I wore a horrendous Hawaiian shirt to school on Friday, August 26, 2005.
The theme of Hancock High’s pep rally that week was “Beach The Bay.”
The Hancock Hawks faced their rivals, the Bay High Tigers, Friday night. During the pep rally, we hit beach balls to each other and cheered. We fought for the spirit stick.
When I left school that afternoon, I had no idea I wouldn’t see some of my best friends and classmates for more than a month.
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Hurricane Katrina had been upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane that day, and by Monday morning, my family was huddled in the garage of my aunt’s house in Kiln, listening to the radio. We took cold showers and used bunny ears to watch Rebecca Powers travel by boat to the WLOX-TV station.
Our phones weren’t working at first, so we could not get in touch with family. I did not know how bad the devastation was in other areas, because it was hard to get out of Kiln with all the fallen trees. But then I heard on the radio, “If you live in Hancock County, don’t try to come back. You can’t get in or out. Everything is gone.”
And that’s when the shivers began.
We finally made it to Bay St. Louis to rescue some family who had gotten stuck in Katrina’s wrath. It was hard to even make out streets. As a tenth-grader, I knew Katrina was going to be bad, but I never thought it would be this bad.
My family who left cried when they heard our voices. Most of them lost everything. Our house remained.
But as people began coming out of their houses and sort through the rubble and destruction and find their new normal in a post-Katrina landscape, I went somewhere else — to Dolly’s Quick Stop.
We opened the morning after Katrina rolled through, letting 10 people in the store at a time. The owners of the store manned the door while we cleaned as best we could and got calculators ready. We cooked all the food that was still frozen — we had gas fryers — and gave it to customers as they came in to buy drinks or other things they could find.
Within a few days, our power was back on. We cleaned up and got to work. I probably worked more hours at Dolly’s Quick Stop in 2005 than I spent at home or at school.
There was a core group of people who got hired and worked together through Katrina. All but one of us were still high school students.
We were the first place in the county to sell gas, sodas and cold beer. The Budweiser truck came three days after Katrina, and people rejoiced.
We’d work until 2 a.m. at night and get escorted home by the National Guard. On the weekends, we’d be up at 3 a.m., making breakfast sandwiches for the hundreds of workers who were going out to clean up the Coast and the locals who were tired of their MREs.
We had one line inside for gas, and the person who ran that register never got to leave it for their entire shift. The cars just kept coming.
People were amazing and made us laugh — and some were mean. Others would try to skip the breakfast or dinner line, and we shut that down really quick.
“You can go to the back of the line,” we’d say, which stretched all the way down the drink aisle to the back of the store.
Months later, the lines were still long, but the rules got more lenient, and all of us would take the back roads to Edgewater Mall to spend our earnings, or travel up to Hattiesburg for fun day of shopping and eating.
To this day, all of us are still very, very close. I talk to most of my Dolly’s coworkers on a daily or weekly basis. When I go into the store when I’m in the Kiln, I always smile to myself when walking in the store. No matter who is behind the counter or what’s going on, it always feels like home.
Hurricane Katrina was the most devastating event I’ve ever dealt with in my adult life, but finding a home with at a place that opened to help their community when they needed it most is the one thing I’ll always treasure about the storm.