If you’re driving in East Biloxi, it’s hard to miss the charming white cottage with the swing and Virgin Mary statue on the front porch.
The home in the 200 block of Howard Avenue stands tall and statuesque, surrounded by lots of rigid concrete and overgrown grass — symbols of the destruction left behind nearly 13 years ago when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.
Katrina’s wind and storm surge decimated The Point, the eastern tip of the Biloxi peninsula surrounded by Back Bay to the north and, on the south, by the Mississippi Sound and Gulf beyond.
The white house is so memorable because it’s one of the only ones left in the neighborhood, one of the only homes to survive both Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Katrina, and it has a bold message in red across the front, just above the porch ceiling: WATER LINE.
The day Katrina came ashore
Michael Kovacevich is one of the last of The Point boys, born and bred. And when Katrina tore through the place he’s called home his entire life, he became a hero.
Kovacevich lives in the house his grandfather built, near The Point’s tip. The family stayed in 1969 for Camille, a Category 5 hurricane with wind speeds that topped 155 miles per hour. When it got bad, Kovacevich’s parents latched the kids together with a rope so they would not blow away while they crossed the yard to their grandparents’ house, which took on 8 inches of water.
Like many on The Point, Kovacevich reasoned nothing could be worse than Camille, so he stayed for Katrina, along with his mother, one daughter, a sister and friends. Nine people were in the house when Katrina arrived.
By 4:30 a.m., Kovacevich had to wade through waist-high water to carry two neighbor girls to safety from their house across the street. Their parents followed.
The water was up to Kovacevich’s chest when he waded across Howard Avenue to rescue a friend’s son. Kovacevich’s next-door neighbor was screaming out his window by 8:30 a.m. He had a disabled wife. Kovacevich and a friend picked her up over the fence.
Next came a family of five who had been trapped in their attic.
‘When the water goes down, I’ll come get you.’
Kovacevich’s house sat relatively high, but the surge invaded about 9:15 a.m. Soon enough, everyone climbed the stairs to the second floor.
They forgot the food his sister had cooked for the day. They watched their platter of ham float out the back door, followed by a bowl of potato salad. Oddly, they later found the green beans still on the stove top.
A young lady down the street called, saying she was with her mom and three children.
“I said, ‘Well, I can’t come get you right now,’ “ Kovacevich recalled saying. “ ‘I’ve got 7 feet of water in my living room, but when the water goes down, I’ll come get you.’ “
Out the window, Kovacevich watched houses disintegrate under the pressure of waves. He watched houses float down the road. He saw his possessions bobbing around the living room. A heavy mirror banged and banged against the wall.
“We had 23 people, five dogs, a cat and a parrot up there,” he said. “Nobody panicked. Nobody cried. Nobody did nothing, which kind of saved us. Because if somebody would have lost it, we would have had problems upstairs. But everybody just sat in their place.
“Everybody had a little place they sat in and they stayed there. And nobody said nothing the whole day. It was weird.”
A house bobbed toward the Kovacevich home, coming to rest against the limb of a stout Live oak in the yard. Only the peak of the roof showed above the water line.
Kovacevich’s daughter, Lanie, swore she saw someone inside. He didn’t believe her.
He should have.
On nearby Pine Street, Lou Blomberg thought August 29, 2005, would be the day he took his last breath.
“We’re done,” he thought before he dialed 911 and talked to a dispatcher he had known 20 years or more, JoEtta Broussard Burgamy. Burgamy, now retired from the city of Biloxi, does not like to talk about that day and has never been interviewed about what happened.
“Jo, this is Lou, I just wanted to let you know that me and Mama are gonna die,” Blomberg said in the 911 tape. He and his mother were already on the second floor of their home, and water was at Blomberg’s neck. They couldn’t get onto the roof.
“I know there’s nothing you can do. I just wanted to let you know,” he told Burgamy, who he calls Jo.
“Jo-Jo, there’s nothing we can do.”
Burgamy instructed Lou to hang on to coolers, and she stayed on the phone while Lou got his mother on top of a floating mattress. His phone disappeared in the water, but Blomberg says it was Burgamy, his “guardian angel,” that helped him calm down and kept him alive.
The second floor of the Blomberg home had moved from Pine Street and came to rest on Kovacevich’s property on Howard Avenue. It was Lou and his mother who Lanie saw.
Kovacevich was chucking debris off the front porch when the water finally washed out about 4 p.m.
Blomberg yelled for him. It was the last rescue of the day.
As the water washed out of his home, Kovacevich heard two explosions that sounded like canon fire. The south-facing picture windows in the living room had blown out.
Staring in at him was a statue of the blessed Virgin Mary. To this day, he has been unable to find her owner.
Kovacevich still lives on Howard Avenue. He’s gone through a few more hurricanes since then, but none like Katrina.
Blomberg now lives in Ocean Springs. His mother, Velma Fay Blomberg, died in July at age 77. She always sent Burgamy flowers at Christmas with a card that said, “To our guardian angel.”
Some of this story originally appeared in the Sun Herald in 2015.