Chapter 4 – Surviving The First Week
The rest of the week went by in a blur. Looking back, I now know that we were all in a state of serious shock, emotionally numbed by what had happened. It seemed that every day that first week we worked all day without stopping, but never felt we accomplished anything.
We had no electricity or telephones and tap water was unsafe for drinking, although we did have enough water pressure to get wash and flushing water. Toilets had backed up spreading sewage everywhere, and I don’t even want to remember what the bathtubs looked like.
All the wet carpeting had to be removed immediately, which meant moving out furniture to get to the carpeting. To move furniture meant removing all books, collectables, electronics and other small items first. This meant we needed to find places to store the stuff still salvageable and a place to move the stuff that was ruined.
We also needed to open the bottom of the walls to let the insulation drain out, which meant getting the furniture away from the walls and ripping out cabinetry after emptying them out. And so it went…
We quickly settled into a routine of having a hot breakfast each morning then car pooling to our homes 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.
We didn’t bother to lock our house when we left for the evenings – most anything we could salvage was already outside drying and several windows smashed out, so locking the door was pointless. Our host made different rooms available for us so Winnie and I even had a bit of privacy each night sleeping on a dry floor.
Outside Help Arrives
That first week after the storm was typical south Mississippi August weather – in the high 90’s every day. I remember getting badly dehydrated even though I was being careful and had adequate drinking water available. In that kind of weather, people can quickly die from dehydration and heat stress.
I didn’t even carry my wallet that first week. All I was wearing each day was a pair of swim trunks, a T-shirt, ball cap and sneakers without socks. Everyday was a new challenge in separating and hauling away out ruined belongings, saving what we could, and gutting out our house. Winnie proved a master at improvising and became my rock of support.
The first time I saw any National Guard presence was the Thursday morning following the storm, September 1, while we were making our morning commute from the “safe house” back to our homes for salvage and cleanup. Later that morning a Red Cross truck cruised the neighborhood for the first time where we were spending our evenings, distributing meal packs, water and ice.
That night we learned from a neighbor who getting out and assisting in recovery efforts that the National Guard had established a distribution point for ice, water, MREs, and basic supplies at the local mall parking lot. But it would be several more days before we saw ANY Red Cross or National Guard presence in my neighborhood, just a few miles away and actually closer to the mall than where we were spending our nights.
So with three major military bases and two major National Guard Centers located within forty miles of our town, it took three days after the storm for National Guard and Red Cross crews to arrive and establish emergency food and water distribution.
To put this into perspective: One of my nephews living in Tennessee, Vice-President of a commercial roofing company located near Chattanooga, had gotten fully-equipped crews on the ground at that same mall location one and a half days after the storm.
Another perspective; during normal summer evenings the local police would cruise our neighborhoods at least once each night checking on the teens. Yet, despite our city hall not being flooded and all police vehicles fully operational, it was several WEEKS after the storm before I ever saw one police cruiser in our neighborhood. I was feeling abandoned and becoming angry at the near-lack of any help available in our area.
This brings me to the issue of information and transportation.
Disaster Survival Realities
We had a near-complete lack of information as to where emergency aid was available and even what had occurred in the rest of the coast. It’s not that officials weren’t talking; it’s that those of us on the ground had no ABILITY to listen.
My hurricane preparation kit included a battery-powered radio, TV, and ample supply of spare batteries. But when our house flooded I lost all my batteries. Had power been restored it would not have changed our situation – with three feet of flood water through the house ALL our electrical and electronic appliances were ruined.
We had a working satellite TV at the house we stayed during the evenings, but with satellite we only received national coverage. So we were treated to hours (or at least as much as we could stomach) of coverage on New Orleans and officials jumping up to microphones explaining how it wasn’t their fault they weren’t prepared for a hurricane. I caught an interview with Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour explaining how he “begged people to leave before the storm and no one listened,” and I felt like throwing something at the screen.
Even more obnoxious were the reporters constantly asking about body counts. Reporters, a tip; if you want body counts go hang out in a morgue.
Our group only knew of what had happened in the local (Biloxi) area from the neighbor who was able to get around. We were not receiving any information useful to us via broadcast media. Even with the little information we were getting, I was unable to get my mind around the full impact of just how bad the storm had been. I was literally not able to comprehend what had happened to the Mississippi Coast.
Compounding the lack of information was lack of transportation. Everyone in my neighborhood had been flooded, and almost every vehicle left behind during the storm was ruined. Those with working vehicles were limiting their driving to conserve gasoline which was extremely limited.
Life in a Reality TV Show
By the end of the week I was feeling extremely frustrated at not being able to get a call out to my family letting them know we were okay. Cell phones were not detecting any signals and regular telephones were not working. I didn’t know what had happened to any of my friends around the coast. I didn’t know when, or even if, I would be returning to my job. I was also physically deteriorating.
I was developing large torn blisters on my feet due to constant wet feet, making it uncomfortable to walk. I had work gloves, but still developed blisters on my hands as the gloves were constantly wet. Added to work blisters, I’d spilled hot coffee on the back of my hand one morning resulting in second degree burns. My arms were beginning to cramp up, a result of the constant exertion involved in moving heavy furniture and ripping out 1900+ square feet of wet carpeting and linoleum with bare hands. I had a serious muscle bruise on one arm, received during the storm trying to tie the boat to a front porch column. And I was constantly battling dehydration. Winnie seemed to maintain better physical condition than me, and once again was my rock of support.
Had it not been for our group pulling together as we did, Winnie and I would have been in truly desperate straits by week’s end. It wasn’t a case that we didn’t prepare for the hurricane. It was a case that the storm overwhelmed all the preparations we considered to be adequate. But we all pulled together and helped each other out as best as each of us could.
As bizarre as it may sound, by the end of the week I felt like we were all living in a “Survivor” reality TV series. Only without people getting voted out.
A Quick Detour
It was Saturday morning when I was finally able to contact my Mom. Until then no one in my family even knew where we were or what condition we were in. Over the next several hours various family members networked each other and Sunday morning I was able to get in touch with another Nephew, Terry, near Nashville, Tennessee. He “mobilized” the Tennessee branch of our family. Early Monday morning, Labor Day, Melinda and her husband (living in Tennessee) arrived after driving all night.
They brought Winnie and me back up to my nephew’s house near Nashville. That night at Terry’s house we had our first hot shower in a week and slept in an actual bed. I even shaved for the first time since before the storm, a momentous event which made Winnie quite happy indeed (think Tom Hanks and “Castaway”).
In looking back, I now realize this short visit with terry’s family was the real starting point of our recovery.