By James W. Newman
It all started when the TV announced that there was another hurricane out in the Atlantic that looked like it might cross South Florida and would probably turn north and slide up the Florida coast
into the Panhandle.
I considered myself a seasoned storm watcher after living within sight of the Gulf of Mexico for 37 years. I had seen a dozen storms, including the great landmark storm, Camille, when I first moved to the coastal area. The gulf storms are capable of a lot of damage but this one was projected to go north and miss me completely so I did not worry too much about it. It crossed Florida, smashing a lot of real estate and came into the Gulf. But, it did not turn north as predicted in spite of continuing predictions that it would. I began to track it seriously when it drifted west enough to put me in the bulls-eye. But the ever faithful forecasters now had it headed for the Texas coast and it would pass on the other side of me. Then they finally allowed as how it would move into the Louisiana an hour's drive west of New Orleans. That would put New Orleans in a bad way but we were 90 miles east of New Orleans and 120 miles east of the storm's eye and probably could fly our kites in the breeze. Another but, when it got into position to enter Louisiana, it started slashing across the marshes and drifting back to the east towards Gulfport and Biloxi. Furthermore, that would put us in the "Northeast Quadrant where the speed of the forward motion was added to the circulating wind speed.
Now I had worked out a formula for the storm hazard level to decide whether to evacuate the area or ride out the storm. My house is three blocks from the beach on a 19 ft ridge with some wind protection by trees and houses. It is low and well built on a concrete slab. It had given up a few shingles and been hit by flying limbs and pine cones but had withstood a Cat-5 blow in Camille. The Camille storm surge reached 15 feet there which left me a 4 ft safety factor and the historical records for 250 years showed that the water had never exceeded that level. I was aware that storms could go higher but the statistics were in my favor. It would take a cat five storm with the eye going directly into Biloxi bay to give me my worst case scenario and then I would run for high ground and safety.
The storm actually passed 30 miles west of my cut off point and it was generally considered only a Cat-4 at that time. I had let the trees and shrubbery grow up around my house and that would deflect the wind upwards a little to further protect the house. Nobody was home but me so I was more concerned about the two daughters who lived across town. It is true that there is a low place in the road towards town but if it flooded, it would run back into the Gulf in an hour or so. Counting on my five years of experience as an AF Planner and what I knew about previous storms, I deemed it safe to ride it out with a few precautions. I had enough food and water for a week and a tank full of gas in the car. The water and natural gas had never failed in a storm and I had a portable generator for lights and to keep the refrigerator cool. I could rough it for a day or two rather than buck that traffic trying to evacuate. (As it turned out, evacuating might have saved the 17 year old car but nothing else)
I rechecked my few preparations and rolled my wheelchair up by the front door so I could sit and watch the storm do its stuff.
It shredded the limbs off the trees out back and plucked the twigs and leaves off the live oak in the front yard but generally everything was holding firm. I was feeling pretty good about my situation until I realized I had over looked something. This was a huge storm and the wind would blow for a long time. It could continue piling up surge water on top of water. While I was marveling at the wind and noise, I noticed a gas can from the carport drifting across the yard and while I was wondering how the wind could slide it so easily, I noticed a bit of water under it. It was floating on water that was rising over the driveway. I looked out in the back yard and it was already ankle deep and getting deeper. I scrambled around and picked some things off the floor but in two or three minutes the water in the house was nearly knee deep. It was coming in everywhere. The rugs were floating and the cabinets were beginning to turn over. I went for my strong box of valuable papers in the bottom of a low cabinet where I could easily reach them. The water had swelled the drawer enough that I could not pull it open so I reached for the axe I kept by the bed as a fire axe in case of fire to open the sealed windows and smashed the drawer to get it out. Only a little water got to the papers through the keyhole so most of them were salvageable. We bought it to be fireproof but could have made a better choice. The weight of it helped me keep my balance on the floating carpets on my way to the door. Water was flowing in around the baseboards and through the wall sockets. Fortunately the electricity had been off since the first strong gusts hit the trees and power poles. A six inch layer of leaves and twigs from the live oak tree had collected around the front door but the screen door was keeping them out. An aluminum panel on the screen door gave way at that moment and a large quantity of leaves and water came rushing in. Water was stopped by the glass patio door and looking through it was like looking into the side of a fish bowl. The water was fairly clear and was now almost up to my trousers legs which were rolled to my knees. I didn't know how much more the water would rise
so started making my way to the door in case the house started breaking up and I had to take refuge in the oak tree. I had parked my Probe in a protected place by the door and facing the wind direction. Water was up to the bumpers so I opened the door and sat in the driver's seat which was still dry and to get out of the blowing rain. My riding mower was sitting peaceably in the carport with the water up to the seat. The yard water was not rolling with waves but was jittering on top and threads of water were being ripped off the surface and being blown away in big drops. The rain drops were blowing sideways and appeared to be moving about three or four times the speed that cars used in passing the driveway. I agreed with the weathermen that it must have been sweeping by at near 150 mph. Some of the neighbors houses were being broken up by the rollers driving timbers and debris into them but the heavy wire fence and the dense shrubbery was straining the water coming into my back yard and keeping it fairly calm. I had taken water safety courses in the Army and was a pretty good swimmer so was not particularly panicked by the water and found a comfortable place to sit while waiting for the wind to wear itself out or for possible rescue. The water stopped rising at about knee deep but was not showing any signs of receding. I could see my immediate neighbors and they were apparently safe. Further down the street, the houses were breaking up but the occupants were scrambling out. One aged couple in a house in a low place were lost and others were later rescued through holes in their roof but for the most part, the neighbors were safe. After waiting a half hour or so a young navy man drove his high wheel vehicle by and asked if I wanted to ride down the street to his house which was just above the water level. I sent him to collect the widow ladies next door and then went with him to his house where several people had assembled. We visited and compared experiences while some of the younger men searched the street for anyone needing help as the water slowly receded. The lady of the house made us sandwiches and opened a case of water bottles for us to drink as it was not clear where the still dribbling water faucets were potable. My car and the lawn mower would not start but I let the navy man recover my electric generator and dry it enough to supply some emergency power for the neighborhood.
After three hours or so the water was down enough for daughter Sarah and her husband to reach my place in their large pickup. We returned to my house and picked up a few valuables and drove to her house which was above the flood level and still livable. Daughter Linda's house got five feet of water inside but they were not injured and chose to stay with the house since she had her two near grown sons and some large dogs to look after. Both their cars had submerged but one had insurance. None of us had flood insurance but had coverage for wind damage. Most of the residents chose to stay with their houses and mine would have been inhabitable after the wet rugs were pulled out. I had gas, running water and spare food.
I went on to Sarah's house and we fired up her generator to operate a window air conditioner and her refrigerator and TV. We lived on our stored food stocks for two or three days until emergency assistance began to appear and my son in law started clearing fallen trees and cleaning yards around the area. He had gas enough to operate for nearly a week before he had to shut down his saws and tree equipment. Most businesses were shut down but the big emergencies were managed with volunteers Food, water, and ice were soon brought in and our little community seemed to be coping pretty well in spite of the hot days that always seem to follow a storm. Tarps and roof patches were in place before the rains returned.
Since my car would not start, I was unable to travel back and forth to start reclaiming my house but we did return for showers as Sarah's water supply was shut down.
At the end of the week, my two daughters from Texas came over with about 50 gallons of much needed gasoline for Randy's tree removing equipment and to see if I was willing to come back to Texas with them. Since I was not able to help with the clean up, I was something of a burden on Sarah's family and the community and agreed to return here to Ft Worth with them.
Electricity was restored about the fourth day and Sarah has her place back near normal. Linda is in process of moving into my house which is in much better shape than hers. I estimated my damage at about $26 K with a third of it insured. The government is trying to help with the rest but don't know how much that will amount to as they have a cap on the amount. Linda is getting quite a bit of help through her church so things are beginning to look better.
The schools and bridges are in bad shape but people are working around the problems pretty well. Casualties were low in Ocean Springs but a lot of the evacuees are vowing not to come back and remaining houses are scarce.
I am in process of deeding my house to Linda and no longer have a home there so I will have to make some decisions. My pension is still coming in so I have a lot of options.
I hope this dissertation did not get out of hand and I hope to get back into regular communications with everybody. I get frustrated trying to do business over a 600 mile gap but expect it all to work out. -- J W Newman.
[Jim Newman is a long time member of OSGS and a veteran of WW II. He wrote this initially for distribution to friends and relatives by e-mail for Columbus Day 2005. It was edited by D.B. Kuhl for this presentation.]