Biloxi kids take charge

A week ago, the hallways of Mary L Michel Seventh Grade School bustled with hundreds of young students from Biloxi beginning the new school year. Today, those same hallways in the two-story, red-brick school are filled with African-American, Vietnamese-American, and Anglo-American families from Biloxi who no longer have homes.

Giant fans positioned at the end of each darkened hallway provide minimal relief from the damp heat. Children’s artwork decorates the wall including one poster with sparkles that reads Michel 7th Grade New Tradition Begins. Outside, drying clothes hang from fences surrounding the tennis courts and walkway railings while people wander around aimlessly among the piles of leaves, paper, twisted corrugated tin, plastic cups and a tattered copy of a language textbook with dazed looks on their faces as they wait without knowing exactly what they’re waiting for while one older Vietnamese gentleman patiently cooks sausages on a hibachi grill outdoors. Inside, the restrooms reek of excrement. Thursday night, shortly after the portable generators were shut down, some of the new residents sleeping on the floor had to be evacuated upstairs when one hallway became flooded with backed up sewage.

At the end of one hallway, next to the nurse’s office, beneath a paper mache poster festooned with cut outs of a treasure chest filled with doubloons surrounded by glittering fish that read Treasures from the Deep, a hero is curled up in a beige blanket in the hallway, sleeping soundly, oblivious to the racket in the hall and the significance of what he has done. Katrina posed no big threat to the Posey/Bullard family of Biloxi, Mississippi. It was almost nine on Sunday night when Joseph Posey, 23, the oldest of his brothers and sisters got a call from his girl friend. She was in a church shelter and wanted Joseph to join her. Joseph suggested the rest of his family join them there to ride out the hurricane headed their way.

They shrugged him off. So Joseph dropped off his little brother, Phillip Bullard, 13, at the home of their grandmother, Lena Mae Posey Stanton, at 250 Magnolia St. where the rest of the family and four friends of the family were spending the night. Lena Mae’s wooden A frame was elevated on blocks, high enough to avoid high water if a storm surge came with the hurricane. “We didn’t think the water would come in the house,” said Theresa Posey, 16. After watching the evening news, the family turned in for the night. They’d ridden out Ivan the previous year with no significant damage. Why would this be any different?

“Ivan wasn’t that bad,” Phillip Bullard recalled. “When I heard about it [Katrina] on the news [on Sunday night], I didn’t know it was going to be a big hurricane. I didn’t think the water would come up high. My mamma wanted to leave and go to the country, but I didn’t want to leave,” Phillip said. “Next thing I knew, I was asleep.”

Older brother Joseph joined his girlfriend at the church shelter. “I told them to come to the church,” Joseph Posey said. “They thought it was going to be like the last time, like the other hurricane,” Joseph Posey said. “It was a rude awakening.”

Phillip Bullard, or Peanut, as the rest of the family calls him (he weighed 4.7 pounds at birth) attended classes at the junior high just across the walkway from where he sleeps, along with his twin sister Phyllis, and their older sister Theresa Posey, 16.

On Monday morning, Phillip was sleeping just as soundly at the foot of the bed in his grandmother’s house when his mother woke him up. Water was covering Joseph’s car parked outside and beginning to come inside. “She thought I was going to drown,” Phillip said. “I’m a deep sleeper.” In the chaotic hours that followed, Phillip (Peanut) Bullard led the rescue of nine children (including himself) and four adults in the house.

“I woke up about 4, maybe 5,” Phillip’s mother, Vanessa Posey, said. “I could hear the wind pulling up the tin from the roof. I woke up my mother and said, ‘Momma, the shingles are coming off the house.’ She said, ‘Oh girl, lay down and go to sleep.’ I lay down, kinda closed my eyes and said, ‘Mama, the shingles are coming off the house. We got to get out of here.’ She said OK and we both fell back to sleep. Then my daughter’s friend said to Theresa said, ‘I can’t see your brother’s car. It’s water! It’s water!’

More Vanessa: “Phillip was laying on the floor down by the bed where my mamma and I were. I seen the water rushing through the bathroom, coming through the floor. I said, ‘Philip, Phillip! Get up, baby! It’s water!’”

At the church shelter, Joseph Posey was becoming hysterical. He tried to climb out a window into the rising water before friends pulled him back. “There’s no man in the house!” he told others in the church shelter.

Joseph was wrong. His 13 year old brother, along with his 16 year old sister were taking charge.

Phillip, a tall, lanky polite young man with brown eyes who punctuates his comments with “Yes, Sir”s and “No, Sirs”, knew how to swim. So did Theresa Posey, his sister. No one else knew how to swim. Together, they took action and saved their family’s lives.

“It [the water] was coming up so fast, there wasn’t anything we could do, except stay in the house.” Theresa Posey said. “I had called the police and they said there wasn’t anyone who could come and help us.”
“I was thinking I needed to get everybody out,” Phillip said. “Mama said to bust open the window, the water was coming up to the house too fast.”

Vanessa: “I panicked because water started coming fast. I was standing in my mamma’s kitchen, looking out the window, and the water kept coming in. I panicked because I got a partially blind baby [James, age 5]. ‘Somebody get my baby, somebody get my baby!’”
The first priority was to get the younger children to safety. “We had tried to tie sheets together to make a line so we could all walk out, but that didn’t help because the current was too strong,” Phillip said. With his older sister Yoshico directing, Phillip cradled the youngest children in one arm and swam with the other arm to the house next door, where the kids found safety in the attic. The swim wasn’t that hard, he said, because “I’ve been picking up weights.”
“Phillip, he just oooo he just amazed me,” Vanessa said. “He was just about there swimming and pulling. He was carrying the kids across. But when it came to me and mamma, we just couldn’t do it. He pushed a 200 pound woman through the water on a big ol’ door and he just swam with her across to the other house, got her to safety. When he got ready to come back to get his twin sister, that’s when he got caught on a limb. She started screaming, ‘Oh God, my brother, my brother, he;s gone under the water.’ I couldn’t see him, I kept looking and didn’t see him, and after awhile he come up fighting. He said, ‘I’m gonna come get you, I’m gonna come get you.’
And he did.
He had to forcibly peel his twin Phyllis from the window sill she was holding on to while she screamed. “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die!” Phyllis almost pulled Theresa and Phillip down as the two siblings swam her out to safety in the house next door. Phillip said he could feel glass, trees, and other objects under the water and sustained a cut on a foot with a sharp object.
Theresa retreated to the house to tend to her mother and grandmother.
“Theresa, [the oldest sister] Yoshico [who directed her younger siblings] and Phillip, they had the best heads,” Vanessa Posey said. “My baby [Theresa] was just holding my hand, saying ‘Mama, you’re gonna be all right. I’m not going to leave you.’ I grabbed hold of my mamma and we went and stood in the corner. I looked at her and she said, ‘I guess this is the way we’re gonna die, Vanessa.’” [Vanessa cries as she tells the story.]

Vanessa: “I said, ‘Mamma, I know we can’t die like this.’ Oh, Jesus. I saw my children to get each other out. My mamma and I, we just stood in the corner. I said, ‘Mamma, we got to get on something high. Don’t give up. Stay with me.’ We had to climb on something high.”
Theresa tried to coax her mother and grandmother out of the house and onto the roof of Joseph’s car next to the house. “I was helping my mamma and my grandmamma because she was going to give up,” Theresa Posey said. “I stood there with my mamma. She had panicked and seen that the water had got real bad. She wouldn’t go outside. I talked with my mamma. I told her, ‘Don’t give up, everything’s going to be all right.’ I helped her out the window to stay on top of my brother’s car and I helped my grandmamma get out and stay up on top of my brother’s car. So both of them were standing on top of the car.”

“I got out the window, holding on to the window sill for life,” Vanessa Posey said. “We got out and stood on top of the car, holding on to a little bitty pole, in the weather. The water kept hitting us, the wind kept pushing us, but I was holding on to my mamma.”

“I said, ‘Theresa, I can’t do it, I can’t.’ So I climbed back into the window into the house. My mamma’s still sitting there. I said, ‘Mamma, we can’t die like this. We have to do something.”
Once the younger children were safe next door, Phillip swam from the house down to the street to find a boat. He found one and paddled [with broomstick, according to the Miami News account]to seek help on Division Street without success. So he returned to the house in the boat to shuttle his siblings and friends and finally, his mother and grandmother to an abandoned upstairs apartment three doors down that was even safer.
When Theresa saw Phillip standing up in the water, “That’s when I knew everything was OK, when I seen him walking. The water had been over his head.” Now it was receding.
The worst was over.

By Friday, what had happened was beginning to sink in. Vanessa Posey broke down and cried while trying to describe the panic she felt inside the house, worrying about her mother. “I live at a totally different address from my mom. I was going to go back to my home, but The Lord didn’t fix it for me to go back, because the water in my house came up to my ceiling. It had covered my whole house. That would have been it.

“My kids are my heroes. I love them to death anyway, but they’re special.”

Teresa wants to be a nurse and admits to being something of a clothes horse. “I love to dress up, I love new clothes, new shoes, I like to look nice.” Peanut wants to be a policeman or a doctor and says he loves to read, especially comic books with “all kind of heroes—Superman, Spiderman, Batman.” He innocently asks if he was going to get an award for what he did. Just in case, at the urging of his friends in the shelter, began jotting down a wish list of video games, a battery TV with the color things where you can plug them into video games, and an Xbox 360. ”Just get me a Playstation 2 and an Xbox.”

[Peanut’s list: Bad Boys, Madden NFL 2006, NBA Live 2005, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, GTA III, GTA San Andreas, Mortal Kombat Deception, Spider Man 2, Def Jam: Fighting for New York, Enter the Matrix, Gundown Wing, PS2, TV with batteries and hookups for Playstation]

“I told my mamma we can move to Atlanta Georgia and I can go see my favorite football player, Michael Vick.” And if the family stays? “Next time a hurricane comes,” Phillip said. “I’m gonna go to the country.”

As rough as it was living in the Mary Michel School, the Poseys and Bullards could've taken refuge in a shelter before the storm, like the homeless mission on Howard Avenue by the VFW, two blocks from the beach, where the roof collapsed and up to 30 people drowned.

“It’s bare ground,” said Ben Reddix, 53, 629 Elmery Street, who rode out the storm on the top of his sister, Sharon’s, roof at 377 Fayanne when 30 feet of water rushed in.

"Help Us Now", The Mississippi Coast Sun Herald headline on Thurs, Sept 1.
Subhed “Frustration sets in, aid slow to come.”

The Copa gambling barge crossed US 90. The guitar sign of Hard Rock Hotel was the only piece intact of the $110 m hotel which was going to employ 1500 when it opened.

Historic antebellum homes west of the gambling casinos and hotels were trashed.
Only the pilings were left of the Ocean City-Biloxi bridge.

Gloria Smith, 44, 1164 Irish Hills Dr. “I will never, ever ride out a storm again. I knew I could swim, but with her [sister] not being able to, we both would’ve drowned. I have never been so scared. If they say tornado even, I’m seeking shelter. We said our prayers, told each other we loved each other. The attic was rocking like we were in a boat.” Ankle was twisted climbing attic steps. “As many people as I knew who died. It could’ve been us. My niece’s husband—his grandfather and uncle died.”

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