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COLUMN: Katrina was personal

Where do you start when trying to explain the unexplainable? The unimaginable? One day, life is normal and the next it isn’t. But life doesn’t change just for you. It is altered for everyone you know, as well as strangers.

Hurricane Katrina changed the reality of normal for every person I know who experienced it a decade ago.

The destruction and carnage is well documented. And everyone who ever went through the worst natural disaster in U.S. history has their own personal story to tell.

My story began on the weekend before the storm’s arrival.

On deadline

On Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005, I was in the newsroom of the Picayune Item working feverishly to finish up the Sunday edition so it could go to press early and allow the carriers to deliver the edition ahead of the storm hitting the Mississippi coast.

The path of the storm was uncertain all week, but by that Saturday the Mississippi Coast was in the crosshairs of what was a Category 2 hurricane. Mandatory evacuations were being issued for New Orleans and many folks from the Mississippi Coast were being advised to evacuate.

My plans were to finish up the paper and ride the storm out with my parents, youngest brother and his family at their home 12 miles inland from the gulf in rural Harrison County.

We knew flooding wouldn’t be an issue since the area was not in a flood plane and well above sea level. My family and I had evacuated from hurricanes in the past but opted to stay and ride it out this time.

Hurricane officials continuously predicted the storm to turn into the Florida panhandle and so we expected plenty of rain. But by Saturday, the prediction cone continued to move further west and it was obvious we would get more than just rain.

After boarding up windows at the newspaper, we rushed and got that Sunday edition complete and headed our separate ways to prepare for the storm.

I made the drive to Lizana and hunkered down with my family, checked to make sure my 8-year-old daughter was safe with her mother and waited.

And on the afternoon of Sunday, Aug. 28, the wait was over.

Nothing like it

After continuous rain bands pushed through the area all day and into the night Sunday, the hurricane- force winds blasted through just after midnight and didn’t let up for hours. The combination of wind and rain is something I will never forget. At times we could see the walls of the house move in and out from the pressure.

On the morning of Aug. 29, I happened to look out the window and saw my brothers’ 32-foot travel trailer blown over on its side after being pushed up his driveway. A couple hours later, I looked out again and saw the pole barn we had constructed just recently collapse on itself and damage his classic car. We were expecting the roof to come off next. Fortunately, that did not happen.

It lasted for hours.

On Monday afternoon, we wandered out to survey the damage on the property. Of course, the electricity was out and there were some trees down. Tops of trees were twisted and ripped off by obvious tornadoes that crossed the area. The I-beams on another barn on m brother’s property were twisted like Taco Bell cinnamon twists. The power of the wind was incredible.

We spent Monday and Tuesday cleaning up. The heat and humidity of an August summer was nearly unbearable and we cooled off in the swimming pool.

While my brother and parents were fortunate compared to so many others, my younger brother and his family were not as lucky. They lived south of the railroad tracks in Gulfport and the 30-foot tidal surge swamped their home with flood waters reaching an incredible nine feet into the house that was three blocks off the beach. Fortunately, my brother and his family evacuated to higher ground. They lost everything like so many others who lived south of Interstate 10 and especially on the south side of the railroad tracks.

Trying to make contact

Two days after the storm, my youngest brother and I tried to make our way from Lizana to Picayune. A usual 45-minute drive took us nearly two hours. Power lines were down every where, as well as pine trees. We finally made it to Picayune and checked in with my co-workers and the Picayune Item publisher Tom Andrews to make sure everyone was accounted for. Immediately, we realized we weren’t only part of the story in the aftermath, but needed to document the aftermath. Picayune and Pearl River County was far from spared from the brunt of the storm, whose hurricane “eye” passed up the Pearl River and crossed over Picayune.

My brother and I headed back to Lizana so I could get my vehicle and check on my daughter, who I could not reach by cellphone.

For days, I couldn’t get in contact with my daughter to make sure she was safe. Cellphone connections were sporadic. It wasn’t until a week after the storm that I finally reached her and found out she and her family were fine.

Roads were impassable, curfews were in effect and desperation was in the eyes of many people. My parents and I decided we would make the trek from Lizana to D’Iberville to check on my daughter and verify she was fine. It was amazing to see the debris on I-10 that had washed up. Everything from couches and freezers to mattresses and recliners.

Keeping informed

The first two to three weeks following the storm, I and several other co-workers, lived and worked at the Picayune Item. Some even brought their families. We set up an outdoor camp shower and since we didn’t have power for the first two weeks, we used a generator to power up computers but could only use two or three at a time. We also had other reporters from around the country living and working at our building. Before we could get the printing press up and running, our circulation director Ted Brewer trucked the pages to Corpus Christi, Texas, where the paper was printed and drove all the way back to Picayune. The first few days we gave the newspaper away to people for free as they stood in line for fuel, bags of ice or other essentials. It was amazing to see the gratitude on their faces to receive a free newspaper.

Since social media was still in its infancy, our printed product became a social media site. For some reason the phone at the newspaper could receive calls, but we could not call out. People from all over the country were trying to reach loved ones so we would take their name and phone number, print their message in the paper of who they were trying to contact.

There were so many tragic stories from Katrina, but so many more feelgood stories as well. The main story and what I like to tell people when they ask about Katrina is the humanity that was shown from just about everyone. It was truly neighbors helping neighbors in the aftermath and everyone pulling together to get through the disaster the best way they could.

Katrina was the biggest event to happen in my life and I pray it never happens again, but it was also the most rewarding event that created bonds to last a lifetime.