Chapter 5 – Tennessee and Starting Recovery
The short stay with Terry was a chance for Winnie and I to figuratively catch our breaths and experience a quick bit of normalcy before plunging back into the chaos our lives had become. Our plan was to borrow my nephew’s pickup truck, make phone calls, do some shopping for supplies and essentials, then head back down to Gautier Tuesday evening. Our house was wide open, all our saved possessions were spread around the back porch and front lawn, and we were concerned about the increasingly frequent rumors of looting.
The morning after we arrived in Tennessee we made a LOT of phone calls from my Terry’s house, including one to Winnie’s family in China. Judging from the sound of their voices, Winnie’s family was indeed very aware of what was happening here on the coast and had been very worried about her. I was also able to contact my supervisor for the first time and let him know I was okay. I learned that the building we had worked in had been ruined by 6 feet of flood water and sewage, and it would be another week before returning to work in a temporary office building the company was setting up. I also was able to check and send e-mails for the first time in a week, the first bit of communications I had with friends.
This was also the first opportunity I had had to get news about the true extent of Mississippi damages. My nephew had recorded TV video footage of Biloxi, and seeing those videos brought home to me the extent of just how bad the storm was. It was another shock upon all the other shocks and emotionally scarring events of the previous week.
As for borrowing the truck; family luck held true and I experienced for the first time the depth of compassion for Katrina survivors that has since become the only good thing to come out of this disaster.
Coming Back – New Wheels
Terry and I jumped into the loaner truck late Tuesday morning to go shopping, but the truck wouldn’t move. We checked, determined that the breaks were locked, and made arrangements for a tow to Terry’s repair shop of choice. It took several hours for a tow, then several more hours for the shop to inspect. It wasn’t until 4:30 PM that the shop called to tell us all four breaks were bad and all needed to be rebuilt. Terry was completely embarrassed (“it worked fine last week!”) but I was just concerned about leaving our house empty and unlocked with stuff out for many more nights.
I got on the phone and explained our predicament, my concerns about looting, and how we really needed to get back to Gautier as quickly as possible. I asked the shop owner just how quickly he thought the truck could be repaired. I would have been happy for early the next day, but the shop owner paused a minute and said “by about 8:00 tonight.” Sure enough, at 8:00PM he called and told us to come get the truck. Terry drove me over and we arrived at the shop as several mechanics were taking it down off the rack.
Not only did the owner keep his shop open just to help us out, he gave me a discount on the repairs after apologizing he couldn’t give more. Seemed he had to get the parts he needed at full retail price from a local auto parts store. He wished me luck as I left.
We got the truck prepped, did our shopping, and headed back to Gautier about midnight, arriving late Wednesday morning. We stopped for a two hour nap at a rest stop sometime around 3:00 AM, but otherwise drove straight through. We were delayed for several hours starting at the Alabama / Mississippi state line on the Interstate, with stop and go traffic for almost three hours.
I was tired, the weather was hot, and I was fighting to stay awake. We finally discovered the reason for the traffic jam; Drivers were rubbernecking on the I-10 Bridge looking at the section of bridge that had been damaged during the storm, now closed off to traffic. This was the same section of bridge we had driven over that Monday evening just a week-and-a-half ago.
Back to Recovery Work
By the time we returned home power in our area had been restored, abet unstable. We now had transportation and local businesses were selling basic supplies. Relief operations had become established. It was a long climb up the technology ladder from just the week prior, even though we had no working appliances besides ceiling lights, a few fans, a toaster and a microwave oven.
My memories of the rest of September are hazy. Not only myself, but people I’ve spoken with admit that their memories of that time seem to jump from August 29 to early October, as if the month of September never really happened. If I try, I can remember specific events that occurred during that time period like flashes of wakefulness interspersing a light sleep.
I returned to work later the following week in temporary office space we “time-shared” with another division from my company, each group working 12 hour days 3 days per week. Cable TV and cable Internet service was restored in our neighborhood by the end of September.
The boil water notice was lifted in our area by end of September but we were using tap water for bathing and washing dishes as soon as our replacement hot water heater was installed. We would not have our regular (wired) telephone working until mid-October but I purchased a prepaid cell phone and did fine.
I also discovered my SUV had survived the storm sitting inside the Gulfport body shop ready to go, which gave us a second vehicle. My SUV hadn’t even gotten rained on during the storm.
Thanks to Beth we had a new A/C unit installed by the end of September. She had been doing business with the same company for almost 25 years, and had her central A/C unit replaced less than two weeks after the storm. When my A/C Company whom I’d done business with for six years wouldn’t even return my calls, Beth put in a good word for us with hers. We had working A/C three days later.
We also had luck getting our insurance settlement moving. We had chopped out the bottoms of the walls so they could drain, but were hesitant to remove all the drywall until an insurance adjuster could inspect. One afternoon near the end of September while Winnie and I were enjoying an evening meal of MRE’s, the adjuster just showed up.
He explained he was in the neighborhood, saw our names on his list, and decided to check if we were home. Having him show up was perhaps the biggest boost we had towards rebuilding. He took room measurements, noted the high water marks, looked over our destroyed belongings, and that was it. Next day while I was at work, my wife started tearing out the lower four feet of drywall and insulation.
Hurricane Rita at the end of September gave us a real scare. Rita developed during Mid-month and early tracks showed the distinct possibility of hitting Mississippi. It quickly became a dark joke at the office that we really needed another good storm to wash all the Katrina debris back out to sea.
I was worried as we still had most of our belongings stored outside, and another hurricane would pretty much wipe out anything we’d managed to save from Katrina. Many people in the area were still living in tents or makeshift shelters that could not handle any kind of bad storm, and there was no where else for them to go. It was a tense few days.
Hurricane Rita ended up running parallel to our part of the coast and made landfall on the Texas / Louisiana border. As it passed off the Mississippi coast about September 25 my supervisor announced that anyone who needed to go home should leave. Reports of flooding over in Mobile, Alabama, began to trickle in and I was gone.
When I arrived home I discovered the storm surge at that point was about five feet in the yard. By next morning, as the storm was well to our west, the surge was about eight feet with water lapping at the base of my backyard workshop, a tie for the third worst storm surge I had experienced since living here.
Hurricane Rita caused significant flooding where it made landfall in the parts of Louisiana still trying to recover from Katrina, and massive flooding in parts of Texas. Had it not been for Katrina just one month earlier, Rita would have easily been considered the worse storm of 2005.
By the time Rita passed I was weary of hurricanes. My feeling was that if there were to be another hurricane, just hurry up and get it over with before we replaced our drywall.