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"Gone Cruising" with Bill & Shirley Martin, and their dog Saylor

The Sailing Blog of At Ease

Hurricane Katrina

Ocean Springs, MS -- Web Posted October 19th, 2005 

On August 27th, after watching Hurricane Katrina make that hooking approach from the Florida Keys, first targeting Louisiana but inexorably tracking more northerly, then northeasterly, we grew more and more anxious. There had been that heart stopping satellite photo of Karina absolutely filling to the contours, the entire Gulf of Mexico.  We didn’t need The Weather Channel to tell us this was unprecedented.  We didn’t need to hear about Category 5.  We were already struggling to breathe.  This was not only a historically strong storm, already Camille comparisons were common, but this was also a giant storm.  Not the more typical 45-60 miles of hurricane force winds from the eye, mostly in the northeast quadrant.  No, this monster was miles and miles beyond that… up to 120 miles out. New Orleans had every reason to run for cover. It looked like the sky was finally going to fall and right on top of them and we were the northeast quadrant.

On the 28th, we hurried our preparations. By noon, Ocean Spring’s harbor was officially closed and about seven of us began moving our boats out of slips and into the center of the harbor.  From there, we ran multiple lines to pilings on both sides, using loops of chain to hold the lines on the bottom, hence avoid simply pulling up the pilings once the water rose.  I ended up using just about every heavy line I had plus used all of a new spool (600’) of 5/8 three strand nylon.  I stripped off the foresails and ran a series of half hitches down the main boom to secure that sail. I took off the blades from my wind generator and headed ashore with the dinghy.  I took that up on a ridge (elevation about 15-20 feet) and secured it to a live oak with two loose hoops of line.  I took a final set of pictures.  I’d done all I could for AT EASE. 

Back home, with the help of Lanny Smith, a boating friend of ours who would stay with us during the storm, we had rigged his boat much like mine, we started hanging plywood over windows, finishing near dark, with brief and gusty flurries of light rain urging us on.  We brought in patio and yard “stuff”, finding room for it in a garage already crowded with one car, generator, gas cans, and water and then made a final run through grocery stores to stock up on food.  Kirk and Jennie Halstead, also friends, whose home was on East Beach, moved into the house with their luggage.  We turned on television and worried.  We ate dinner and worried.  I’m sure each of us went over and over lists in our minds.  What had we forgotten?  What more could we have done?

I alternated through the evening between the computer, checking on National Weather Service’s website, and the television, focusing more and more on the Biloxi local station (WLOX).  If anything, the storm track seemed to be moving a bit more to the east.  We are approximately 60 miles, line of sight, from New Orleans… something like 45 miles from the eastern edge of Lake Ponchatrain. It looked to come in just east of New Orleans and would arrive predawn there and just about dawn here. Finally, exhausted, we all fell into at least fretful sleep.

The winds began to blow in earnest about 0400.  We didn’t know then, but do now, that Katrina made another hop east before landfall and came ashore just about at Waveland, Mississippi, with 120-130 mph sustained winds, some reports up to 140 sustained, and for Biloxi and Ocean Springs a 30 foot storm surge.  She dropped to a Category 4 before coming in, but she still brought a Category 5 surge ashore. We lost power by  0500. By daylight, we clearly had hurricane force winds.  WLOX stayed on the air with much reduced, generator power.  Mostly they just stayed on the air… talking… sharing their own personal observations.  They didn’t have access to much more information than we did. Sometimes, they received phone calls from area residents reporting on conditions.  We heard very early that the water was already over the Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge.  We heard a family in Gulf Hills, further south in our neighborhood, report the water was already several feet above Camille.  By 1000, the air had become more opaque with water and shredded leaves were pasting themselves on all surfaces and piling on the ground.  A cell phone call (surprisingly they still worked then) from our friends David and Kathy Wilson, riding out the storm in their house a block or so from Front Beach, ominously informed us they had punched a hole in the ceiling and climbed into the attic.  He said he thought his truck was pounding into the side of the house.  It was really waves… waves clogged with rubble from other demolished houses… rhythmically pounding… beating his house apart as well.  These same waves, probably 10-15 feet when they came ashore, along with the 30 foot surge, had already demolished every other house between him and the beach.  He didn’t know if his house would hold together. All we could do was worry.

There was little information available over the radio.  The weather channels on our marine VHF were dead.  Nobody was talking on channel 16 or any other channel I scanned. Commercial stations seemed largely off the air or to have little to no information themselves. I tracked the progress of the storm by noting wind directions and plotting them along with time on a circle showing the counter rotation typical of a hurricane. The leading edge of the storm would be from the east. The direction  would then clock, east to southeast, then south and finally, the trailing edge would be more from the west. By noon, we were pass the peak and winds were clocking.  We were able to go out onto the back porch where we had some protection from direct wind and from there we could see at least portions of the neighborhood.  We knew the storm came in with winds sustained about 120-130 mph. Trees were swaying in gusts probably up to about 150 mph at its worse.  Some trees were already down, the tops of others out.  One tree in our yard was literally raising the ground up about 18” on the windward side each time a heavy gust struck.  I expected it to go any moment but it survived.  Around us, we watched as aluminum trim and roof shingles departed from neighbors’ homes. We saw no structural damage to the roofs; just bare paper or plywood, but did see insulation blowing in the wind.  Across the street, and out on Washington Avenue, we watched as various signs were destroyed and as the roof of a convenience store-gas station came apart, bit by bit.   

On several occasions, plywood on our windows would spring free or threaten to come free.  We were able to go out and replace plywood on more vulnerable windows downstairs, staying very close in to the side of the house to avoid the bulk of wind, but could do relatively little for upstairs windows. However, there was surprisingly little debris flying in the air and that which was seemed to be swirling in such a way that direct line velocity was relatively low. We were also struck with how relatively little rain was in the air.  At its worse, about 1000, the air did have more of an opaque appearance because of the rain but most of the day rain was relatively light.

By mid afternoon, now some 12 hours into the hurricane, the winds were moving to the southwest.  We ventured out.  Our house had most of its roof trim stripped off but the roof and all its shingles were intact. Houses around us had not faired as well but we saw no real structural damage.  Even our immediate neighbors to the southeast had escaped serious damage when two large pine trees had come down in their yard. 

We tried to get a vehicle out to check on the harbor and our boats. So many trees were down that we needed to detour here and there around the development, searching for a clear road.  Chain saws were already working, trying to clear lanes through the streets.  Some alternate routes were through peoples’ yards.  No one seemed to mind. High water, some to within 100 yards of our house, and/or fallen trees stopped us from departing conventionally but across the street from our house our neighbor’s fence was down and that exposed a route across his yard and into a parking lot.  With permission, away we went.

Driving south down Washington Avenue, we passed fallen signs, broken light poles, and obvious damage, including considerable structural damage, to businesses, apartments and some houses. At Fort Bayou Bridge, a city front end loader was already at work removing debris from where it had formed a high water line, clearly above the level of the bridge.  The debris included trees and limbs, but also a large amount of lumber, insulation, appliances and such.  Clear evidence homes had broken up.  Off to our right, in lower Gulf Hills, practically every home we could see had major structural damage or gutting. Traffic was crossing the bridge, however, and so did we.

All through Ocean Springs, huge live oak and pine trees were down or had limbs blown off, many crunching buildings and homes beneath. Numerous detours took us to within a block or so of the harbor on the north side. That was as close as we could get. Already we could see boats blown inland and aground in yards, even where we were. Ahead piled in the road, were five boats, their masts entwined with standing trees and with fallen trees holding them in place.  Climbing over the debris piles of obviously destroyed homes, we got down to the water’s edge.  There, grounded boats littered the west and north sides of the harbor, some 40 we later counted. There lay AT EASE, on her starboard side, lying at about 60 degrees, setting in someone’s front yard, just inland of the seawall, along with some 7-8 other boats, one of which was parked on the front porch and perhaps had even penetrated the house. Two of AT EASE’s restraining lines remained and had apparently held her from drifting further inland and into or among the homes surrounding the harbor.

AT EASE looked intact.  I waded and climbed around her, she was at the edge of an extensive debris field, 3-4 demolished houses from the other side of the harbor.  Her hull was abraded and scarred but no obvious breaches.  Rigging, apart from a bent roller furler, seemed good.  Her auxiliary masts for wind generator and radar, were both bent and torn, as was her stern pulpit and Monitor self steering wind vane. The forward pulpit had one significant dent and mounting bolts had been sheered free. Her teak cap and rub rails were heavily damaged.  They had done their sacrificial thing, undoubtedly protecting her hull from more extensive damage.  I climbed aboard and worked my way below.  No obvious water intrusion anywhere.  Most things were still in place.  I did cut the wiring for the screaming high water alarm but this was triggered by the pronounced heel to starboard and not by water intrusion.  I climbed back out and Shirley and I just hugged one another… sad, of course, but also relieved it was not worse. We already knew how very lucky we were and how very bad the storm had been.

Lanny Smith, the live aboard boater staying with us, found his boat afloat but pinned dangerously under two other boats suspended on pilings.  He had extensive topside damage as well but his boat was afloat and intact.  He secured it as best he could.  Kirk and Jenny Halstead found their boat, ashore.  It was one of the five entangled in the street some 100 or so yards in from the water. The boats of two other friends were still afloat although damaged. 

I later counted over forty boats aground immediately around the harbor, some 1-2 blocks inland in various yards. Some had obvious hull damage, either from coming down on pilings or from contact with other boats or rubble. There were masts sticking up out of the water from boats that had stayed in slips and sunk.  Many other boats were clustered toward the west end of the harbor, some up on docks or on top of other boats. Probably some 30% of the boats in the harbor before the storm survived in place with some damage, some worse than others.  Of all the boats that had been tied off in the center of the harbor, where AT EASE had been, the ones at either end had survived in place, although all damaged.  Those in the path of the demolished homes from the southern side had all been forced ashore by the rubble.

We went to check on Kirk and Jennie’s home.  More circuitous detours and finally we just parked and they went wading… wading in blackish standing water, not yet receded.  Their home was on East Beach, inland of about three other homes, all of which had been demolished.  That rubble had crashed into his home and the first floor was flooded out, walls and windows broken, but the structure still stood and what had been upstairs seemed to survive. Kirk’s neighbors had tried to ride out the storm in their home.  As their home came apart, they had to swim to Kirk’s home and “break in” the second floor to find refuge.  

We finally just went back to my house… all emotionally drained… all thankful in our own way for our survival.  We already knew Russell and Lucy Thompson had lost their home and that David and Kathy Wilson had survived.  We still didn’t know the extent of their losses. Jerry Anderson’s house and boat had survived although his boat’s hull was breeched well above the water line.  Kurt and May Ann Oberhofer had survived with minimal damage to their home and actually relatively little damage to their boat and it was still afloat. Tom McIlwain’s house could barely be seen from the road because of all the fallen limbs but none had damaged his home. We had all survived.  We were all grateful and we were all exhausted. Tomorrow would be harder… we knew that.

August 30 dawned and we began to piece together the post-hurricane routine that would carry us through the first week.  We had a generator supplying enough electrical power to run refrigeration, lights and fan.  Although fallen pressure compromised the city’s water supply, we had bottled water to drink and had stored water in bathtubs before we lost power.  We had a two burner propane stove we could cook on and a propane grill if needed. In this neighborhood, sewage is dependent on 220 volt power; we all have our own sewage pumps.  Without that power, we didn’t have functional plumbing.  We learned quickly that by going into Ocean Springs proper, specifically to Kirk Halstead’s real estate office, we could use his toilet.  Regular runs ensued.  We had food… plenty of food… from our last minute grocery run. 

We had gas in our vehicles; each of us had topped off. We had some additional gas in cans to run the generator and chain saw. We thought we had enough. None of us then knew that modern cars have some “trap” in the gas filler line that precludes siphoning of gas.  One simply can’t get a hose down to the gas.  There went much of our reserve generator fuel.  Very quickly, over the next several days, gas became a critical need… for the entire coast.  Everywhere, people scurried about looking for gasoline.  Many had generators, now well guarded by all as some looting and theft had begun already, but nobody had more than a couple of days supply of gas. We began conserving… running the generator only intermittently to keep the refrigeration functional and for fans to help us sleep in the very hot nights to come.

We spent our first couple of days out in recovery work.  Kirk and Jenny, and Shirley, went to their house and Lanny and I went to the harbor area and walked around searching for our dinghies.  We first found mine, partially hanging from a tree a good block from where I had left it.  Both tethers were sharply cut near the hard points. My internal lifting harness was disconnected from the transom and this had apparently snarled high in the tree arresting the boat. I cut it down, still puzzled about how that had happened. Lanny found his dinghy half filled with water and at the water’s edge. We drug both back to the water and I found a broken board to use as a paddle. There were plenty to choose from.

.We climbed aboard and slowly worked our way up the harbor, past sunken, half sunken and strangely unharmed boats… back up to the rubble field that had broken both his and my boats free. I secured the dinghy and we walked back through the rubble the several blocks to where we had left the vehicle.  We passed three women picking through the debris that trailed from where their home had been.  As did we all, they wanted to tell their story.  One elderly woman and her adult granddaughter had abandoned their home as it disintegrated from wave action.  Wading out in chest deep water, they found a “raft” (my dinghy) and cut it free.  Climbing in, they let the wind and waves take them the block or so inland to where they could get out into the second story of an apartment house. The granddaughter prided herself on safely securing the “raft” in a tree… grateful it had saved them and eager to save it in return.  I let them know it was my boat and thanked them for securing it so well. I got hugs and we all cried a bit. Puzzle solved.  

Chain saws and tree cutting crews, along with power crews that had been working even as the storm diminished, were everywhere.  By August 31, it became obvious that Kirk would have to find some way to move his boat from the road else when the power line crews arrived at that obstacle they would simply push the boats out of the way with heavy equipment. He went to talk to the city maintenance folks to see what could be worked out. Our neighbor, George, drove back in from Destin, bringing in a couple of gallons of gas for us as a way of thanking us for calling him and giving him a report on his home.  We were grateful… but wished he had understood just how very bad the gas shortage was becoming.  We needed more.

We wandered around trying to find gas.  Some stations were trying to reopen with generators, pumping some minimal gas from what remained in underground tanks.  Long, really impossible, lines formed everywhere… any rumor would start a line... and each line was so long it was clear available gas in the tanks would be depleted well before all cars were served.  Few stations were able to open.  Some grocery stores tried to open, at least for a few people at a time, cash only.  Even some banks opened doors to a few at a time to provide the wherewithal for this sudden cash economy.  I saw a parking lot of a mall off Highway 90 full of trucks and trailers and large commercial generators… just setting there.  They were obviously part of the rescue and recovery effort.  I couldn’t understand why they weren’t producing power so businesses could open.  I still don’t understand.  I never saw them used.

That afternoon (the 31st), Lanny and I went to Mobile in an effort to find gas.  We had some 8-9 cans collected from various sources and had heard of people successfully finding gas.  Mobile, some 50 miles further east, had relatively less wind but record flooding, even downtown. We drove north of Mobile and through Mobile, finding only a few stations open and there the typically long lines, too long lines, that told us clearly how futile our trip had been. We went back to Ocean Springs, passing cars and trucks going both ways with backs full of empty gas cans. 

On Thursday, September 1st, I saw the first distribution points where large semi trucks were being emptied of water, ice and food.  These were the “heater meals” that mimic MRE’s.  The MRE’s didn’t come until some days later. These very efficient distribution points would give a case of water and two bags of ice and a couple of meals to anyone that could get there. This was the first “relief” or “recovery” effort from non-locals that I had seen, apart from the power and tree service crews that had been hard at work from the very beginning. The word was being passed, largely word of mouth, and crowds were forming but it was all orderly and efficient.

I drove by the city hall, the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and went in looking for information about the Red Cross.  They were just unloading their first truck… just setting up their own EOC in the city’s Senior Citizens’ Center. Ham radio operators, basic staffing and health services personnel were scurrying about setting up. I may have been the first local volunteer. After first seeing my license as a psychologist, they signed me up. They wanted me to float between two local shelters just being opened that day; St Paul’s Methodist West and Christus Victor Lutheran Church, providing whatever psychological services seemed needed.  I didn’t realize then, but much appreciated later, the latitude this loose, essentially self directed job description gave me.

While waiting for people to arrive at the new shelters from the temporary shelter at the Middle School, I helped unload a truck full of food and water donated by various churches… somewhere. Over the next several weeks, these trucks came in, unscheduled, always loaded, simply donated by church groups from all over the US. It was an amazing effort and actually became a significant part of the immediate and extended relief of the coast.

By evening, people began to arrive at the shelters. I got busy quickly doing crisis intervention and debriefs, trying to identify existing mental health patients and getting some initial idea what the needs were.  Over the first couple of weeks, it was all a scramble to identify and respond to needs. Medication needs immediately became an issue.  Most had lost all possessions and had no money or medication.  No pharmacies were then open although within a day some opened to distribute first three day supplies, later seven day supplies, to anyone with a bottle or written prescription. Each of the shelters had nurses, Red Cross in one and Church sponsored volunteers from out of state in the other.  They dealt with first aid and medical triage, and coordinated with the various Disaster Medical Teams (DMAT) that showed up from various states, making rounds to shelters or other locations where people could access their services.  They even brought some medications with them. 

After the first week, our guests moved out.  Lanny went to live with Jerry Anderson where Russell Thompson later joined them.  The Halstead’s moved into their daughter’s apartment.  She had been transferred by her employer to another state.  Both Shirley and I experienced a sense of loss.  We gradually got power back (about two weeks), then water (three weeks) and later cable (five weeks) and finally a functioning phone (seven weeks).

For the month immediately following Katrina, I continued to rotate among the Ocean Springs, later added Gautier, shelters, dealing with mental health and behavioral crises and, increasingly, doing program and staff consultation with Red Cross mental health and shelter management people.  At the same time, I worked on getting my insurance claim started for my boat.  I heard from friends that a 100 ton crane on a barge had come into the harbor on 9/12.  I worked with my adjuster and with the crane operator and got permission to negotiate up to $175 per foot to lift AT EASE back.  However, Hardy Kreeger, the man whose yard AT EASE sits in, had become irrational and adamant that no boats could be removed from his premises until owners signed some claim he had drawn up that basically said each would be liable for any, really all, damages he might have experienced.  I negotiated with him for half a day, on and off, and finally realized he was just frightened and being outrageous in an effort to gain some control over a life out of control. He needed something concrete he could trust.  I had my insurance company fax him proof of insurance.  With a piece of paper in his hands, he agreed to my removing the boat. On 9/14 I had the boat lifted back to the water and then moved, under her own power, into my old slip.

The populations in the shelters kept changing.  Certainly the displaced survivors were there.  Some were able to find alternate places to stay, with family or friends, and some even moved out of state in response to offers of housing from other states.  New families kept coming in, finally forced out of their fractured homes either because of very primitive living conditions, or because of condemnation as more homes were inspected.  Later, we started to get more individuals, some clearly homeless for a long time, from out of state, drawn here either by expectations of employment or simply because they somehow knew that shelters, free food, free medical care, handouts… it would all be very available for at least a while. The shelters quickly became mostly filled with people who had been the most vulnerable before the storm and, post storm, when support services infrastructure was fractured along with everything else, they were even more vulnerable.  Ultimately, these people would benefit the most from the various federal and state disaster programs, and some would actually find their lives improved compared to pre storm as a result of all the help.

But the big surprise was the amount of time and energy spent simply dealing with Red Cross staff.  At its most benign, this was driven by the pattern of volunteer staffing.  They would show up for a 2-3 week tour, then go home. Another group would show up, do their tour, then go home.  There was little continuity.  When new guys had been here long enough to have some understanding of what they were doing, they would leave.  The new “New” guys then would start from scratch until they too got the experience and then they took that experience home.  It was a learning model all the time… lots of starts and stops.  And when new folks came in, each usually with their own agenda for how they would “fix” things broken here, it always produced more stress on everyone, survivors and volunteers. 

The other issue that surprised me but probably shouldn’t have, is the variable nature of the volunteer.  As best I could tell, there was little in the way of screening that took place in local chapters.  When volunteers came into the disaster area, they were also exposed to trauma and stress.  Much like the survivors, all their personality traits and characteristics, all that defined them before, simply got exaggerated.  The good became better and the bad became worse.  I ended up spending more time doing mental health interventions with Red Cross workers than I did with storm survivors… and the more time passed, the more disproportionate that ratio of effort became.

The Red Cross gives interesting power to their mental health staff.  One is bluntly instructed to keep a sharp eye on Red Cross personnel and to intervene where excessive stress or inappropriate behavior is identified.  Intervention can range from suggestions for managing stress or modifying behavior, up to and including removal from the job (transfer) or dismissal (send the person home).

I couldn’t help feel this is just obviously not the way to manage a disaster intervention.  Volunteers should be essentially independent, at least neutral in effect even if not productive.  At least don’t contribute to the burden already present in the disaster area. 

In spite of all that, and I certainly had other frustrations working with the Red Cross, I still have to say that over all their intervention was a net positive.  It may be as simple as this… bring in well intentioned people who are trying to do good and some good will get done in spite of the bureaucratic structure that handicaps effort. 

After five weeks, I pulled out for a week to just rest and take care of some things at home and on the boat. I had been doing a little of that, day by day, even while working with Red Cross.  Shirley had been doing volunteer work as well, with the Lutherian Church, where one shelter was located, helping with their food distribution program. We both stopped to take care of ourselves. After a week of being out of it, I went back to the Red Cross’s EOC to see if there was still some need for my time.  New folks had been arriving and those who had been here a while were leaving or had left.  New folks were all full of enthusiasm and had this sense of having just discovered problems and needs and were sure they knew the right ways to address all those needs.  I didn’t want to do that anymore. 

We know it’s going to be a long recovery… years not months.  Estimates are that building will be the largest industry on the coast for the next three years at least.  Major infrastructure is badly damaged.  Highways and bridges are so impacted even day to day traffic is suffocating.  Fewer stores are open… and the lines are outrageous.  Things are getting cleaner… debris is being picked up and hauled to huge piles in the surrounding countryside, but the destruction is still all too visible all about. So many jobs have disappeared that large numbers of people have just left the area. Even where jobs are still present, people displaced because of lack of housing have simply moved, apparently permanently, to other states and areas.  The Northrop Grumman shipyard had only about 50% of its workforce return after the storm. Although not really needed given their own damages, they were willing to employ the full work force just to hang on to their workers. I understand even Walmart is working only 50% of the people they need.  There are signs everywhere announcing jobs available.  Many restaurants and other business have curtailed services and hours because they have so few employees and can’t seem to hire more. 

It’s now October 18th… some seven weeks following Katrina. We have a long way to go. There will be problems we haven’t even anticipated, probably can’t even imagine, but there will be problems aplenty to deal with on this coast for years to come.  And now Tropical Storm Wilma is strengthening, probably to hurricane status in the next few days, and is following Katrina’s track toward the gulf.

Bill Martin

Ocean Springs, MS

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