LONG BEACH — Brenda Johns and her neighbor, Willie Shook, took time Monday to pray that Tropical Storm Isaac won’t deal the devastating blow that Hurricane Katrina did. Then they got busy boarding up their homes.
The women are two of only three people who built back on their street in the quiet coastal town of Long Beach after Katrina wiped their neighborhood away.
Wednesday is the seven-year anniversary of Katrina, which killed hundreds and caused widespread destruction in Mississippi and Louisiana. One of the only things Shook recovered was a dress, which she found still on a hanger in a tree near her destroyed house.
“Katrina changed a lot of people, for good or bad,” said Shook, a 66-year-old retired assistant principal. “It changed me for the better. It showed me that we don’t really own anything. God gives it to us, and he can take it away. I’m at peace.”
Johns has seen her share of struggles, too. Her marriage began to crumble after Katrina, and her ex-husband’s reluctance to return to the Mississippi Gulf Coast may have had something to do with that, though they are still friends.
Johns, a fiery red-headed 66-year-old country gospel music singer and songwriter, penned a song about Katrina:
“Hurricane Katrina will always be known, she took a lot of lives and she took a lot of homes.
But Katrina can’t stop us from building back again,
all we need is Jesus, our family and our friends,” the tune goes.
Forecasters predict Isaac could come ashore as a Category 1 hurricane as soon as Tuesday, and isn’t expected to be as bad as Katrina, but officials say coastal residents shouldn’t let their guard down.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant held a news conference in Gulfport on Monday and urged people in low-lying areas along the Gulf Coast to evacuate for Isaac, which is expected to bring heavy rain and high winds to the state, even if the center of the storm pushes ashore in Louisiana.
Some people were listening to that advice. Many homes were boarded up on the Mississippi coast, and harbors that are usually filled with boats were nearly empty.
Bryant said 1,500 National Guard soldiers and airmen are on standby to respond, and at least 40 state troopers could be brought in to help the 80 already stationed in the southern counties.
Bryant said he knows it’s difficult for people to leave, but “your home will be protected.”
He said no decision had been made about mandatory evacuations, but he urged people near the coastline or rivers to leave.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said shelters could started opening Monday in Hancock and Jackson counties on the Gulf Coast, in Forrest County about 50 miles inland and in Lauderdale and Neshoba counties in central Mississippi.
“This is a huge storm,” said MEMA director Robert Latham. “Yesterday afternoon, it was estimated to be 800 miles wide. That’s huge.”
Johns and Shook doubt they would be alive if they didn’t evacuate before Katrina, and they’re taking no chances this time. The women don’t have wind insurance because they can’t afford it, but they say people shouldn’t put so much stock in material possessions.
If the women’s houses are destroyed again, they say they’ll live together on their land in a travel trailer that belongs to Johns’ son.
“There’s a peace on this street, and I don’t know what it is,” Shook said.
Bryant, the first-term governor, also said Isaac’s approach near the Katrina anniversary “adds to the anxiety.”
“It is reliving one of the most challenging and difficult times in Mississippi’s history. We just hope it’s not to that level,” Bryant said.
Bryant said he is talking to President Barack Obama on Monday about federal aid that might be available to Mississippi. Bryant also said he is talking to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal about whether to consider starting contraflow — using what are normally southbound lanes for northbound traffic — on Interstates 55 and 59. Bryant said such a move would be considered, if needed, to help with evacuations.
The University of Southern Mississippi canceled classes Tuesday and Wednesday on its main campus in Hattiesburg and on its Gulf Coast campus.