Ocean Springs — There has been no shortage of news about what went wrong with the disaster relief effort after Hurricane Katrina. But quite an amazing number of things went right, as well. Without witnessing it, you can hardly imagine how many people and resources were brought to bear to help heal the Coast in the first two weeks after Katrina.
My phone kept working even during the hurricane. I know because when my house was flooding from the storm surge, I got a call from my sister in Canada. (She teased me later about apologizing that I couldn’t talk because my house was flooding).
Other than for three days after the storm, I had phone service the entire time — even while the cables were laying on the street. It was hard to get through to a lot of numbers because all circuits were busy. But I could reach and reassure friends and family we were okay by calling early in the day and late at night.
Second, considering the staggering amount of debris, the roads got cleared enough at least to pass in very short order. My water and sewer here in Ocean Springs worked except for a few hours the day of the storm.
“My department heads and staff were prepared as best as possible,” said Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran. “We had buildings and space identified for FEMA and emergency shelters. Our public works crew was able to clear the streets or make them passable within 48 hours. We got water up and running to 70% of the city within 72 hours.”
Before the power came on some businesses pulled out old-fashioned calculators and opened to provide food, drinks and other supplies. La La Land, a convenience store on U.S. 90 between Ocean Springs and Gautier, was the only thing open for several days after the storm. I went the first day, and the shelves were nearly bare. But somehow they managed to replenish supplies, and even used a generator to pump gasoline.
Staggering aid effort
Another thing amazing to witness was the amount of aid that poured into the community. The many church groups that helped must have had trailers already packed and ready to go to get here so quickly. In Ocean Springs, the first major donations — food, water and clothing — came from the New Life Community Church in Chicago which, with the assistance of the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, arrived six days after the storm.
Church relief effort seemed to sprout on very corner. The Sun Herald reported that some churches were just coming down, looking for a parking lot where food and water was being distributed, and setting up to deliver supplies.
In my neighborhood, a church group came by door-to-door with a trailer of goods. They handed me a garbage bag and told me to fill it up with whatever I needed.
Back on the grid
A week after the massive storm, 30% to 40% of South Mississippi had power restored. Two weeks after the storm, power had been restored to just about everyone who could still receive power. Considering the massive amount of damage, that was an incredible effort.
Coast Electric Company alone had to replace 30,000 power poles in their service territory. That represented 750 tractor trailer rigs full of poles. At the height of the recovery effort, Mississippi Power Company (MPC) had an estimated 11,000 people working to restore electric service.
“This effort of rebuilding our system in 12 or 13 days — after the most catastrophic damage our company has ever seen — is nothing short of miraculous,” said MPC spokesman Kurt Brautigam. “It’s a testament to the skills and dedication of our employees, who managed a workforce nearly double the number we thought we could bring into our area and still be effective. And it’s due in large part to the spirit and hard work of each of the workers who came here to assist us. Their efforts will never be forgotten by our company or our customers.”
Communication right after the storm was very difficult. Both cell and land lines were down. This lack of communication makes it even more remarkable how well people worked together to pick up after the storm. People were very concerned, of course, about friends and loved ones. The first messages that got across were text messaging.
My neighbor predicts text messaging is going to be increasingly popular on the Coast as a result of this experience. It may be considered a prudent part of hurricane preparedness.
Internet access also worked better than phone service after the storm. I was back online as soon as I had power restored a week after the storm. But phone service continued to be spotty. And folks with cable Internet were out of luck for a couple weeks after the storm as the system was down.
The loss of 13,000 casino jobs on the Coast is, of course, a huge concern. But most of the big casinos are paying employees for at least 90 days — some longer. They are working to place employees at other casino locations, and some casinos have large disaster assistance programs for their employees.
Another thing that went well is that Coast businesses made heroic efforts to make sure people got their paychecks despite mail service being down. In some cases, businesses made payroll without even having a computer up and running.
Above and beyond
When this is all over I think we should hand out some awards to businesses that performed above and beyond the call of duty. The electric line crews, public works employees and emergency service workers are obvious. But there were also a lot of small untold stories about business people really kicking in.
Master Grill in Ocean Springs and Casino Magic Biloxi are two businesses I know (there were likely many others) who after the storm cooked up everything that was going to spoil, and gave it out free.
T-9 Computers in Ocean Springs got running the minute they could, recognizing how important their computer services were to businesses trying to get back open. I had put my backup computer in for repairs prior to the storm and, if you don’t count the days they didn’t have electricity, T-9 got it repaired in the three days they promised.
A friend was one of the many who needed some home electric meter repairs from a licensed electrician before he could get the power turned on. My friend was amazed he was able to reach an electrician who came out that same day and fixed the problem. This electrician probably could have made a $1,000 that day just by charging a reasonable $100 for each house visited. Instead, he didn’t charge any of the people he helped that day.
“I’m just trying to help people who have lost so much,” he said.
I don’t know the name of the electrician, or the many thousands of others who pitched in to help each other out during the storm. But I know there were a large number of people who were Hurricane Katrina Good Samaritans. People all over the country and world have responded with love and support. When the chips were down, the Coast was not forgotten.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.