Thursday, January 11, 2007

Katrina Story, Chapter 1: Prologue

By popular request, I will tell my Katrina story. At one point I thought about writing a book about the whole damn thing, but I figure by the time I did that, the whole world will have had enough about Katrina and won't want to hear anymore. Maybe that's not quite true, since some of you out there still have interest. I expect this to be rather long, but a journey of a thousand words starts with a single step, or something like that. So, without further ado, here we go...

There's a morbid joke on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that Hurricane Camille killed more people in 2005 than it did in 1969.

When Camille plowed through the Gulf Coast in August 1969, everyone thought they had witnessed just about the worst fury that Mother Nature could throw. Camille made landfall as a deadly Category Five, one of only three to strike the United States in the last 155 years. Top winds reached over 190 mph, and some have estimated gusts as high as 210 mph. The NOAA ranked Camille as the second most intense US storm on record, the top prize going to an unnamed monster commonly called the "Labor Day Hurricane" that hit the Florida Keys in 1935.

Camille defined a generation on the Coast. People remember the apartment complex in Pass Christian, MS, where people supposedly partied through the storm until they drowned. Others recall the complete devastation afterwards, with entire city blocks leveled. Many Civil War era mansions in Pass Christian and Long Beach miraculously survived, a testament to their solid construction. What was destroyed was eventually rebuilt, and by the 1990s, the Coast underwent a commercial boom, thanks in large part to the new and opulent casinos such as the Beau Rivage and the Grand. Gulfport and Biloxi had gone from sleepy backwater beach towns to tourist destinations.

Further east, the towns of Bay St. Louis and Waveland were doing well enough for themselves, if not quite as popular as the larger cities to their west. According to the 2000 census, Waveland had nearly 6700 residents, with another 8200 in Bay St. Louis. Casino Magic brought jobs, revenue, and famous jazz clarinet player Pete Fountain to the county. NASA's Stennis Space Center complex, site of rocket engine development and testing ever since the Saturn V took America to the moon, also hosted aerospace corporations and military and government agencies. New Orleans residents tired of the bustle of the city retired to Waveland, one of the last beachfront communities in the country where even ordinary Joes could own beachfront property. The surrounding Hancock County, Mississippi was one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.

Thanks to that growth, the area needed another pediatrician. My family and I travelled to Bay St. Louis in October 2003 and immediately fell in love with the area. We moved down January 1, 2004 and opened my pediatric practice about 6 weeks later.

Living anywhere on the Gulf or Atlantic Coasts--from the southern tip of Texas, around to Key West, up to the rocky beaches of New England--means hurricanes are always a possibility from June to November. In mid-September 2004, Hurricane Ivan was approaching the Mississippi and Alabama coasts, with Waveland and Bay St. Louis on the western edge of the National Hurricane Center's predicted landfall. We decided it best to leave town; however, not having friends or family anywhere nearby, we drove west until we found a vacant hotel room. Unfortunately, much of New Orleans also had the same plan.

We drove 17 hours to Dallas, Texas. Me, my wife, our 2 boys, and 2 dogs were exhausted, but we were safe. My wife wanted to make the trip a mini-vacation, but I was anxious to return to our home and my work. And when we did return, we found 2 large tree limbs down in our yard. The house was untouched, our town was largely untouched, and life had continued uninterrupted. Ivan had made a last-minute turn to the east, which was very unfortunate for eastern Alabama and Pensacola, FL, but it meant only a tropical storm in Hancock County, MS.

And so, on Friday August 26, 2005, when the National Hurricane Center was showing a large hurricane crossing Florida and entering the Gulf of Mexico, we felt little urgency. We knew that it was still too early to make an accurate landfall prediction, and besides: even if it did hit our town, the area had already weathered one of the worst storms in recorded history. Our neighbor, an Emergency Room physician who endured Betsy in New Orleans in 1965, and then Camille in Waveland, offered this prognosis: "I probably wouldn't stay through the storm, but I think we'll be okay."

To be continued...


Ashley C aka Kitten said...

Thanks so much for telling your story. I look forward to future installments. No matter how many I hear, I never tire of hearing people's Katrina Stories - we've all got one.

Jacqui said...

Can't wait for part 2!

mm said...

Waiting patiently for part two... in my -47C with the windchill weather up here in Canada.
I find blizzards scary, hurricanes must give the same feeling... only worse.

brockton said...

Thanks for getting a start! Looking forward to reading the rest.

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