O'Gwin Brothers Boat Heroes

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 it….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’GwinnHe 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 is 54. Son Howard Jr. is 17. Howard Sr. wife Cathy is 44, Son Ben is 15.

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