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Katrina Mississippi Coast Report
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
See also - KATRINA
Here's some of the raw reporting I did from the Mississippi coast.
When I got the call Wednesday, I agreed to help cover the hurricane with the stipulation I go to Mississippi. I was listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR the day before and a caller who had a relative in Waveland complained she'd heard zero coverage about the area, which was in Katrina's bulls-eye.
Jackson, 160 miles inland, was still reeling from the effects Weds night. Power was out in most place, there was a boil water alert and gas stations were all closed. I'm glad the guy at the rental car agency at the airport recommended I buy a full tank of gas now. The Hilton was full with an exceptional number of guests with dogs, walking them outside in the bushes, around the hallways, and in the elevators.
US 49 from Hattiesburg to the coast was officially closed Thursday morning but I went anyhow, arriving in Hattiesburg only a few hours after the road opened. I drove around Hattiesburg and the damage was as severe as any coastal town I'd seen, even though Hattiesburg is 60 miles inland. Power was out, poles knocked down, property damage severe. Three gas stations had just opened with lines several miles long and highway patrol guarding the stations. I awaited at one station with a short line until I heard that the scheduled fuel delivery was just a rumor.I backtracked to a station where I only had to wait an hour and a half to buy the $20 maximum--eight gallons at $2.49. The pump attendant said he'd waited 5 hours in line that morning and paid $3.99 a gallon. Folks were calm but there was tension in the air. An armed security guard manned the store's door, allowing only a few folks in at a time. I heard one lady behind the counter say they were about to run out of gas.
Although US 49 was open, there were still trees and power lines on the pavement I had to dodge. The only other vehicles headed south were power company caravans, fire trucks, police, search and rescue teams.
I drove straight to Biloxi to chase a story, the amount of debris and damage growing more intense by the mile, winding around boats in the road, more power lines, trash piles until I reached Mary L Micheal Seventh Grade School which had become a refugee center. The new residents were largely African-American with a strong Vietnamese-American contingent tied to Biloxi's shrimp fleet and a smattering of Anglo-Americans. Everyone had already staked out a spot to sleep on the hallway floor with huge fans powered by generators blowing a hot, humid breeze down the hall.
No one complained, although no one seemed to know what to do either. Everyone was waiting, and when approached by a stranger were eager to share their personal story of surviving the hurricane and the unprecedented storm surge that came with it. Media and FEMA officials were nowhere in sight. I had to use the rest room which was already overflowing with since there was no water pressure, much less water. These were truly the dispossessed.
Yet no one complained loudly, no one lost their cool.
I spent two nights on the floor of the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport, which had become the emergency management center for the county, finding a spot the first night behind the dais where the Board of Supervisors normally make county decisions. No one seemed to mind. We slept where we could. The funeral home around the corner became the county's coroner center. Out front in the street, several tractor-trailer trucks idled. Each was full of bodies.
For two days, I took Navy baths with hand wipes. I was glad to get a burger or cheese sandwich from the relief workers who'd come in from Outback Steakhouses in the Texas. I was happy to drink hot coffee, nevermind powdered creamer wasn't on the menu.. Cell service was spotty, on for a few hours, then off indefinitely, which is why I couldn't find my shooter, Marc Asnin, the first day. Instead of sticking around Gulfport, he drove 150 miles each night to Pensacola, Florida, where gas was plentiful and the late summer crowds were focused on the beach, not disaster.
Communications, on which we are so reliant in our profession, was next to non-existent. I tried to remember how journalism was done in the old days, before computers, cell phones, and modems.
At one point, I had to borrow a satellite phone from a reporter from the Baltimore Sun to let the bureau know I was OK. No cell service, no internet, having to calculate decisions based on using as little fuel as possible became the norm. Marc was a real pro when we finally did hook up. He'd taken cover under a truck with a fireman when the first tower of the World Trade Center imploded on 9/11. That was bad, he said. This was worse. Especially when we got to where the eye of the hurricane came ashore around Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Lakeshore, just east of the Louisiana line. There, the shock had yet to wear off five days after the fact. While recovery efforts seemed to be making an impact in Gulfport and Biloxi, help was arriving painfully slow in these towns on the western Mississippi coast.
To the person, everyone I approached was glad to talk. Mississippi folks are born storytellers--that's why there's such a deep tradition of bluesmen and writers--and every one had quite a story to tell.
The smells are still sharp in my mind. The dead leaves around the courthouse that lent a scent of fall to the scene early in the morning, when the search and rescue teams were preparing to leave. Too often though, the smells were foul, so rotten and vomit-inducing that it transcended sewage and rot. This was far more severe. Marc's assistant summed it up as we followed some Army engineers clearing a debris strewn street in Waveland as we tiptoed around black muck that stuck to our boots. "That's the stench of death." He was right.
The resilience of the people gave me hope, considering most had lost everything. Call them crazy, stupid, or ignorant, but these Mississippians have such a strong sense of place, they're not about to leave. This is their home. At least here, they're not strangers.
Marc made sure I got back to the real world by giving me five gallons of gas from several cans he'd bought before coming to Mississippi. On the way out Saturday night, Hattiesburg seemed almost civilized, despite the obvious damage. Jackson was a veritable shining city on the hill, a modicum of progress, although what few gas stations were open had long lines and patrolmen just like down south. Every hotel room was booked. I got the next to the last room in Canton, 20 miles up the road. I made it out but what I saw and reported was still with me. The story was following me. The man checking into the hotel ahead of me had driven up from Pearlington, where I had been that day. He cussed FEMA, complaining his town wasn't even on their disaster map, and no official had shown their face. He told his own story about using a pickaxe to break out of his attic and escape to his roof in order to survive. Like most everyone else, he lost most of his property. But he still had a plenty of heart.
Katrina may have wrecked havoc from Mobile to New Orleans, but nowhere was the destruction so thorough as the remote towns of the western Mississippi coast. While rebuilding efforts were well underway in Gulfport, Biloxi, Mobile, and New Orleans five days after the storm blew in, the residents of Hancock County including the small towns of Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Pearlington where the eye of the hurricane passed overhead were still in a state of shock. This once-pastoral landscape of lowlands, bays, estuaries, and Piney Woods was clearly ground zero, as if God dumped a box of wooden matches in the sand. No manmade structure escaped damage.
Cars littered the roadside. Boats were tilted in parking lots. Houses were crushed, twisted, and ripped apart. Pine trees were snapped in two and lifted whole out of the ground, their rootballs intact.
Help was coming, but in a slow trickle at best, and the frustration was mounting. At a press conference in a courtroom of the Hancock County Courthouse, which had become the area's Emergency Operations Center, Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre (yes, he's a cousin of Brett Favre) told a press conference attended by three local reporters that he understood people breaking into stores and businesses if they needed food, water, or medical supplies. "We have had situations were people have broken into businesses for reasons of survival. I understand that, but not if they're carrying out televisions or jewelry. Do not go in people's houses. That will not be tolerated by neither the homeowner nor the officials." One proprietor of a convenience store in Bay Shores was literally giving his store away. As one refugee from Pearlington told me at a motel in Canton, almost two hundred miles north of the coast, "We weren't even on FEMA's map."
Any survivors in southern Hancock County who managed to ride out the storm and live had a harrowing personal story to tell.
More Eddie Favre at the press conference attended by three local media people: "Most of our people don't have transportation and the ability to get there [to shelters]" Favre admitted frustration with the federal government's reaction. "I don't think anyone can be satisfied with the response."
But he praised the locals. "We have have had so many people who have lost everything and they still want to help. Our people are taking care of ourselves and taking care of our neighbors."
Desperation had grown to the point that Favre had to issue a health advisory. "Some people are using the bay to clean up. We recommend do not use the bay. The bay is contaminated."
More Favre: "It has totally destroyed any economy we had." Still, he projected optimism. "People may have lost a house, but they still have a home. People will rebuild. There's going to have to be some things done that have never done before."
"We're still missing people."We've had rumors martial law has been declared. That's not the case. We still have strict law enforcement to protect people who are still here. The next rumor is we'll have mandatory evacuation. There is no mandatory evacuation. But we do ask if people can leave, they should do so. Give us a few days, we'll have water running."
"There are areas along the beachfront where there are no longer houses. The bayous are silted in. We're not looking for airconditioning or things that make life easier. We're looking for barebones essentials. None of us have gone through anything like this.
Hancock County EMA director Brian "Hootie" Adam: "Hancock County was in the bulls-eye."
For the first two days, "WQRZ-LP, 103.5 FM, The voice of Bay Saint Louis, Waveland, Diamondhead and the Kiln" was the only communications link to the outside world, hunkered down in the cinderblock building housing the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency. The 100 watt low power FM community station, normally solar-powered, is the brainchild of Brice L. Phillips, 39, a skinny disabled ham radio operator (KB5MPW) on social security, who built the station two years ago in anticipation of a disaster like this, and his girlfriend, Christine Stach, 34, who has MS and constantly clutches their dog, who is the station's program director.
The station, owned and licensed to Hancock County Amateur Radio Association, serves 17,460 households and more 39,000 individuals along the western Mississippi shore, previously operated at his house near the beach in Bay St. Louis. When he saw the hurricane was headed towards Mississippi on Sunday evening, he climbed the 130 ft tower above his house to remove transmitters and moved the station's equipment to the courthouse on Highway 90. "I knew we had to come here," Phillips said. The station was off the air for four hours.
"We were back up on the air by five [pm], the night before the storm hit. We stayed on and then we got knocked out about two in the morning when we had that tornado warning before the eye of the hurricane [hit the shore]. We have the only emergency alert system here. That was the important part, to keep it up. That's why we built the station. We had to temporarily move down here. I brought one of the four antennas from the tower [on the roof of his house], unmounted it, put it up here. We had great SWR [Don't know radio lingo] because we have the four changers that run on DC power. We have a laptop that controls them and all of our announcements are on it so we were able to put messages on it. The Emergency Alert System was able to run because we're the first warning for emergency alert.
During the hurricane, Phillips said, "We were broadcasting New Age music during the hurricane, like Enya, a little bit of light folk, a little bit of light rock. So it calms people down. That was the broadcast. Then we brought the amateur equipment, all the ham rigs, too. We didn't get that communications system set up until the following day [Tuesday] right after the storm.
"We had six repeaters here. They all went down. Harrison County has one radio repeater, we're still on it. We came online. We were adding antenna after antenna after antenna. For the first two days it was nothing but antenna building. Then once one system got in, we had help from volunteers who came in. It was kind of rough.
"We do all the public bulletins--where food can be found, points of distribution for food, water and ice, shelters, advisories, public notices--'Don't drink the water, folks', if you're lucky enough to have it. We haven't had any water here.
"We're a 501 ( C ) corporation [non profit station], Hancock County Amateur Radio owns the license. WQRZ stands for Who Is Calling Me? in amateur radio lingo. That's why we chose those call letters.
"The day after, the guy from the only Radio Shack around here wandered in. Of course I have extensive doings with the local Radio Shack store. They had 12 foot of water in that store, in Waveland. He came in. I was so happy to see this guy. I said, 'I'm commandeering your store.' We were short on coax-Ns, other things. He told me, 'Yeah, you can have anything in the store."
"Right now we just finished recording that press conference, 47 minutes. We'll run it again this evening, run it again tomorrow until another one comes out.
He doesn't know if he and Christine still have a place to live. He shakes his head and holds back for a second, then says, "Somebody came in yesterday and said it lifted off the stilts it was on and set back down and piles went through the house. There's 30 ft. of tower left.
"Come look at my van outside [in the parking lot of the courthouse]. We had bad luck. That's my van." The roof is completed sheared off. The wind flipped the top off and tossed it, "This is what I drove down here with all the stuff [equipment including the antenna beams]. This is my car [a gray '96 Ford Crown Victoria that was a gift from another ham radio operator]. The water came up and then it caught on fire. I almost killed Killer [his dog] because killer was in the car. We had to get him out. The water rising under the dash started the fire. Christine was freaking out, she went into an MS attack because of the dog. She thought it was dead."
"The water was this deep [waist-high] by the house when we tried to get out of there, about six o'clock that evening. The station was already online here, rolling. I went back to the house to get the van and all the supplies six o' clock Sunday evening.
"I got all my clothes. Christine didn't get all her clothes. I have food for a couple days and basically all the radio supplies because you can't do anything if you don't have communications." I had to run all these wires and put the antenna up.
Did you feel safe in the emergency center? "It was not cool. Water started coming in the door, three or four feet deep. That's our safe room. It went under." The roof started coming off the building.
The National Guard and FEMA pulled out, Phillips said, declaring "this building is no longer safe." The only ones remaining were locals.
"We numbered ourselves," Christine Stach says, showing a number scrawled in black ink on her wrist. In case they drowned, recovery teams could ID who the victims were. "Everybody lined up in the room before the water came up and we numbered ourselves," Brice said.
Brice: "Water was coming in and we were in the safe room and the eye of the storm was here. We had no electric. We didn't have any batteries inside. It wasn't until the next day we started bringing batteries in and established communications and got our transmitter back up. I tried for a day and a half to turn the wattage up in the transmitter but there was water in the coax where the antenna is."
"He predicted this years and years ago," said Al Showers, 42 the local reporter for WLOX-TV Channel 13 in Biloxi ["I used to have a house near the beach on Cedar Point in Bay St. Louis"] "He definitely saved the day. For the first 48 hours he was Hancock County's only link to the outside world, the only communications whatsoever. He was it. He works on my computers and scanners and told me, 'One of these days, we're going to have a hurricane and I'm going to be the only one with communications. It came to pass because of his ham set up. He stayed up around the clock, doing this. My station was broadcasting, 'We haven't heard from our reporter. Anybody, please. We were able to talk with my station through the Civil Defense in Harrison County. That's the only way they knew their reporter was alive and well, because of Brice's setup. As soon as Civil Defense activated, he was broadcasting and never left the air."
"He saved the day," said Kenny Daniel, a bald headed ham operator (KD5KWS), 38, who is an MP in the 115th Company of the National Guard in Brandon (sp?), MS ( who came from Jackson Sunday before Katrina hit to help at the station.
[Daniel shows one of the messages the station has received to carry to the outside world: It's to Sister Claudia Murphy, St Catherine Village, Madison Mississippi, (601-856-9023) It reads: "Pray, know that Rod, Dot, Margaret, and George are okay. We lost Nan, God rest her soul. Pearlington was leveled. Jane and I were in deep water for hours. Rod had lots of water too, haven't talked with him but we heard. Devastation is surreal. Love you very much. Will call as soon as I can. Pray, Pray, Pray. Love, (signed Jan Murphy, Madison Parish, La Salle St. Tallulah, LA)]
WQRX 103.5 FM 463-1035 http://baystlouis-ms.com/wqrz.htm
From Friday's New York Times: "On Thursday afternoon, Horace Hodges, another temporary tenant, made the rounds, carrying two buckets and offering to fetch water from a murky, puce-colored swimming pool to fill people's toilet tanks. In the parking lot, a wharf rat the size of a small dog scurried underfoot as Howard O'Gwin Jr., who was living in one room with nine other family members, two dogs and a bird, unloaded bottled water from a shopping cart."
Here's the rest of the story:
The parking lot of the Coast Inn and Suites motel on the northwest corner of Highway 603 and Highway 90 overlooks what is normally one of the busiest intersections in Bay St. Louis. For now, though, the lot also accommodates three boats. The two 19 ft Magnum skiffs with Yamaha 90 outboard engines belong to brothers Dan and Howard O'Gwin. The parking lot is where their boats came to rest when the floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina finally receded hours after the storm blew through.
Both Dan O'Gwin, 54, and the family of Howard O'Gwin, 50, are living at the motel for now. Dan spends his days sitting under a tent awning next to his skiff in a beach chair, which is where he was sitting alongside Howard Jr when a reporter approached them. Howard Jr. sleeps in his boat to protect some of the last property they have that is still in one piece. The Coast Inn was the destination for several boatloads of survivors the O'Gwins picked up when they abandoned their homes, as Dan and his nephew Howard, Jr. 17, slender, shirtless in a bathing suit, and relaxed if he was out for a day at the beach, explained.
"We came here by boat," Dan O'Gwin said. "That's how our boats got here. Water come up in our houses, cars went underwater, this whole area was flooded up to the second floor in the middle of the hurricane."
It's not too surprising. The O'Gwin brothers, Howard Sr and Dan grew up on the water, "we worked on tugboats on the Mississippi River as kids," Dan said.
Dan O'Gwin lived four blocks from the motel next door to his grandmother in a house he'd moved into only a month ago. Howard O'Gwin and his family were riding out the hurricane with friends in a brand new brick house at 702 Edna Street in Waveland, between Highway 90 and the beach. "During the storm, it was fine," Howard Jr. said. "We were watching trees popping and everything. All of a sudden, we noticed the wind was blowing one way, and the water was blowing the other way." The sea and the bay were coming one. "Five minutes later, it came up and started seeping through the walls. Five minutes later it was up to our necks. It was that fast."
Howard, his wife Cathy, 44, Howard, Jr. and his younger brother Ben, 15, got into ther skiff and unwittingly became an impromptu search and rescue team when they abandoned the flooding residence. "We came all the way up Margie Street, up Highway 90. We rescued about 21 people and five dogs. One of them's still here.
"I was in this boat," Howard Jr. said, "with my dad, mom, and family. We started before him. It was about nine o clock when we started. We came down Margie Street. I had my whistle blowing. We were hollering and screaming in case anybody needed help. We seen flashlights from people needing help. We rescued people all along the way. Some houses, we seen flashlights shining on us."
"I was scared but I didn't want my wife or my family to see that I was scared," said Howard Sr., a muscular truck driver for an oyster company who used to work offshore on oil rigs. "If they would've seen me being scared, they would have panicked too."
"I couldn't pass them up," Howard Sr said of the people needing rescue. "It's just in my heart."
More Howard, Jr. "We came here [to the motel] first, dropped all the people off here, then we went over here to my grandma's house. He [Dan] lives right next to him. Got them, then met up with him," Howard O'Gwin, Jr. said, nodding towards his uncle.
By the time his brother Howard Sr. motored up, Dan O'Gwin said, "I knew it was time to go. I was standing in my doorway, looking behind my house to the east, and I seen a big ol' building, twirling up in the air like this, I can hear OOOOOOOoooooooooo when I heard that, I looked up to where the sound was coming from and this house was spinning. I went 'Uh unh'.I got on the floor behind the wall and I heard itÉ.you wouldn't believe the noise. After it hit, I went and looked out to see where it was, there was stuff everywhere, I mean a whole building everywhere, big steel beams. If it would've landed on my house, it would've probably smushed us. I'll never go through that again."
Howard, Jr. said, "By the time we got to him [his uncle, Dan O'Gwin] he was trying to get his boat undone."
"The water was up to my neck," Dan O'Gwin said. "I couldn't stay there. I had to get out or die. You had to go. It was either there or die. I reached over and grabbed a bird in a cage and put it in a console. I climbed in my boat and come up the highway, but I hit three foot waves, 155 mile an hour winds, spun me around two or three times, shot me back that way," Dan O'Gwin said. "I got behind a building, caught my breath and come on back this way. All them cars you see over there were, they was all under water. I tell you what," Dan O'Gwin says, "I was coming up the highway against that wind. I had it almost half-speed. That's how had that wind was. Spun me around. I went the other way. These guys were following me. They couldn't find me at first. They found me behind the Take One Video. I said, 'Let's get down the highway or we'll get killed. So we came down the highway, ended up right here and rode the hurricane right up there."
Dan O'Gwin said they never considered evacuating in advance of Katrina. "Waveland's been here 150 years and there's never been water here. We knew we'd catch the wind, but we never thought we'd have water here."
"That black guy, we saved him," Howard Jr. says. "Every time we walk past him, he says, 'Y'all need anything?''Y'all need something?' because when we found him, he was in a motel down the street on Highway 90," Howard, Jr. said. "He and his wife were up to their necks in water when we found them."
The black guy is Horace Hodges, 58, who lived at the Burgin [sp] Inn [on Hwy 90] and now resides at the Coast Inn. "I had water up my nose. I was hanging from the rafters and my wife couldn't swim. I said, 'Baby, if you're going down, I'm going down with you. We're gonna hold each other and go 'Gnnngh' [makes a drowning noise].' This man here [Howard] if I had $180,000, he could have it right now. I'm serious."
What are the O'Gwins going to do now?
"That's a good question. I don't know," said Dan O'Gwin, who receives a disability pension [he weighs at least 300 lbs], shaking his head grimly. "We've been trying to figure that out for two days. Maybe go back to the house and try to clean something. All our vehicles are under water. We don't have no gas, no oil to change them out and get them going again. That's all we got, our boats, and they're high and dry."
"There ain't a house left from the railroad tracks down to the beach [about a third of a mile]," Dan said. "Nothing left down there. I mean nuthin'."
But the O'Gwins ain't leaving. "This is our home. We're going to stay here as long as we can stay here."
"I just want to rebuild," Howard, Jr. says. "All our jobs got wiped out, Howard Jr. says. "We got knocked strictly off the ladder." But in the short term, their kindness is paying off. "They gave us a hotel room for saving all the people."
Long term, the O'Gwin's will likely stick it out. "This is some of the best fishing here in the whole world--speckled trout, reds, flounder," Dan O'Gwin says. "I like to fish," Howard, Jr. agreed. "I'm 17 and I bought that boat. I saved a lot. It's the best investment I ever made."
But if another hurricane is headed this way again? Dan O'Gwinn, he didn't hesitate. "I'm going to the Canadian border. It done made a believer out of us." [Big Howard is 50, his brother Dan (the fat guy) is 54. Son Howard Jr. is 17. Howard Sr. wife Cathy is 44, Son Ben is 15.]
On Roberts Street, a one-lane paved alley off Sears Street in Waveland less than a mile from the beach, bulldozers diligently pushed away debris to clear a narrow path on the pavement among a tangle of wires, metal and wood to accommodate residents trying to find belongings and others looking for family members still missing. The smell of death was palpable. One solider in full military gear, Specialist Fourth Class Tim Brewer, a US Army Specialist E-4 from L Company of the 223d Engineers from Charleston, MS scanned the landscape and shook his head. He'd never seen anything like this.
"Not really. We did a year in Iraq and I don't think Iraq was this bad. We was all over Iraq. Our main body was in Tikrit."
This was worse than Tikrit?
"I would say so. War is different. They didn't go in there and bomb everything. They had targets. With a hurricane, it don't have any targets. It just picks up everything."
At the Log Cabin, a combination bar/liquor store/ and laundry on the south side of US Highway 90 at the corner of Little Bay Road in Waveland, just east of Lake Shore, seven men and two women loiter on the elevated front porch of roadhouse with the rustic log exterior. Inside, there's what remains of a short, four stool bar, a mud-encrusted pool table and a video dart game flat on the floor next to a wire cage containing six yapping Chihuahua pups. Around the side are what remains of a laundrymat and a liquor store. There's a half empty quart of tequila under one bench and beer bottles scattered around the porch and in the muddy lot in front. A few of the blue-collar crowd appear to have been drinking in the early afternoon, regardless, or perhaps because of the ruin surrounding them.
"That's my Lincoln right there," says Micheal Claudel, standing in the lot in front of the porch pointing to the west boundary of the lot. "It was parked over here," he says, pointing fifty feet to the east. Claudel, is none too pleased that his 1992 model Continental was flooded out and no longer runs. He's not real happy he has no home either. "My house is totally underwater, it's sideways in the weeds," he says matter-of-factly.
Claudel, a boyish looking blonde haired man who is 40, who speaks with a thick Yat [ie. New Orleanian] accent, knows he should have known better. A native of Tarrytown on the West Bank of the Mississippi River across from New Orleans, he's been through a few hurricanes. He moved to Shoreline Park near Bay St. Louis six years ago when he gained custody of his son. He tried to ride out the storm with friends including Micheal Cuevas, the owner of the Log Cabin.
"A friend of mine, Micheal Cuevas, owns a bunch of property on this corner," Claudell explained. "We stayed next door in his laundrymat. He stayed in the liquor store with 11 people. Three of us stayed in the laundrymat. I had a place to go but something told me just to stay here. I had a place to go on the other side of I-10, my sister's house in Pass Christian about 20 minutes from here. I wouldn't have lost that [his car]. But these are my friends and when I seen themÉ.and it got kinda late, about 9 or 10 [Sunday night] and the storm started up so I stayed here."
That decision cost him his car, but saved a few lives in the process including that of a legally blind man and a pregnant woman past her due date.
"About 7:30 Monday morning, we got two inches of water. Half hour later, we're standing in three foot of water. It's coming up pretty damn fast. Real fast. We're looking at each other, wondering what in the world we're gonna do? We got on top of the dryers. We saw everybody going out of the liquor store. They had a convoy going out of the liquor store because the water was so high, they couldn't stay in there no more. So we followed right behind them. When we got right here [at the corner of the elevated porch of the Log Cabin], Gail reached over to the handrail and missed it, and her husband, D.H. grabbed her. It [the water] was rushing like the Colorado raids. The current was unbelievable. I stood right here [on the steps] and swung these boots that were tied around my neck and Gail and D.H. grabbed my boots, friend of mine grabbed my leg, water was all around us, and pulled us all up there. She couldn't even stand up. He [D.H.] was holding her from there to here, she's a little short girl, five foot or something, four foot, whatever.
"We all get into the Log Cabin. Water's still comin' up. Hour later, it's higher, so we get on the pool table." Claudell and his friend Bobby McAlister pushed the pool table beneath the attic entryway. "We open up the attic, start putting everybody in the attic [the entrance is directly above the pool table]. We get up in the attic. It's coming up, coming up, coming up. It took an hour before it rose into the attic. There's about an inch in the attic. So we didn't waste no time.
Together with Bobby McAlister, 44, and his brother David Smith, 38, Claudel broke a hole in the attic ceiling. "We said, 'Now, we gotta break loose,' Claudel says. "So we busted it loose. I took this right here," he says, holding a table leg, "I took it up in the attic with me. And after we got the vent off we started beating and prying, we got enough room so I could squeeze myself out, then we broke it loose and started transporting the people. Me and Bobby McAlister made a bridge. There was a hole in the roof so we took some boards, one by eight and one by six planks, put two of them together, crossed over the gable of the roof, walked a good 40 feet along the back of the roof [which had blown apart]. We saw the trailer [Michael Cuevas camper adjacent to the Log Cabin] was just getting water on it, so we grabbed two 6x12s and laid them across. The last bridge we made went into the bathroom window on the second floor of another building behind the cabin] Bobby McAlister would take them over the peak and bring them to me. I'd meet them at the bridge and we walked across the bridge, across his camper and across the other bridge and put them in a little bathroom window [on the second floor] the smallest window in that building. [about 24 inches wide]. We got about a foot of water, but we were safe."
Or maybe not so safe. "That was our safety zone, but the building over there was shaking so bad," Bobby McAlister says. "We were just all standing there, waiting for whatever was gonna happen."
"We just tried to stay calm because I knew a bunch of us couldn't swim," McAlister recalls. "There were dogs. Her dad is blind. She was pregnant full-term. Only thing I can do is try to keep a level head, try to get everybody to safe harbor. It was definitely an experience. That wind sound it was making. Somewhere between supersonic and an almost scary sound, it was constant."
"Now Micheal Cuevas, the owner, is legally blind," Claudel explains. "I'm going over the roof with him" holding and guiding him on the boards. "The wind's blowin' a hundred, a hundred twenty five miles an hour, easy."
"We stuck together, me and him," Claudel says of the elderly Cuevas, a short, white haired gentleman. "He listened to every word I said. Got him in the window and everybody was safe."
"We got everybody over there", across the mobile home to the second floor of a back building, "all the pets, how many pets ya'll got? Six? Six dogs. Two or three birds."
Cuevas, 66, who was raised "in the Kiln" as he calls it, six miles to the north and has lived at the Log Cabin for six years, joins the retelling. Cuevas was in the back room laying down, when his daughter came in and said, 'Daddy, you got to get up. There's six inches in here. We got up and come in the liquor store. We stayed a little bit and the water got that deep [belly high]. We all got out of there, got our six Chihuahuas and two birds. We put them in an ice chest and drug them with us to the porch. We stepped into the Log Cabin. When it [the water] come up to the bar, well, then we said we had to get in the attic. Then we put the birds and dogs in the attic and this man Mike and Bobby McAlister and Bobby McAlister's brothers, knocked that hole in the roof, put these two boards from this building to the trailer, and put two other boards from the house trailer to the two story building and took us one at a time. That man there [Claudel] took me across the bridge that's about eight inches wide.
"The wind was goin' 125, 150 miles an hour," says Cuevas. "When you're going across the roof, you're like this [Cuevas wobbles like a drunk trying to walk the line.] You slide. It's a miracle that everybody's alive. It's a miracle. We saved six puppies and three birds, and one of the birds got out. We lost one bird. It's unbelieveable. See all these cars here? There was about six foot of water over these cars. See that two story house over there?" he says, pointing to the group's final stopping place. "Water got two feet deep up there. Yes, sir, we was gittin' scared. Lemme tell you another thing, we had a lady who was in a travel trailer over there [in a mobile park behind the Log Cabin] and she tried to climb out of a hole. She couldn't go. And that woman's dead. We told the law about it that same day. They waited two days before they went over there." Her head stuck out of the trailer for two days.
"We could see her out this window," Michael Claudel says. "She had a one by one vent at the top of the trailer that she broke out. She stuck her head through it but couldn't get the rest of her body [out]. So when the water come up, it must have come up over her head. What a horrible death."
"That man [Claudel] and Bobby McAlister saved my life," Cuevas says.
Another man out in front of the Log Cabin calmly mentions he still couldn't find his 20 year old daughter. He hadn't lost hope. He was still looking. But he knew the prognosis wasn't good. As for Claudel, he's staying in the room where he and Bobby McAlister led the others to safety during the flood. "I lost my car, my home is totaled, it's just a big mess. But we're alive, thank God, thank God."
A few miles farther west on Highway 90m west of Bay St. Louis and Waveland and a few miles from the Louisiana line, fifteen full-grown country boys and several dogs mill around a parking lot cluttered with cars, trucks, an RV, portable generators, a tractor, chainsaws, and tools. Two men lean over a generator that's been flooded out, yanking on the power cord to get it to start. Two others, Todd Shiyou, 35, and his brother, Steve Shiyou, 39, conspicuously wear shoulder holsters with nine millimeter pistols, just in case looters show up. They're all part of Reggie Barrios' buddies who saved lives during the hurricane and have been functioning as a freelance emergency management agency ever since. Barrios, 39, owns 15 acres including the lot, the house behind it and the artesian well in back of the house, from which he's provided cold running water, a precious commodity on the western Mississippi coast since Katrina hit, to one and all.
"This is my home," Barrios said by way of introduction, "and we've made it a community camp. Every decision made we discuss and agree on. The current process now is, 'Stop us now if you've got a better idea.'"
A burly gentleman with a tattoo of a cross and Jesus and the phrase "Only He Can Judge" on his right bicep and a tattoo reading "The Renegade" on his left bicep, Barrios rode out the storm because his sister, who lives next door, wouldn't leave. Instead, she took in about 12 people in her house before Katrina blew in. Reggie had 15 people in his house. "This is high ground most of the time," he said. This is 18 feet above sea level. People come here to run from storms."
If someone had to ride it out with her, it was her brother. Barrios, a mechanical contractor for Southernaire Inc., is a take-charge leader by nature and in this instance, a paragon of Can Do, self-sufficiency, as he explains in his rapid fire, plain-speaking earthy way.
"Late Sunday night it started getting real bad. By Monday morning, we was in the most intense part of the storm. We was watching the trees in the yard. The ground was getting so soaked and loose it [the wind] was blowing them over without breaking 'em. We made it through the brunt of the winds and we got into the eye wall, then the swell came, the storm surge. It come across from these woods [northeast], I watched it come into my house, coming in out of bay. That storm turned counter clockwise and pushed water into the bay and swelled out the bay. Bayou Phillips is right there. It come right over through these woods, which naturally drains in the other direction. It was a reverse pattern. In 15 minutes, the water was deep in my house. Fifteen minutes later, I was out of my house. [about 10 am]
"We was trying to board the building up. We was putting up six inch fence boards. We had a chop saw, a generator, and a nail gun. The water was rising faster than we could board the front door and the side door. When I saw how high, how fast it was coming, I said, 'Listen, let's open the doors, cause it's gonna get blowed out, let the water through and get out. So we got out. We got that Freightliner [truck] running, it [the water] was just about up to the bed. That was the highest thing. It was a diesel. We drove it backwards down the road, and got out of the flood [driving in reverse west]. The water was starting to consume the road at a rate of about 100 yards every ten minutes. So he's staying ahead of it and we're all caught up to it, and I knew my sister was in there so we gotta get 'em out."
"We went up to the junkyard [about 100 yards west of his house], there was a boat sitting there. We got it on the trailer, but it wouldn't start. Got another battery, still couldn't get it to start. We're sitting there, before the third battery was in, we got swept off the trailer, so we had to get out of the junkyard. By that time it was rushing across the ditch. We looked back, we saw--I believe it's the Thomas family, I think it was their son--he had managed to get a boat, wedged the boat ahead of the surge on the road. We got everybody in my house down the road to the Welcome Center [the Mississippi Welcome Center by the state line, in the truck]. The first time we went there, they didn't want to let us in. The officers that was working said they would lose their jobs. Hello? We're out here, we made it here. You're inside. So Red told them, 'I'll drive the truck through the door if you don't.' They accommodated us with a bathroom corridor, which we were happy to have. [Mark Necaise, 38, one of Barrios' crew, said, "The security guards said their boss told them to run out the 30-40 people who were already in the Welcome Center"]
"Turned around with the big truck, we come back. We were going to get my family out.
"By the time we got back, I said, 'Is this your boat?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'Thank you.' I got in. He said, 'It's stuck.' I said, 'It won't be for long.' We started pushing it. The water's coming. It's got a big motor. We got it free. Drove it down the highway. Drove down the driveway, over the roofs of the cars, over to my sister's house. We got on the roof and started stomping on it. We knew, if they weren't there, they were gone.
"My nephews had popped up. I said, 'Get em out now.' Got everybody out, put 'em in the boat, drove back down ahead of the storm surge, wedged it up on the side of the road. Got into the truck and left it [the boat].
"Mark [Necaise, 38, one of the Barrios crew] come back and got a man who was drowning in the ditch out. I don't know who he was. By the time he was through making the third trip, we're running out of eye wall. He brought boat back. We left. We got a total of thirty people out of two houses and the ditches."
"We tried to get into Lake Shore to get more people out but there was so many trees down at that water level, it was impassable. You gotta understand, an eyewall is so large, and no more. You got so much time. We'd been watching it on television until around 4 in the morning, my antenna had totally disintegrated before we lost power. 4 we lost information, 4:30 we lost electricity.
"We stood out the blow. That was the thing I was grateful to see, when daylight come, so I could make assessments, see what's going on outside. We were fortunate trees [pines, some 60 ft high] were blowing away. I was praying, 'Please go away. Blow the other way.' Fortunately they did. They [trees] didn't land on the house. We were beneficial this building is solid block [cinder block] and survived Camille. It's got two roofs on it, so we knew it had a better chance than any other structure did. But this wasn't the hurricane to be here in.
"I told my sister at nine o'clock the night before, go to NASA [the Stennis Space Center nearby]. They'll let you in. She didn't do it."
But the Barrios crew didn't stop there. After the storm, Reggie Barrios managed to get ahold of Hancock Bank in Denham Springs and have $1,000 fronted to him on his signature. The crew went to Wal-Mart, spent $600 on shoes, socks, underwear, footpowder, towels, shirts, the basic necessities, and a new well pump. "We didn't have time to wash. We were still standing in mud," Barrios said. "We brought it back, hooked up it, God willing, it worked."
"I got running water right now." [at a time when ice and bottled water were just beginning to be brought into the county by relief workers].
"I got four of 'em [wells] on my property, one of 'em free flowing if you want to catch water."
Barrios says his motivation to keep helping after the storm passed was simple. "Because they got nowhere to go. And if they stay here without water and sanitation, you're gonna die," he said bluntly.
"We trying to move our trash away from us. We've got water. We have systems in here that don't require city power--they're gravity feed septic systems from the old days. They work. They're getting the water out. We can use the toilet, we can wash our hands."
He escorted a visitor into the front room, whose floor is clean and smells of bleach. "See, this room we took back today. But look at the rest of it," he said, walking into a dark hall way, thick with mud. The rooms on each side are a mangled clutter of furniture, fixtures, wires, metal, and music equipment including drums, speakers, and the Fender jazz bass he'd bought a couple days before Katrina. "I never got to play it," Barrios shrugged. The flood water had risen to the ceiling ("I've got standard eight foot ceilings and you see them blowed out. I haven't found the water line yet."). The damage was complete.
"This is my home. Set aside the monetary damage. Imagine the turmoil if we wouldn't stayed in it. I found pieces of my sister's furniture in my house. One of the table chairs from her house was in this hall. It was a very strong version of that tsunami." The comparison was apt and accurate.
"Gangrene, tetanus is our number one jeopardy," he said, walking on board into the backyard toward a pipe spewing clean water. "We've got one shower in a camper we've been using. We're going to clean up one of these bathrooms next. I make everybody spray bleach water on the floor before they get in, making them keep their feet dry, put powder on 'em. The last two days we've been blessed not to have rain. We've put walkways everywhere. The number one most important thing I tell 'em is Keep your feet dry 'cause that's what'll put you down."
"It's a standing order, Anybody wants free-flowing water, can have it," he said while rinsing his hands in the water trickling out the pipe. "We've got a washing machine on the way because we have infants, we have mothers who are dependent because they have to maintain these infants.
"Again, what's gonna happen here is long term issues. We cain't let children get sick. We don't have a hospital. They have a piece of a hospital left. I stuck a nail in my foot the day of the storm when I got blowed out in the surge and two days later I had to lance it with a steak knife, get the infection out of it, and pack salve in it until I can get somewhere and get something and keep from ruining my feet 'cause I know what I gotta do to keep them."
"It was a bad situation, but it'll get worse. People thinks the worst is over but for the ones living here now, it's just begun. The shock is all that's over. The reality is here to stay. I've been here since Camille. I know what Camille did to this place. I was standing a hundred yards from here. I was less than four years old and I can tell you, it made an impression on me, but it cain't scratch this."
"Nonetheless, like I said, this is a blessing from God to have this," he said, glancing at the well water flowing out gently. "Clean, 800 foot deep water. It is potable. They have recommended that we don't drink it. And that's because they say of the possibility of bacteria as a precaution because we have enough bottled water to carry us through. But we would if we have no choice, and I would consider it the safest source, save set aside the bottled water. I have been drinking it. I stopped when they told us to, but I will drink it again if we run out [of bottled water]. I pray we don't."
He's not stopping here.
"My next concern is we get more tractors mobilized. I got my tractor up as soon as the water receded, my generator obviously, a few electrical tools, salvaged all the hand tools, I got my old winch-driven truck running, which is a '78. All of the modern vehicles you can forget it. The computers are gone. But the antique stuff, we got it running. The next concern is fuel. If fuel runs out, we're down to washing and drinking from this well outside. If we can get more generators and more fuel, we can achieve more sanitary levels and more solitude, I believe."
Barrios was beginning to sound like the ideal that FEMA is supposed to be.
"Last year, I shut my business down and went to Florida when Ivan came through and Frances and Jeanie. We stopped in Pensacola where Ivan was. For whatever reason, we would up going to Vero Beach. Having survived several hurricanes, I've worked disaster relief, I've worked ice storm '94 in the Delta.
"I do know if you don't lose heart, you can bust through to the other side.
"I've been back to those places a year after it happened and I see, yeah, I can tolerate this. This is family property four generations. I kept it manicured like a park. In fact I was going to make an RV park. We were in the process of making a store out of this," he said, referring to the house "and a park out of that," nodding towards the spacious back yard.
"I'm going to immediately make a store now. People need commerce here. I have money in my pocket, nowhere to spend it, nothing to buy. If there was a store here, anywhere local, we could buy things we need. We need stores now."
"Fuel is our most pressing demand. We have probably 50 gallons of fuel in reserve in that we have several vehicles including my truck which is carrying 30 gallons and other ones we haven't drawn it out of yet. I've drawn money out and we've got people going in different directions to get fuel. We've sent them north. We've sent them to Pascagoula, to Louisiana. Get it now. Money is not our problem. Commerce is."
He peeled off $100 in twenties and gave them to one of his buds, who says he heard the BP in Diamondhead had opened, although it turned out to be nothing but a rumor.
So what can people do?
"Number one, pray. The second thing is, if you think you have anything that can be usable in this situation--generators, fuel, money is a tool, it's an asset--anything you're willing to give, get ahold of somebody, get it to them. The government moves a large quantity of stuff at a slower pace. The fast moving organizations are the churches and the individuals and charities that are private. They don't have bureaucracies to go through. They can pack the car and leave tonight. They don't have to wait on a signature. And we need them here. Bad."
"Lemme tell you something, south of St. John's Church, is there no building standing period. Not one. There's a half ice house and a water tower at the bayou [Bayou Phillip] Where they were building a casino, you can forget seeing that in the next three or four years. It's gone.
"This is Lake Shore [where Reggie is] We come under a Bay St. Louis mailing address. If you wrote me a letter, you would address it to Bay St. Louis.
My address is 7431 Highway 90, Bay St. Louis. That's the mailbox out there with the prop marks on it. Mark ran over it with a boat, pulling a man out of the ditch."
"I've survived on this hill [18 feet?] two Category Fives. Will I be here for another one? No. You can believe one thing, when it comes to the point I have to make the decision to leave, if my gut and my head, if just one of them says go, I'm gonna take their word."
"I can choose to leave any day," Reggie Barrios said with steely resolve. "But once I'm gone I can't come back to help them." It's pretty clear the thought never entered his mind.
Reggie plays many musical instruments and often has jam sessions at his place. He likes "blues, ZZ Top (in that order), all kinds of music, except hip hop" although he allows Christian hip hop is OK.
Captain John Rigolo, leader of eighty troops from Virginia Task Force Two from the Virginia Beach, VA, pauses while his troops rested under the twisted awning of what once was a gas station in Waveland.
"We're part of the national Urban Search and Rescue teams." He turns to his troops. "Hey, fellas, mill about smartly, they're going to take some pictures. OK? We got down here Tuesday morning. We came here to do search and rescue, to find live victims, patients if you will, and fatalities. We're marking fatalities for the teams coming behind us.
"This is a tough one. Our team operated at the Pentagon in the aftermath of 9/11. A number of our guys operated at the World Trade Center. We saw a lot of destruction at both of those, but here the destruction is widespread.
"People who may not have had a lot to start with have even less now. It's tough."
His team had yet to do a rescue, Rigolo said. "Unfortunately, all we've had so far is fatalities. We have done some animal rescues the last couple of days. Most of it has been recovery. A decent amount, yes sir.
"It's tough. You see a lot of destruction, a lot of widespread loss. People have lost everything The stories we're hearing about people who've ridden out the storm, living in their attics, one guy jumped on a boat, tied a sailboat to a tree, another lady who pushed her children up into it. She hung on to the bottom of a tree when the storm surge came through. Incredible stories of survival.
"We're just about done with our search of this operation. What we're doing, we're hitting every street, every house, every structure. Going through the debris fields looking for any possibility of survivors, fatalities as well, identifying those for closure on that."
"We're about to move our operation here to another location."
"Our group has a lot of experience. We have deployed a number of times during the last year for hurricanes. We were down in the panhandle of Florida, searching structures there. We're well trained for this one, unfortunately." Katrina, Rigolo said, is "the worst I've ever seen."
Rigolo recalled one particular incident. "A woman found us and asked us to go to her mother's house. We went by her house and we would see it was damaged very severely, and her mom's car is visible in the garage, but she [the daughter] couldn't get into the house because of the debris field. Her mom's in there and I hope she's alive. So we're going to go in and look for her. That wasn't even in our area. Our area was a couple blocks away. We go in there and start working away and a dog starts barking. The lady said, 'Oh, that's Buddy. That's her dog.' You can hear Buddy yapping in the background, it was a small Shitzu [SP?] The lady cried a heartfelt, 'Mom, mom! Buddy, Buddy!' started yelling out. I'm thinking, 'Oh my God'. All of sudden, in the house, we found her mom. Obviously, the turnout wasn't good, but the positive side of it was, that we got Buddy. Buddy was actually entrapped in some debris and trees, we extracted him, turned him over to the daughter. She was very teared up. A very sad moment was a very good moment. The dog survived--she got at least a piece of her mom, something very important to her survived the storm. Turn that off now," Rigolo instructed.
He then related how his troops, a very tough bunch, were emotionally moved by the moment.
"Camille was a lady. Katrina is a bitch."
"We'd never thought something like that would happen. This is worse than Camille." Brian 'Hootie' Adam, director, Hancock County EMA. "Hancock County was in the bulls-eye."
"This is the price you pay to live in Paradise." Timothy Shiyou, 37, Lake Shore. His two cousins flanking him said Tim was still in a state of shock.
"FEMA didn't even have Pearlington on its map." Resident of Pearlington checking into a motel in Canton, MS on Saturday night.
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