Hurricane Katrina

Carmen Stepanek: Karate Mama

Name: Carmen Stepanek

Age: 59

Before the storm: Stepanek lived in an apartment on the 11th floor of the Santa Maria retirement home on Beach Boulevard, in Biloxi. Ironically, she moved to South Mississippi from New York City in 1999, arriving on Aug. 29, exactly six years before Hurricane Katrina would come ashore in South Mississippi.

How did you survive the storm? Stepanek was among the residents of the retirement home ordered to evacuate the 13-story building at noon on Aug. 28.

She rode out the storm at a friend's home at Howard Avenue and Lee Street. She said she had to remain strong when floodwaters started to seep inside, rising 2 feet before the water started to recede.

She remembers hearing trees cracking at their roots and the waves rushing in.

"This friend of mine, he was scared," she said, "so I couldn't afford to be scared. I had to tell him don't worry about it, and then the water started to go down, down, down."

After the storm, she found an American flag the storm surge had washed ashore. After making reference to the Karate Kid, she tied a black bandana around her head and said, "I am Karate Mama. I fight. I fight for my life."

How are you surviving today? Stepanek planned to move back into the retirement home but when it closed she continued to stay at the Howard Avenue home she had evacuated to.

She's now renting one of the apartments at the same home after having rid the brick home of water, mud and waterlogged furniture.

She's still trying to get the ceiling in her apartment repaired, but isn't complaining. She's working at West End Cleaners in Biloxi, with plans to start a new job in housekeeping at the Beau Rivage. She's also a translator.

As for her reference to Karate Mama, her sentiment hasn't changed a bit a year later. She said, "I'm still Karate Mama because I'm not going to give up."

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