Anyone who lived along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005 can tell you where they were and how they spent the harrowing six hours of pounding wind, rain and rising waters delivered by the infamous Hurricane Katrina on August 29 that year. Though Mississippians find themselves in a different kind of crisis fifteen years later, empty beachfront lots and diseased Live Oaks testify to the lasting mark Katrina left.
The effects of Katrina on coastal Mississippi often took a backseat to the destruction that occurred in New Orleans, devastating as it was. Locals jokingly refer to their state as the “landmass between New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama,” a phrase used during a 2012 weather report on another incoming hurricane to refer to Mississippi.
There are countless Coast residents, many in Long Beach, whose lives took an unforeseen turn that day. Karen Dykes was one such person.
The registered nurse held it together until her five-year-old son burst with excitement over seeing a real bed, making snow angels in the blankets. It was then that the realities of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath struck her heart.
Karen and her husband David, a pharmacist, spent their first fifteen years of marriage setting aside money for retirement, building a comfortable cushion of financial security. When they had an unexpected pregnancy, their money was redirected to a bouncing blonde baby boy, Eli. That fifteen years prior to his birth would prove to be their saving grace when their home was flattened by Katrina’s tidal surge and their insurance turned out to be useless.
Karen and her family had waited out the storm in a room facing the bay in David’s office building, and, from their perspective, this storm looked no worse than the occasional hurricane the Coast is used to experiencing every couple of years. She didn’t believe David when he went on an emergency run with police and returned to say they no longer had a home.
“I didn’t believe him until I saw it myself,” she said. “I knew I’d come back and we wouldn’t have electricity. That’s the only thing that came in my mind.”
She would spend the next few weeks combing through debris, trying to find anything that resembled the life they had known through August 28.
They used their savings to pay off the house that no longer existed and to put down a payment on a new home, also in Long Beach. People did what they had to do to survive.
Until they got into their new home, they lived in David’s office at the Veteran’s Affairs building, in a VA provided trailer, and in a rental home in an area that they would’ve once considered less than desirable. They slept on air mattresses, wore donated clothes, and stood in line for food and water. As food and resources grew scarce in the days following the storm, Karen would forego meals so that Eli could eat.
For Karen, the hardest part of the storm aftermath was being on the receiving side. She was intuitively a giver by nature and by practice, having just gone on a medical mission trip to Honduras a month prior to the storm. She says after being handed donated clothes, she has a higher standard for what is acceptable to share with someone in need.
She did what she could to provide for her surrounding needs. She gave people rides, because the VA had provided gasoline when there was none to be found elsewhere. Her husband was able to get her a cooler with some tetanus shots, which she administered door to door. She and Eli had already stepped on rusty debris, and she assumed they were not alone. Medical care was what she knew, and she utilized her abilities on and off the clock.
She said the emergency room was a nightmare in the days following Katrina. She had to be escorted in by police when she went by the day after the storm, as newly homeless people tried to rush the doors.
Once inside, she began to learn how her co-workers had fared during the storm. A nurse anesthetist who lived in a beachfront apartment had watched helplessly as his neighbors were overtaken by the surge. He was also pulled into rushing waters, thinking several times that he would succumb to death only to be swept back to the surface, gasping for air. He was found on August 30, taking shelter in a car, and would spend the next two weeks in the ICU.
As the hospital employees relayed their stories and cared for the wounded, Karen would look up to see an image that haunted her. Her direct supervisor and his children walked in, covered in mud from head to toe after being stranded on their roof for 24 hours. They had come to take showers.
Shared trauma will bring out the best and the worst in people, as COVID-19 is proving once again. But after Katrina, Karen observed more good than bad. Eli eventually got his own bed, given to him by Karen’s friend.
“Eli still won’t get rid of one of the blankets he got,” she said. “He said it was a comforting thing, his Katrina blanket.”
Hers is one of many Katrina tales to tell.
Residents know the risks associated with living coastal, and many would say the breathtaking views while driving along beach-side highways, ever-present ocean breezes to cut the mostly year-round heat, and combination of southern hospitality and southern cooking are more than enough to make up for those risks. As the adage says, time heals all wounds, and residents and businesses are again rolling the dice to plant themselves beside the gray waters and majestic live oaks.
It proves wise, though, to take note of bare slabs still lying as tombstone-like reminders when considering insurance options. The memories of what the Coast once was, what it has been through, resurface year to year when hurricane season is in full swing, and coastal residents take a collective sigh of relief when signs of Christmas usher out the possibility of a horrible storm.