Mississippi Gulf Coast — As many as a third of the homes in Ocean Springs have been destroyed or severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina. And Ocean Springs got off lightly compared to Waveland and Bay St. Louis on the western part of the Mississippi Gulf Coast where the storm spent the largest amount of fury.
During the early days after the hurricane, most of the national media attention was on problems with flooding in New Orleans and the evacuation of the Superdome. The Mississippi Gulf Coast suffered worse hurricane damage, but it was harder for media to get to places like Waveland, where nearly the entire town was wiped away by a wall of water. After the Superdome evacuees were moved, attention moved to scenes of the almost unbelievable havoc in coastal Mississippi.
People in the rest of the country likely knew more earlier than residents of the Mississippi Gulf Coast about just how much devastation came ashore with Katrina. That is because the Coast was without power and telephone service for most of the first week after the storm. Hattiesburg also saw widespread storm damage and power outages, with some saying that it can’t be called the Pine Belt anymore because 80% of the pines have snapped off.
By Monday following the storm, an estimated 30% to 40% of people in South Mississippi had power restored as literally thousands of electric line repair workers converged to repair mangled, twisted wires and replace damaged electric poles.
For many Coast residents — all except those with a battery operated television — it was the first they saw the aerial images of massive damage from the storm that was the worst national disaster in the history of the U.S.
Gen. Roger Shields, Mississippi National Guard, said the zone of destruction could be likened to a wedge. It starts on the beachfront areas of Pascagoula going back a block or so, with the depth of destruction increasing farther and farther as you move west on the Coast.
“All the beach areas have massive devastation but as you go farther west, the inland devastation went much deeper,” Shields said. “Virtually the entire town of Waveland was totally devastated. Bay St. Louis also saw extreme damage.”
The week following the storm there have been 24-hour curfews in areas south of the railroad tracks in Gulfport and Long Beach. And people were still having trouble even getting into the areas of Waveland and Bay St. Louis where nearly every structure was destroyed or heavily damaged.
It wasn’t just beachfront areas that were damaged. Large pockets of rural Mississippi also were slammed, with the damage from the storm driving northward.
Response and scope of destruction
Help has been slow to reach rural areas. U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) has been critical of FEMA for refusing to deliver relief supplies in rural areas of Mississippi without National Guard escorts. While urban areas started getting relief supplies several days after the storm, residents of rural areas were largely left to fend on their own.
But in considering the government’s response, it is important to take into account the unprecedented need. As was pointed out in the national media, the zone of destruction was equal to the size of Great Britain. Literally hundreds of thousands of people were in need of help.
And tremendous and very welcome quantities of help have arrived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In addition to FEMA and the National Guard, private relief organizations like Red Cross and religious groups have been handing out free food, water, ice, clothing and household items. Grocery stores and other businesses started to reopen — a few as early as the second day after the storm, although lines of three hours at gasoline stations were common.
Areas in Jackson and Harrison counties have been easier to get aid to quickly than Hancock County, Gen. Shields said.
“Even though there are still needs in Jackson County, when additional forces get here the focus will be on the western area life support including water and food,” Shields said. Shields was particularly concerned with Hancock County.
“In Hancock County, we haven’t had trouble getting them water and ice,” he said. “But these folks are in dire need of food. We have 1.7 million MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) that are coming into Mississippi to be distributed.”
Comments were made on the live coverage by WLOX Channel 13 television in Biloxi following the storm that perhaps the worst thing someone could be was a Camille survivor. If they survived Camille in their home, they believed they could survive anything. But Katrina had a much higher storm surge.
It was a bigger storm.
“There were probably people who lived here on the Coast who survived Camille and felt they could survive anything,” Shields said. “But this hurricane was more devastating. Camille was not of this magnitude or as widespread. Many things that survived Camille were destroyed by Katrina.”
Shields, who met with the Ocean Springs mayor and aldermen at a special called meeting on Sunday, September 4, said about half of the Mississippi National Guard is deployed to Iraq. Hence, Guard members have been brought in from other states.
Help included 1,100 Alabama National Guard members who helped immediately after the storm. And 8,000 troops from Indiana and surrounding states were being brought in the second week after the storm. Three Marine battalions were also coming to help.
“We are going to have so much military help around here it is unbelievable,” Shields said. “The hardest thing is finding them places to stay. They are primarily being housed at local schools. A tent the size of a football field is being put up in Ocean Springs.”
While the looting and disruption in New Orleans were widely publicized, it didn’t make news that people in Mississippi were remarkably well behaved. At the Sunday meeting of the Ocean Springs Council, the police chief shook his head in amazement that in the week after the hurricane with no traffic lights on U.S. 90, there hadn’t been a single accident because people were driving so carefully and courteously treating each intersection as a four-way stop.
“For the most part, people have been acting very civil,” Shields said. “They have had a very helpful attitude. The power company workers are doing an unbelievable job. They are the hardest working people I have ever seen in my life. I have never seen one with a bad attitude.”
One aftermath of the storm will be to gauge the effectiveness of the disaster response. Shields said MOEs (Measures of Effectiveness) would be used to track response to first get power to critical areas like hospitals and then move out to restore normalcy.
“When you have power, people feel things are starting to get back to normal,” Shields said. “The Coast will just gradually get back to normal, but it will be a long time before extreme southern portions get power. In many cases, there is nothing left to power.”
Victims of the storm banded together with neighbors helping provide shelter and security. Food, water and other resources were shared freely. The Sun Herald ran an article called “Bonded by destruction” about how the crisis has resulted in new found friendships between neighbors who might not have even known each other’s names before the storm.
Neighbors looked out after each other as homes were left wide open — there was no electricity for air conditioning and thousands of homes needed to be dried out after flooding — with belongings spread out over the yard to dry.
It is one thing to look at the aerial photos or even street-level footage of the massive damage caused by tidal wave. Many people have described it as surreal to go down streets where major landmark buildings have completely vanished.
But how do you use words to convey just how many people have been flooded or lost their homes, business, schools and churches as a result of this unprecedented event? One way is to look at the Mississippi Power Company (MPC) statistics. The company that right after the storm had 100% of its network down normally serves 195,000 customers in South Mississippi. MPC was expecting to have service restored to all of the customers who could receive power by 13 days after the storm. But that will be only an estimated 170,000 customers. That number doesn’t include customers of rural electric associations that are unable to receive power.
It isn’t yet known how many of those customers might be able to make repairs. But those numbers give an idea of the breadth of the loss. If you consider one customer might represent two people, that would be the equivalent of a city of 50,000.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.