On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Most think of Florida and Louisiana when you think of Hurricane Katrina, especially New Orleans. The unfortunate truth is that Mississippi, also known as the “Landmass” between Alabama and Louisiana, took a direct hit of the eye in the city of Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi. Yet here we are more than fifteen years later, and Katrina’s memories and the narrative shaped around New Orleans, and Louisiana with Mississippi conveniently left out of the headlines.
At the time, I lived ten miles inland from the coast and two miles north of the Back Bay. We were safe from the storm surge, but not the effects. The night before landfall, I was fishing on the pier with a good friend. We had all decided not to run because a previous threat, Hurricane Ivan did not strike the Gulf Coast as predicted. So, we were fishing; storms always bring in the fish. Around 1:00 am, I started getting calls from my mother-in-law and parents urging us to leave. I relented and went home to load up my wife and three children for the trip. I would not be accompanying them. I had volunteered for a disaster recovery team (DRT) since we were initially not leaving. My friend had an apartment on the coast, so I offered him and his visiting father to stay with me. I am glad they did. The first floor of his apartment complex washed away.
At first, we watched TV, but the power was gone in a few short hours. We had a portable radio and turned it on. We started hearing about flooding in New Orleans on the national news. While the devastation happening at home, where casino barges left their moorings and flattened entire neighborhoods, was only heard on local news reports. In Mississippi, Hwy 49 is a direct artery to the Gulf Coast from Jackson. I lived just off the highway north of Interstate Ten, which allowed me to retain my Yankee heritage. The Seabee base was almost on the water just off Hwy 49. As the winds died down to tropical storm force, we headed in to check-in.
I felt like C3PO saying the damage doesn’t look that bad up here as we turned on Hwy 49. Those sights didn’t last that long as we crossed under Interstate Ten to see water everywhere and storefronts washed away. Then we saw looters and the country boot store. The further south we went, the more devastation. As we approached the turn for Construction Battalion Center (CBC) Gulfport just north of the tracks, we saw a Casino barge at the intersection of Hwy 49 and Hwy 90. It looked as if a bomb had gone off and leveled most of the area. As the sun rose, NMCB-One and the rest of the battalions were organizing DRTs to clear roads, “fix” washed out roads, help survivors, and assist in recovery efforts.
Houses along the coast were mainly slabs, sometimes with the toilet still standing and nothing else. In Long Beach, we came to the Walmart and a blazing apartment fire. A few of the guys were seeing their homes, or lack of, for the first time while out helping others. On another day, as we pushed into Pass Christian, we came upon a large three-story home where the first floor washed out, and one of the corners was in danger of collapse. From the third-floor attic window came a cry for help, and a group of guys was able to bring to safety an 80+-year-old woman and get her reunited with family.
A house ended up in the middle of the road blocking our path while searching the neighborhood; we had to demolish and clear it out of the way. That day I watched President Bush fly just feet off the water in Air Force One along the Gulf Coast. Later it was rumored that before the visit, one of the cleared schools had to be staged for a presidential visit because secret service had already approved the location. There was no power for miles, and the sky took on a color I still cannot adequately describe.
A few days later, going to a site, we saw a Blackhawk helicopter delivering water and food. What I saw has scared me to this day, imparting in me the knowledge that America, left unprotected, will devolve into a third world nation. Not even a week with no power, people swarmed the helicopter where the crew just released the netting and took off. People were shoving and fighting to get the supplies, and they ran off those trying to help them. In New Orleans, where the man-made flood walls failed to keep the water back, some people decided it was okay to take shots at Seabees sent to assist them.
In September, I was hired by a general contractor. The first floor was devastated, but on the stairwell was a cardboard sign reading, “Office this way.” Amazingly the second floor was relatively untouched. I was assigned to a team doing damage estimates for the city of Biloxi. I had unfettered access to the city of Biloxi as I did my assessments, passing through many checkpoints set up by the National Guard. Having left Iraq only a few months earlier, Biloxi and the Gulf Coast became quite similar, except for hearing small arms fire and the occasional explosion. Recovery progressed slowly until the state of Mississippi allowed casinos to build on land along the coast. Shore-based casinos were to prevent the devastation they assisted and to get the casinos back into generating revenue. After that, recovery started booming, yet many areas still have not recovered to this day and may never. Hurricane Katrina exposed me to America’s fragility.
Dependence upon the government and an inability to provide for one’s self for more than a few days in a disaster is that fragility. In the storm, I saw both the lowest and highest forms of humanity within America. Seeing American’s act like refugees from a third world country, reminds me we are always on the edge, even if the border remains hidden by false support.
The current environment in the world with the COVID-19 outbreak reminded me of the events witnessed during Hurricane Katrina. How soon till we devolve into a third world political regime or the sparks swirling around and ignite the powder keg that has been building.