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Together despite overwhelming loss

Ocean Springs — Like many Coast residents, I stayed home for Hurricane Katrina. And, like almost all of them, I started questioning the wisdom of that decision when the Gulf of Mexico decided to come into my living room.

The first question from friends and family Up North is, “Why in the world did you stay?”

My home is located high on a hill overlooking Davis Bayou. It never flooded before, not even during Camille. I never dreamed it would flood here. Neither did my neighbors, who also flooded. The same story replayed literally a thousands times across the Coast. People didn’t think they would flood, based on Camille levels.

This storm came up rather quickly, and by the time many of us realized how serious it was, Interstate 10 was gridlocked from Slidell to the Mobile tunnel with all the traffic evacuating from New Orleans added to that from Mississippi.

In this case, we were “lucky.” My daughter and I were able to rush around and move things up high — rescuing my computer and other electronic equipment, precious family photos albums and much else. We got only a foot of water in the house, which quickly receded. We ripped out the carpets, and put out everything to dry. As a result of being there, we ended up sustaining only a few thousand dollars in damage rather than tens of thousands.

Consider yourself lucky if…

If you only flooded in this storm, and a week later had power and telephone restored, you were lucky. I would estimate from people I know here that one in five lost their home entirely, one in five had enough flooding that they won’t be able to live in their house until repairs are made, two more had flooding but can live in their home. And perhaps one in five had no significant damage. But even that lucky one in five may no longer have a job. Some people lost their homes and their jobs or businesses.

“First people were concerned with getting water and food,” a friend said. “After we got that, we said, ‘Oh, my gosh. We have no jobs’.”

There are many, many compelling stories from this storm about survival, the kindness of strangers, and the incredibly efficient efforts to bring relief to the Coast. My friend Sue and her family had to kick out a window to get out of the rising flood waters. They swam across the street to higher ground and were going to drive out during the middle of the hurricane when a neighbor they had never met motioned them over, took them in, and let them stay for more than a week.

• My friend Hope and her three kids spent nine hours in the attic of her brother’s house. The walls collapsed, but the structure stood. She and her parents lost their homes in East Biloxi.

• Jim tells about narrowly escaping death three times. He was slammed so strongly by the tidal surge it left bruises on his chest, and then he nearly drownedsmothered when a mattress he was using to shield himself fell on him.

• Jason and Leslie climbed onto their roof when the flood waters were rising, and clung to the lee side of the house as the storm surge sucked back into the Gulf. Then they climbed down, and started cleaning up the house.

Kind of like a war zone, but not really…

By the middle of the week after the storm, there were so many helicopters going by my daughter likened it to a war zone. When the Army convoys came in, we all cheered. When the huge convoys of electricity repair workers arrived, we cheered louder. And, man, did they have their work cut out for them.

When I saw the mangled mess of downed electric poles and wires along a good quarter mile of U.S. 90 near my house, I thought it would be weeks before they were repaired. Instead, they were repaired before the week was out.

When the first trucks of ice and water arrived, we were so very grateful. I thought I had stockpiled plenty of water. But the 15 gallons I had sitting outside floated off with the storm surge. And when you have no electricity and are working hard in this kind of heat, cold drinks are manna from heaven.

And after four days with no coffee or hot meals because of the lack of electricity, I was blessed by a neighbor — flooded far worse than us — who loaned me a camp stove. Facing another day of nasty cleanup work was much easier fortified by comfort food (fried potatoes and eggs) and hot coffee.

Tuning in to WLOX

I had enough gas, food, candles and flashlights, but my best hurricane supply purchase was a battery-operated television. While mopping out the flood water and discarding tons of files and books destroyed by the flood, I was at least connected.

I got to see WLOX anchor Rebecca Powers talk about treading water for four hours after losing her home. Amazing. She had lost everything but her dog (who was right next to her at the station, a bit spooked by the hurricane), and was there reassuring the rest of us. I got to see WLOX lose its roof in the middle of the storm — and hardly miss a beat while continuing to deliver vital news.

I saw Mayor A.J. Holloway, who looked like he was in shock after seeing the overwhelming devastation of Biloxi. I was glad he didn’t hide his emotions. It made it okay for the rest of us to be stunned, as well.

I can’t say enough good about WLOX’s live coverage following the storm. I watched it for many hours, and the coverage was simulcast on local radio stations providing people with vital information about storm damages, relief supplies and where medical needs could be met.

I’ve never been prouder of my profession.

Rebecca, Dave Elliot and others talked about how we hadn’t been adequately prepared. About what we would do differently next time — like get the hell out! But that we also shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much about it because we had already suffered enough. And we shared together the grief at losing so much of our beloved coastal community.

An amazing resiliency

As they said on WLOX, this was probably the most traumatic event of a lifetime for most of us. But we were in it together, and hardly had Katrina blown through here before people were talking about how to rebuild the Coast better than ever.

I know we will all grieve more later, for the people, homes, business and historic landmarks lost. But right now, people are being amazingly resilient and helpful. I have been really touched by seeing the best side of human nature brought out by this tragedy.

A case in point is a piece of plywood sitting outside the most modest home in my neighborhood. It says, “Our Home Open To All. God Bless.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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