I'm back from what used to be Waveland, Mississippi and I've been struggling with what I should say. By now you've seen the pictures, you've read the descriptions, and heard the survivors talk about their experience. It's all true. No one is exaggerating. This was the Big One. Here are some of the things I think I know after spending several days pulling wet carpet and throwing away furniture and family memories.
1. There is no such thing as a Hurricane Proof house
All along the beachfront of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, there were beautiful homes that were built to not only look good, but to survive anything nature threw at them. They're all gone. I heard the story of the man whose house was built specifically to survive hurricane force winds. The walls were made of reinforced concrete, there were hurricane shutters on the windows. He was so confident he stayed when the storm hit. What he didn't count on was a thirty foot wall of water that would hit with such force that it would blow away everything he had built, and suck him straight out of the building.
My Dad has a good friend who built his hurricane proof house up on pilings. Those pilings are all that's left.
The force of that wave was truly awsome. The only thing that blocked it was the levee formed by the railroad tracks. And I firmly believe that the levee only made a difference only because it ran the same direction as the water. It didn't so much block the water as it did nudge it in the direction it was already going. Those railroad tracks saved Dad's house. We figure the wave that made it over the tracks was about four feet high by the time it hit the house. He has a shed/barn in the back that took the wave first. Everything inside was swirled around. His camper parked under the carport floated out and into the driveway. The wave then broke against the back side of the house. Dad had boarded up the windows, so the initial wave didn't get in and the house is built high enough off the ground so that when the water did get inside we only had about 18 inches of mud and gunk inside. We also are surrounded by woods and bamboo that helped diffuse the force of the wave, so there was no structural damage. That's what saved his house. Distance from the beach. A levee. Natural buffers. Concrete and steel aren't enough.
2.My Sense of Permanence Is Gone
I know that all is vanity, and that everything we build is destined to disappear. But after Katrina I know it emotionally as well. The towns I grew up with. My aunt and uncle's house that was the scene for Thanksgiving's and Christmases and wedding receptions. The front of the house blown away. There's a sailboat in the back yard. And this is a house that sits on a hill above the bay, 21 feet above sea level. The beautiful homes along the beach that I've know all my life are simply gone. Nothing left but a few foundations on the ground, and plastic bags in the trees. My Dad and I talked about this on the ride back. The first thing that rattled my faith in permanence was my Mom's death four years ago. This just sealed it.
3.Get Flood Insurance. Even If You Don't Need It
Or an earthquake rider. Or whatever it is in your homeowner's policy that's not covered in your area. Almost no one in Dad's neighborhood had flood insurance. They weren't in a flood zone. So what's the point. Dad is among the lucky. He says he used to fuss with his State Farm agent every year and think, I don't really need to spend this $200. Now he's so glad he did. Withing 2 hours of meeting with the claim adjuster, he had a check. Because of my cousin the CPA, we also now have a contractor. Dad's house is going to be fine in a couple of months. His neighbors, my aunt and uncle, and most of my cousins are screwed. All but one lived in areas that no one ever thought would flood. Now it's going to take the Federal Government to strong arm the insurance companies into accepting that the high water wasn't "flooding", it was "wind driven high water". What's the difference? For many on the coast, it's the difference between rebuilding and bankruptcy.
4.We Really Do Need Each Other
The first question on the Coast is "Are you okay?" The second is "Have you heard from so and so? Did he make it?" I am stunned not so much by the fact that so many died, as I am that so many survived. Story after story of people who rode out the storm, only to find themselves climbing into the attic, then swimming underwater to safety. One couple swam out of their collapsing house and found a sailboat from the yacht club bobbing by. Others swam to floating roofs. A neighbor is convinced that people survived because the storm hit during daylight, and they could see where they were swimming to.
But once the storm was over, it was neighbors who helped each other. Everything was shared. There were plenty of stories of looting, some of it even while the winds howled. But what came through was the care and shared sacrifice. I heard the story of the rich woman who lived on the beach, in a beautiful home that came complete with a Picasso. She was in the house when it dissolved around her. Our neighbors found her stunned, walking up the street in two mismatched shoes that she pulled out of the mud. No money, no food, no home with a Picasso. They took her in, got her some water and food, and gave her 20 bucks. This from two people who are now living in a metal shed in their backyard, because their home was knocked off its foundation by a falling tree.
After the storm, help came slowly, but when it did come, it came from all over. Baptists with soup kitchens, Mormons with personal hygene kits. Firefighters from Georgia who delivered water to our house, and used heavy equipment to push the fallen trees out of our front yard. Regular Army in full battle gear going house to house, just to see if there was anything we needed, ice, water or whatever. Overhead a constant flow of helicopters. Some flying supplies to the cut-off rural areas, other patrolling at night with infrared, looking for looters.
One of my favorite stories is that of the Sea Coast Echo. The twice weekly chronicle of life in Hancock County that I've been reading since I could read. Their offices were blown away in the wave, so instead the paper is being produced in the water logged home of the publisher, Randy Ponder, who lives three doors down from Dad. Computers are being run by generator power, the paper is being printed in Kentucky and then distributed for free by the staff. You've never seen a newspaper as welcomed as that one. Information is a precious commodity there, particularly for people without electricity or mobility. No one calls it fish wrap now.
5.People Really Are Angry
They're angry because it took days for outside help to reach them. It was two days after the storm before I saw my first story from Hancock County, a CNN report from the foot of what used to be the Bay bridge. Hancock County is essentially a peninsula, and it was cut off. Food, water and help was slow in coming. When President Bush came to Gulfport for his second visit, the local paper, The Sun Herald, buried the story on page 7 with the sub-headline "President Can't Answer Questions About Insurance". This from a paper that endorsed him.
As angry as they are about the lack of federal help, the real anger is being saved for the insurance companies. I'm not going to complain about State Farm. It had people down there in force, got Dad emergency money here in Memphis, and had an adjuster meet us at the house. Because he had flood insurance he went to the front of the line. But we still don't know about the settlements for the flooded out truck or the damage to the house and barn from falling trees. Our across the street neighbors are in worse shape. Their adjuster for a company that I had never heard of showed up two weeks after the storm, spent 20 minutes walking around, and told them he would mail the results in about a week. Keep in mind, mail isn't being delivered. But you could tell he was going to write off the damage to flooding, and wasn't going to pay much at all. We all wanted to just throttle the guy. People know they should have had flood insurance. But they were told they didn't need it, or they convinced themselves. Either way they're stuck. Everything they've worked for is gone. You'd be angry, too.
6.We're Really Lucky
Lucky because my Dad still has a house. Lucky because he had flood insurance. Lucky because everyone in my large extended family on the Coast is alive. Lucky because the biggest, baddest hurricane that anyone around here can remember just clobbered us with her biggest, baddest punch, and we're still here. That surely counts for something.