Reggie Barrios, Hwy 90 Hero

Reggie Barrios and his crew didn't wait for help to arrive from the outside.
He led the rescue of 30 people along Hwy 90 near the Louisiana line from the storm surge that followed Katrina's arrival, then got busy bringing the area back to life, tapping artesian wells on his property to provide the only clean running water for miles around. On Highway 90, 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.” The way he said makes it pretty clear the thought never entered his mind.

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