Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Katrina-Part I: My Story

I've a whole bundle of thoughts to put together about the events of the past 10 days, so I'll start here, and hopefully complete this series before the weekend.

I'll open by saying that I live in central Mississippi. Because of friends and obligations, I have found myself in Gulfport about once a month over the past several years. Truly, some of my best times have been spent in the area the MSM has referred to recently as the "Redneck Riviera" (funny--that's always been the Florida panhandle, if I'm not mistaken).

I'm also a weather nut. Here, with numerous trees, narrow & crooked roads, and rolling hills, I chase tornadoes. Adds a couple levels of difficulty (and several levels of danger) because you can't see beyond about 1/4 miles in most places, but I've caught at least one very good video segment. I don't try to sell my videos--I just love the storms. I probably spend more time daily reading up on meterological events, both current and historical, than many people who make their living in the field.

Having established both of those facts, when Katrina crossed Florida, I told my wife, extended family, and a couple friends with similar interests in the weather, that this looked like the Pontchartrain Express that New Orleans had feared for years. I dismissed the original track that projected the storm's second landfall to be along the Florida Panhandle, perhaps as far east as Tampa. It just didn't make sense. I also remarked that Dennis had achieved incredible strength and windspeed, that storm's strongest winds were at a significant altitude, and didn't do the type of damage that Ivan had. Obviously, Katrina was right on the ground, going from the damage she left in Florida. I also know that August-September is a time when the Gulf waters are warmer than any other time of the year (and warmer than usual over the last few years because of cyclic currents in the gulf), and that Gulf hurricanes during these months are frequentely very severe.

NHC forecasters and computer models kept insisting on an early northeast turn for the storm, even as she strengthened and drifted farther to the west (actual WSW for some time), but eventually the fact set in that this storm would make landfall much farther west than they had predicted initially, and that she would likely be very strong. We in the central part of the state (and across the deep south) had been in the middle of a major heatwave, producing afternoon thunderstorms and showers almost daily, but always very small and concentrated. This massive high-pressure system was what the forecasters were anticipating would deflect Katrina and drive her back into Florida, but that was not to be.

Then she made her first turn to the northwest. Her bearing was as if she were driving the direct line to New Orleans. This was ominous from two different perspectives. First and foremost was the fact that the city of New Orleans was incredibly vulnerable to any storm larger than a category two. Secondly was the fact that as Katrina made this turn, she was plotting a course that would take her over the calmest, warmest Gulf waters, and she was already a Category 2 hurricane. I said "Cat-5" at that point, although the professionals thought 3 or maybe a nominal 4.

I don't offer my gut-instinct predictions to gloat. Mississippians either remember or are intimately acquainted with the ghosts of Camille. It's so ingrained into our culture that she's spoken of and about in tones normally reserved for deity. She has long stood as the benchmark against which modern hurricanes are measured, arguably establishing Category 5 as the strongest possible hurricane. When we in this state see a hurricane churning into the Gulf, we immediately take it very seriously. I also sincerely think that many meterologists were under the impression that Camille's intensity would never be possible in a larger storm. For all her power, she was a very compact hurricane, far smaller than most, and positively tiny compared to some of the monster hurricanes that we've seen over the past twenty years.

Early in the weekend, as Katrina made her turn northward, Mississippians started getting braced, just in case. Officials at the state and local levels began readying preparedness plans for full implementation. People bought nonperishable foods, bottled water, and filled their gas tanks. We knew what was possible, if not yet regarded as probable.

On Saturday, we knew. This would be a big one, maybe the big one. Preparations began in earnest, and coastal residents across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama started leaving, heeding the advise of their Mayors and Governors. My aunt decided to stay, other family members on the coast came north. We went to bed Saturday night hoping that the storm would turn or at the very least not strengthen much over the next 36 hours.

Sunday morning. My wife woke me a little before seven telling me that Katrina was a Category 5. A chill ran through every nerve. Never have I been so heartbroken about being right. We got dressed and went out to get a few last-minute items that we knew we would need, not only for the storm and its immediate aftermath, but for the days when everything would be getting back to normal, not knowing if supplies would be available after she came through here.

Probably a good time for an "aside." Elena came through my area as a tropical storm. Same with Ivan. Frederic was still a Cat-1 hurricane when he reached the central part of the state, but Camille was still a Cat-3. She leveled homes and dropped trees all over the state, not just on the coast.

Being faced with a Category 5 storm just offshore, with nearly as low (and later in the day, lower) pressure as Camille, but a storm that was many times larger, we took things very seriously. If nothing else, we knew we'd be without power. My wife works in a Meridian hospital as a registered nurse, with a 50 mile commute, so gasoline was a concern, as was her safety traveling. I decided that I would take her to work Monday evening (she worked from 7 pm til 7 am that night). My small children would stay in my Mom & Dad's house (brick, hip roofed) and my oldest son would be with me and my wife for the trip. My wife went to work Sunday night for the 11-7 shift, and I went to bed about midnight, leaving the television on. I woke up frequently, watching the storm pound the coast as it neared landfall. When my wife got back home, she went to bed to rest up and I got up and did a last look-around the yard and the house before I went to work, making sure everything was secure. Then I went to work and stopped to fuel my truck when I got to town.

As the morning continued, conditions began to deteriorate. By noon, we had shut down the computers at work and began preparing for the inevitable power outage. We had decided that we'd leave to take my wife to work about 1 or 2 that afternoon, so I headed out home. Just as I left work, there was a tornado warning issued for my county, a twister moving towards the northwest, coming towards town. On the cell phone with my wife as I headed home, I spotted the funnel about 1/8 of a mile to my south, and cursed under my breath that I didn't have time to set my tripod for a few minutes of footage. It was aloft, but quite impressive.

I got home in driving rain, and walked through my back porch, which faces the south. I realized the power tools I was using on my porch-screening project (table saw, miter saw, etc.,) were going to get wet as the wind picked up, so I moved them to the carport. My wife came out of the house and told me that the power had flickered a few times, and we both knew that meant that a tree was on the line somewhere already, and that our time without electricity would begin very soon. Within 15 minutes, we were in the dark.

At about 1:30, my mother got home and we transferred the children, ready to make our trek to Meridian. Our path would take us into Katrina's direct path, so time was of the essence. Heading out, we had crosswinds fairly strong initially (we were heading nearly due east), then encountered head-on gusts that were probably approaching 60 mph. We got my wife delivered to the hospital, we kissed good-bye, and headed back. Trees had begun to fall, and a few interstate signs had already given up the ghost. Twigs and leaves pelted us, even though the nearest tree was about 75 feet away from the highway. With the wind pushing from behind, my truck (a Ford Excursion) was quite stable, and we were traveling about 65-70 mph when I first noticed sheets of rain staying in front of us, and very few drops on the windshield. Occasionally, we would see brake lights or hazard flashers in front of us, upon which we would slow and hit our flashers to warn people behind us. The first several times, there was a tree blocking one lane, necessitating a drive-around. Then we came to a point on a short overpass where traffic had stopped. power lines had fallen across the road. There were two vehicles directly in front of me in the right lane, an 18-wheeler in the left. What now? It would have been perilous, if not impossible, to back up, and the sides of the bridge held the wires up too high to drive over. Thankfully, the driver of the big truck decided to act. He eased up to the wires, and catching them with his bumper, advanced in low gear, snapping them. There was still a steel cable blocking our way, and I pulled out to the left lane and set my bumper against it. pulling forward, it stretched, some of its strands snapping, and then stopped me. I eased back just a bit, and went forward again, using a little bit of momentum to break the cable completely. It sailed off the side of the bridge when it gave way, and we continued. Several more trees had to be avoided, ultimately necessitating our taking of an alternate route home, as one had a two-lane road back to my house completely blocked. We got back home just after my neighbor's shed got flattened.

Donning my rainsuit, I checked the house over to make sure we hadn't lost any shingles, knowing that within a short time the storm's complete fury would be upon us, and that any quick-fix would have to take place right now. My screened porch was beginning its first stage of restoration to its open-air state, but otherwise, the house was faring well. I checked in with my parents and kids, and finding everyone ok, returned to my house to ride out the storm.

I casually noted that my cell phone service was gone.

For the next two and a half hours, I sat and watched trees bend, some snapping, and listened alternately to the weather radio and the only FM station still on the air within my area. Thankfully, they weren't playing music, only giving news regarding Katrina. There's only so much "new" country I can take at a sitting.

I actually dozed off for a bit. I said I was a weather nut, but despite sustained winds of over 90 mph, and gusts over 120, my home never uttered a creak or pop, and I suppose the constant howling of the wind and pelting of the rain was somehow hypnotic.

I prayed for my aunt. I prayed for the families of those who had already died. I prayed for my wife. I prayed for New Orleans. I prayed this wouldn't be as bad as I thought it was.

The winds calmed. I looked outside and realized that it wasn't over--we were in what remained of the eye. My father and I went to town to check our shop. No damage there. By the time we got back home, the "dry side" had begun to intensify again. We had about another hour of fairly strong winds, but nothing like we had seen earlier. As darkness fell, we were all very thankful to be alive and okay, but all very worried about our loved ones in Gulfport.

Early the next morning, I left for Meridian to retrieve my wife. Re-routing around trees and other debris, I finally arrived to see the effects of the storm on that city. Nobody had power. The hospital where my wife works was on emergency power, but without its full complement of generators functional, so only minimal lights and life-sustaining machinery worked. She had spent the evening swapping rechargable IV pumps around, trying to keep them charged and operational, with temperatures inside the building at around 85 degrees. We got back home, a little disheartened that this was a bright, sunny day, because we knew what temperatures inside the house would soon be. We moved perishables from the refrigerator to the deep freeze, hoping to keep milk, eggs, and meat from spoiling as rapidly. We began getting information on the devastation on the coast, and I flatly refused to tell my mother and her family about the number of dead being reported from the coast. We heard that the levees of New Orleans had been damaged to the point that water was flowing into the city. We also heard that many communities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast simply were no more.

Amid thoughts of how stupid it was not to have purchased a generator, I pulled my truck near my living room window, and ran an extension cord to my power inverter. I hooked up my satellite dish and a small television, and sat, dumbstruck, as the first footage from the Mississippi coast was shown. My heart sank as I thought of my aunt and numerous friends in the area who I knew hadn't evacuated. My wife, as well as she could without power, got ready and went back to work. Miraculously, our power returned about 10 pm Tuesday, though nearly everyone else around us was still without electricity. I immediately got on the internet, searching for any indication of how my aunt's neighborhood fared. I found nothing. Then about 11:30, my phone rang. My mother said that my uncle's phone had just rung, and although the call didn't connect, the number on the caller ID indicated that it was my aunt, trying to reach us.

Wednesday morning, I stumbled upon the NOAA site that had high-resolution aerial photos of the Mississippi coast. Using equal parts Mapquest, Google Earth, and NOAA imagery, I located the house where my aunt had ridden out the storm. It was intact. I immediately called my mother over, who along with her extended family had been simply horrified at the pictures coming through the television news. Though it wasn't like hearing her voice, we at least had a second piece of evidence indicating that she at least had survived. Another acquaintance, I feared, wasn't so fortunate. The area where his house stood was decimated. Only slabs remained. Still another, though he was safely inland, had obviously lost everything.

Our television coverage began changing, then. Suddenly, we weren't seeing the people in Mississippi, arguably the hardest hit by the storm, wading through the debris that once was their lives, but we were seeing people in New Orleans screaming for relief and transportation. We saw New Orleans police officers taking part in the looting of a Wal-Mart. I felt a rush of so many emotions, from deepest sympathy for those suffering, to vicious anger at those who capitalized on the catastrophe. But even as I write this, nearly a week later, I still feel a sense of disbelief that it really happened.

This storm surpassed Camille's record for highest storm surge. It will almost certainly hold the top position in both amount of property damage (currently Andrew) and in the number of lives lost in the United States from a hurricane (Galveston hurricane of 1900). In long-term effects, however, the full impact may never be measurable in any one concice fashion. The economic implications for Mississippi and Louisiana are staggering. The loss of life and property will lead to emotional concerns for survivors and rescuers. The potential for disease is mind-boggling, as there is at least some potential for a resurfacing of ancient illnesses as the graves in New Orleans are "washed out." The ecological impact upon Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf Coast will be phenomenal, as the toxic slurry is pumped out of New Orleans. Schools, on all levels, in the affected areas are on hold, the students not knowing how they will complete the year, whether 10th Graders in Bay High (Bay St. Louis, Mississippi) or Tulane medical students getting ready to do their internships.

Storm of the Century? More accurately the millenium.

We lived. We'll recover. We'll talk about it for generations in the same hushed and reverent tones heretofore reserved for Camille. We will remember.

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