Three Stories From the Storm.

They do not talk about the storm much these days. They certainly do not say its name. But the five year anniversary of Katrina is just days away. These are three stories from the storm.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 23, 2010

Nearly every interview I’ve conducted in my month down in Biloxi has started with the same question: So, what’s your storm story?

Biloxians are unusual in that they rarely mention the name of the storm unless prompted. They’ll refer to the Hurricane of 1947 or Hurricane Camille by name, but they call Hurricane Katrina either “the hurricane” or “the storm.” When pressed, many locals have confessed that it’s a psychological trick: the less they mention Katrina, the easier it is repress memories from the hurricane that killed hundreds and displaced thousands more.

With the five-year anniversary of the storm just days away, Stry has been collecting stories about the Storm Otherwise Known As Katrina. Here are three:

¶ ¶ ¶

1.

Jim Cantore does not bring good news, and A.J. Holloway knew that already. So when the mayor of Biloxi got word that the Weather Channel’s Cantore had arrived in Biloxi, and that Katrina was close behind, Holloway picked up the phone.

“I called my wife and told her I had some bad news,” Holloway says. “She thought maybe something had happened to the kids. I told her, no, Jim Cantore is in town.”

Holloway showered, dressed and went down to the set for a Weather Channel interview. He came back a few hours later for a second interview, and by then, it didn’t take a meteorologist to figure out that this storm was going to hit the Mississippi coast. The barometric pressure had never been measured so low in the Gulf, dipping below records set during Hurricane Camille. The storm, on radar, covered the entire Gulf of Mexico like a lid. There didn’t appear to be anything between Florida and Texas but a big white swirl.

“What you need to do is to take a ride around your city,” Holloway remembers Cantore saying, “because you will never see it like this again.”

In that second TV interview, his last on-camera appearance before the storm, Holloway begged anyone watching to seek higher ground.

“I told the audience that they needed to get out of town and get out of here quick,” he says.

When the cameras turned off, Cantore offered Holloway advice of his own.

“What you need to do is to take a ride around your city,” Holloway remembers Cantore saying, “because you will never see it like this again.”

Holloway rounded up his family and brought them to his second-floor office in City Hall, where he and some of his staff rode out the storm. Katrina’s water surge did not reach beyond City Hall’s front steps, but it did take his car, parked in the lot behind Lameuse Street.

Katrina is now five years past. But every so often, Holloway says, he’ll get another reminder of that final Weather Channel plea.

“Just a few months ago, I ran into a lady who said she saw me on the TV, and she told her husband, ‘Let’s go,'” Holloway says. “She said, If I had not seen you, and you had not been so sincere and so concerned — I could tell it in your voice — we probably would have stayed here, in our house, and there wasn’t nothing left of our house.”

¶ ¶ ¶

Paul Tisdale, superintendent of the Biloxi school system.

(At top) Construction continues on the new Biloxi visitor’s center. (Above) Superintendent Dr. Paul A. Tisdale at the offices for the Biloxi school system.

2.

Dr. Paul A. Tisdale didn’t lose much in the storm, really. Other city offices lost everything. Biloxi’s fire trucks had been parked right in the path of the storm, and they’d been destroyed, and so had police cars and backhoes. But out of the entire fleet of school buses, the Biloxi school superintendent had lost just one — and it had been placed in the flood zone specifically for evacuation purposes.

The schools were mostly undamaged. The two worst hit were Gorenflo Elementary and Nichols Elementary, both in the east end of town. Nichols had eight feet of water inside, and Gorenflo had six. When Tisdale toured Gorenflo after the storm, there were still dead fish lying in the hallways. FEMA would eventually end up paying for $7 million of repairs to those schools, Tisdale says.

But Tisdale remembers waking up the morning after the storm to a single thought. His home’s walls were undamaged; his roof had peeled back some. His wife was listening to a battery-powered radio, which meant that there was no electricity, and no easy way to broadcast school-related news to parents.

“To have schools, you need to have a way to get kids to school. You have to have water. And you have to have enough teachers to teach. That’s all you need. You don’t need power.”

Tisdale had just one thought on his mind: “What do you? Crap, you can’t get anywhere.”

So he started working through a checklist.

“To have schools, you need to have a way to get kids to school, so transportation,” he says. “You have to have water. And you have to have enough teachers to teach. That’s all you need. You don’t need power.”

Tisdale started meeting with other superintendents in Harrison County. They all agreed that the sooner they got schools reopened, the sooner they could allow parents to focus on finding family, friends and jobs.

“It dawned on me,” Tisdale says. “If you have kids, you can’t go to work, you can’t do anything. You have to be there with your kids. So if we can just take care of the kids and make sure the kids are safe — if we don’t teach them a thing but just get them out of the community to a safe place where we can feed them — then as a parent, you can do what you have to to do.”

Officials decided that they needed to set a goal: open schools within 20 days.

Biloxi schools opened 19 days later.

¶ ¶ ¶

3.

Suddenly, Murella Herbert Powell had become allergic to her life’s work. She remembers breaking into her own library, the main archives, where the doors were under lock and key. She was in boots that hiked up her legs, and the mud was at her knees.

Powell had come to save her collection.

For 33 years, Powell had served as the local history and genealogy librarian for the city of Biloxi. She had stockpiled any primary or secondary document available: every phone directory, every photograph, every book of records from the Bradford O’Keefe Funeral Home, every journal that contained so much as a reference to Biloxi or Bilocchy, the old Indian spelling of the city. Some of the documents were at ground level when the storm brought 3.5 feet of water into the building.

“Nothing can destroy the history. It destroyed the reminders or the monuments of history, but it didn’t destroy the history. Nobody can take our history.”

30 percent of her collection was lost in the storm.

“A tragedy of my life,” she says.

Powell and her friends salvaged what they could, Powell trying to breathe as the mold and mildew in the building kick-started her allergies. Twice, they loaded up a pickup truck with all the books that would fit, until officials arrived and told Powell that the building was unsafe to reenter.

But not all was lost. Powell says the library shipped the remaining moldy books and documents to a company in Chicago, and they were able to restore much of the collection back to its original state. As long as some records remain, Powell believes the city can still maintain a link to its past.

The storm “didn’t destroy history,” Powell says. “Nothing can destroy the history. It destroyed the reminders or the monuments of history, but it didn’t destroy the history. Nobody can take our history.” ❑