Storm Day…Hurricane Katrina Report Part III – A

NOAA Satellite Image of Hurricane Katrina making landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
NOAA Image of Hurricane Katrina

My storm-related excitement on Monday, August 29 didn’t actually end with seeing my flooded house. My wife and I had spent the storm with three other families; each family owned a home in the general area. Monday afternoon, after the winds subsided enough to drive, we carpooled in the one vehicle still running to check out the other three houses.

We went to my house first, as I needed to find my spare glasses (to replace the pair I lost handling the boat earlier that day). As mentioned in my previous diary, we discovered our house had been flooded three feet deep.

The next family was also my next-door neighbor, and we then checked her house. It had been flooded about two feet deep.

Our neighbor wanted to salvage some things right away in her home. So Winnie and I sat in our driveway for a while as we both got over the shock of what had happened during the day. I did cry for a bit, then pulled myself together and reminded myself that we were still alive and could rebuild. While we waited, we looked around and could see that EVERY house in my development, 200 or more homes, appeared to have been flooded.

My best guess is that the Sioux bayou rose between 16 to 17 feet during the hurricane. I received some confirmation about six weeks later, when the FEMA teams reported their survey findings. They reported that the Pascagoula River had risen 13 feet at the I-10 Bridge.

One of my strongest impressions, looking around the neighborhood, was being completely disoriented at the appearance of the neighborhood. There was almost no debris anywhere, in strong contrast to all previous hurricane aftermath. Typically, there are pine needles, small tree branches, paper and trash covering the yards and roads. This time, my yard actually looked cleaner than prior to the storm. It was not until several days later that I understood what probably happened.

The floodwaters rose out of Sioux bayou (behind the house) over a period of several hours, ultimately extending all the way out to the main highway. Every home in our subdivision of WestGate Estates had been flooded with between one to four feet of water. When the hurricane winds subsided, the floodwaters simply collapsed back into the bayou, with such a strong current it swept all debris with it. The current actually impacted the inside of our house – lighter, more buoyant items originally in front rooms of the house had been swept to back rooms.

Things like an empty ice chest in our front middle bedroom ended up at the very back of the dining room (all across the house and through doors). The nightstands from our master bedroom were lying out in the hallway. Four of the five windows in front of the house were broken, pushed in from the outside, right through the plywood coverings.

Our post-Katrina dining room after 40 inches of flood water washed through
Our post-Katrina dining room after 40 inches of flood water washed through

Outside, the project boat I had been working on, and had left sitting on its trailer in the driveway, was pushed up against the front of the house. All piles of wood on the back porch (scraps from making plywood window coverings) were gone, as well as everything else on the porch that could float – except the picnic table which was too large to float past the rails. Several days later, I found one of my working sneakers, left on the back porch, mixed in debris near the edge of the bayou on my neighbor’s property almost a quarter mile away.

Our house after Hurricane Katrina, with my project boat washed into the planter bed.
Our house after Hurricane Katrina, with my project boat washed into the planter bed.

All this indicates an extremely strong receding flood current, sweeping everything that could float with it, back into the bayou as the hurricane winds receded.

When our neighbor was finished working in her house, we went to the fourth family’s house, a few miles north in a more rural area outside of Gautier. We were unable to reach it due to downed power lines and trees blocking the roads so we turned around and returned to the home where we had stayed during the storm.

Meanwhile, the homeowner’s wife managed to make a cellphone call to her Dad in Grand Bay, Alabama, about 30 miles east of us. Her dad reported his house was undamaged, although with trees downed all around him. When he learned of our condition he told her he would “come get us.” My personal opinion at this point was that we would be spending the night there in a very wet house and started thinking of ways to sleep reasonably comfortable.

But, two hours later her dad arrived in a convoy of three vehicles! We all piled in, taking some still dry clothes (and my camera equipment – I don’t leave home without it). The convoy had used Interstate 10 and the northern (westbound) span of the I-10 Bridge across the Pascagoula River getting to us, and didn’t have any problems.

But, going back east we used the southern (eastbound) span of the I-10 Bridge. It was about 8:30 PM now and pitch dark. No streetlights were working, and across the river the shipyards and refinery were all dark – something I had never before seen. We crossed the west Pascagoula River span and half way across we “saw it” just as we passed it.

“It” was a large floating crane that had struck the south-bound I-10 span and knocked the highway span four feet off alignment with a small gap between the sections. We hit the misalign span at normal highway speed, felt the bump, and my heart jumped up to about throat-level. But the span didn’t collapse and we kept right on moving.

I turned and watched other vehicles also crossing that damaged bridge span. As we continued across the southern bridge span I saw two other reasonably large boats, a pusher tug and a commercial shrimp boat, jammed against the bridge. I judged that the river was still about 5 to 8 feet higher than even “flood stage” levels.

We spent Monday evening camped out on the dry couches and floors of our guest’s home in Grand Bay; all 7 adults, two children, and two dogs (we left the cats in Gautier) plus the family who owned the house. We got to take cold water showers the next morning and had a hot breakfast, then convoyed back to Gautier. Now, we saw that the southern (eastbound) span of the I-10 Bridge was closed.

We used one of the convoy vehicles to check out the house we hadn’t been able to get to the previous night. The roads had already been cleared enough to get through and we found a miracle – the house was just high enough to not have been flooded, and had no significant wind damage. We were all quickly invited by the homeowners to make their house our “base of operations.” No power, but it was at least dry floors to sleep on.

We also discovered that the second car of our neighbor, a Chevy “Suburban” truck that had been left at their house during the storm, still worked. So now we had one dry house and two cars for four families. Our hosts during the storm had a portable generator that we hooked up and provided lights, fans, a working satellite TV, and the play station for the two children. We felt rich.

Gas for the two running cars and generator was not a worry – we had five dead cars all with full gas tanks we could siphon plus some gas in jerry cans. We pooled what edible food and supplies we could salvage from our homes and ended up with a good week’s worth of decent meals.

We quickly settled into a routine of car pooling to our three different homes each morning for recovery work. Prior to sunset we would carpool back to our “safe house” for a cold shower and hot supper, watch a bit of satellite television and sleep. In the morning we’d have a hot breakfast (the host’s wife was a wonderful cook) and then carpool back to our homes to work salvaging and cleaning our homes.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally posted on the DailyKos website at Katrina Aftermath from the Front Lines, Part II about three weeks after the storm. It also made the “Recommended List.” I have expanded this article with anecdotes and impressions of what occurred the first week after the storm, looking back for a greater distance now. Due to the extra content I have broken the story up into two parts. This is part I

Related Posts

Storm Day…Hurricane Katrina Report Part III – B : Part II of a two part story on the first week after Katrina.
A Bittersweet Homecoming : Returning to Gautier, Mississippi two years after moving away.
Katrina Aftermath Report – Commentary on Disaster Relief : My commentary about post-Katrina disaster relief.

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