we learned from Camille, but we tried. It is unprofitable to constantly focus on these things . But to be honest, we never expected to see or again experience anything like it. A repeat of Hurricane Camille was not realistically expected. A storm of Camille’s size and strength had never before made landfall. When Prognosticators called Camille a “100 year storm,” they were forecasting that such storms only occur about every 100 years. After enough time passes … people forget.

I can’t guess how many storms came through between Camille and Katrina

On Saturday August 23, 2005 we began to hear reports of approaching Hurricane Katrina. We weren’t alarmed or concerned. We had accepted the same mindset of many people in the path of a hurricane who have faced this danger many times. The illogical reasoning goes like this: ‘the storm is a long way out and it can go anywhere. Don’t panic! You can leave one place to avoid a hurricane and run right into its path. Running from a hurricane can be trickier than preparing to face it.’

But not only were local residents deceived by the relatively paltry storm, so were the forecasters. They certainly warned that’s a big bad storm coming … but no one could know what lay in store, because nothing like this had ever happened.

Hurricane Katrina drew within a few miles of the MS Gulf Coast, (I heard the number 7 miles) then paused and just stood there dribbling the ball. It did not move forward, to either side, or retreat. It just sat there like a fierce fighter knowing he has his opponent on the ropes, wanting to just pound the life out of him. The outer bands of the storm steadily poured rain on the land. Its 100+ mph winds steadily drove tide waters up rivers, into bays, bayous, creeks, canals and inlets on the land. Before the storm made landfall the entire coastal area from Biloxi to Pearlington, MS had already been under several feet of muddy water for more than an hour.

The raging storm then sent a surge like a mountain of water, similar to a Tsunami, as it rammed its path into and over buildings, barges, ships, homes and every living thing in its path. It destroyed homes that had stood for 200 years. Entire neighborhoods were totally destroyed. No home was spared in our neighborhood. Every store, theater, restaurant, school, church and most public roads and private homes were demolished. My street had 15 feet of water with 12 foot high waves. The water rose to 7 feet inside our home ruining every possession.

We thought we had escaped  Hurricane Katrina by travelling 200 miles inland. But even here the winds blew and rains pelted the old home place where we huddled like trapped animals and watched roofs fly off and trees fall that had stood for more than 100 years.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina tops every other storm. Official numbers of damages is estimated to be $81 billion dollars. We may never know the actual dollar amount of damage from this storm. It destroyed buildings, properties, 1,836 people’s lives, disrupted careers and destroyed in excess of One Billion Dollars of Pine and hardwood timber and that’s in Mississippi. But similar damage was inflicted from Central Florida to Texas. The entire Gulf South experienced a shift in climate for the next two years. We had a prolonged drought, an early winter and extensive crop failures along with other unusual phenomena in the years that followed.

After a hurricane, City and County Governments,  business owners and residents all flood the banks, insurance companies, federal agencies, relief organizations, as well as friends relatives and every other potential source of help in an effort to find lost relatives and pets and jump-start life back to a semblance of pre-storm routine. Local governments make valiant efforts, as do Federal Agencies and charitable organizations but their resources are all seriously handicapped by the size of the disaster.

Emergency Responders are ‘Angels of Mercy’ after a storm

Everyone is overwhelmed. There is no quick way to find or fix every broken thing. Help is gratefully accepted by all. Without the help of others few fully recover. Only the people who have learned self-reliance are able to quickly reestablish their life. The best preparation for any disaster is to accept responsibility for solving as many of your problems as possible, without assistance. All other approaches leave you at the mercy of a world which is in turmoil and disarray.

There are literally thousands of volunteers and good samaratains  who come as quickly as possible to aid the injured and help them pick up the pieces and begin the rebuilding process. Without their help people in the damaged region could endure the hardship imposed by catastrophic natural upheavals. The Red Cross, Salvation Army are the well-known names. But on the Miss Coast, the volunteers from churches all over America were the most visible groups. These groups came in greater numbers and stayed for longer periods of time than the paid forces.

I began this post saying “Hurricane Katrina forced my longest road trip.” After the storm our home in Gulfport, MS, was gone. The church where I was pastor had sustained moderate damage and several of our members were displaced. I decided I would not rebuild in Gulfport, but did not want to leave my church folks in the lurch. So for the next 5 months my wife and I drove back and forth from north Mississippi, about 1,000 miles per week, to take care of personal business, make arrangements for repair of the church building and help church members who needed it get estimates, hire contractors and put their homes and lives back together.

We purchased our present home on Dec 23rd of 2005. We began ministry in a new church in April 2006. In one sense of the word, our “Katrina Emergency Road Trip” is ongoing. It is easy to move into a new house, town and church, but it is difficult to leave a former life behind. There is nothing to go back to. Our neighbors have moved, the town we lived in is so different we feel like strangers when we drive down its streets.

We have always enjoyed trips. When we lived on the coast, we took day trips all over south MS, LA and AL. We knew the area like the palm of our hand. Now we have moved 200 miles north and we are enjoying the process of ferreting out every nook and cranny in our new area. I guess it just goes to prove that old road-trippers never die we just buy a new map and keep rolling up miles and dialing up smiles. Until next time …

Bill

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