Hurricane Katrina

Pascagoula family's Katrina story: 6 feet of water, 6 inches of mud and years of recovery

Rene' Shaw sits at her dining room table while looking through photographs of her Pascagoula home. The stack included photos of the house before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as well as many of the renovation process. Shaw and her family stayed in the home during the storm, which flooded the first floor with 6 feet of water.
AMANDA McCOY/SUN HERALD Rene' Shaw sits at her dining room table while looking through photographs of her Pascagoula home. The stack included photos of the house before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as well as many of the renovation process. Shaw and her family stayed in the home during the storm, which flooded the first floor with 6 feet of water. SUN HERALD

PASCAGOULA -- Flipping through a handful of photos, René Shaw recalls details of her house that have changed in the nine years since Hurricane Katrina barged in.

Six sets of French doors replaced with double windows. Fireplace "salvaged" and redone. Columns in the front of the house taken out and replaced with wider columns designed by her and her husband, Randy.

The basketball goal used by her twin teenage sons, Matthew and Richard, taken down. "It never went back up," she says. "The boys were over that."

Privacy fences -- gone.

Carpet on the bottom floor -- gone.

"There is no carpet," she says with attitude. "There will be no carpet on the bottom floor of this house."

The Shaw family, like countless others, learned the damage floodwaters can do to a home. They've also learned how long and difficult recovery can be.

"Six feet of water leaves 6 inches of mud," René says. "We haven't recovered yet to where our house is back to where we want it to be."

Luckily, the water didn't reach their second story and the one-two punch of swirling floodwaters and hurricane-force winds didn't knock the house down -- with them inside.

"It never occurred to me that the water would keep rising," Randy says. "I was just so focused on what was going on. I was more concerned about the house coming down. I was just praying it wouldn't. Because then, we'd have to find trees to hang onto."

In Mississippi, Hurricane Katrina destroyed nearly 70,000 homes, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, and caused major damage, including flooding, to more than 65,000 homes. More than 100,000 homes in Mississippi received minor damage.

"This is something that will go on for many, many years, especially recovering from the emotional stress," says Brett Carr, a MEMA public information officer. "It's been nine years but there's still a lot of people who have not recovered fully."

Two days before Katrina's landfall, the Shaws decided to stay put. They boarded up 702 Eastwood, their two-story home just 100 yards from the beach of the Mississippi Sound.

They had bought the house in 2001 and had three summers of storm "scares." René, born and raised in Pascagoula, and Randy, whose family is from Texas and who grew up in Picayune, consider themselves well-versed in a hurricane's capabilities.

They evaluated their situation. "The storm surge was predicted at 11 to 15 feet. Our elevation is 11½ feet," René says. "'OK, we might have 6 inches,' they were thinking. 'We might have 3 feet of water.'"

By Sunday, the storm started to look worse. They watched the weather most of the night.

"Monday, we got up about 6 and the power was still on," René says. "We were getting wind, of course. I turned on the TV and I saw the eye of the thing due south of Venice, La., and I said, 'OK, here we go.'"

They looked out the front door through "view ports," holes they had cut in some of the plywood protecting their doors and windows from flying debris.

"Water was already covering the street and coming up in the yard," René says. "We were like, 'Oh, it's coming on.'"

René's daughter, Stephanie, then 25, had joined the family to ride out the storm. She brought her two dogs, who joined René and Randy's dog, Penny.

The dogs also had view ports cut in the plywood at their level because, as René says, "they were curious, too."

By about 7:30 a.m., René recollects, water slowly started entering the house from all sides, seeping in under the walls and soaking the carpet. The water outside was higher than what was finding its way inside, forming an inlet at the front door seam. "It was like this little fountain," René says.

The family had moved some of René's beloved antique furniture and other items to the second floor. As water filled the house, they tried to save more. René grabbed the video camera and started taping.

"We kept moving stuff," she says. "We said, 'Whatever's on the floor is already wet. Let's start moving other stuff.'"

When the water got knee to hip high, the rugs started floating. "That's a trip hazard. That can take you down," René says. "So we said, 'Let's go.'"

With the dogs safe in an upstairs room, the family of five sat above the water line on the stairs facing the front door.

As they watched their belongings float in the muddy water, Stephanie asked softly, "What happens if it gets to the second floor, Momma?"

René answered with silence. "I didn't have an answer for that."

By about 10 a.m., René says, her husband said he thought the water had peaked.

"We had done all we could do," she says, "so we went upstairs and we all took a nap. We needed to relax and wait for this to go out."

Before dozing off, René and Randy heard what sounded like large nails being pulled out of wood. René kept her eyes on one corner of the room, assuring herself it was not her roof being compromised.

"It was impossible to know what was going on outside," Randy says. "I was just laying there on one of the sofas, hearing these nails, but because of the wind I had no way to tell where they were coming from."

An hour or two later, René awoke to her cellphone ringing. It was her sister, Traci, in Theodore, Ala., checking on the family.

"We're trying to figure it out now," René told her.

From the top of the stairs, René and Randy got their first glimpse of the cleanup job ahead of them. "I just kind of looked around," René says, "and said, 'What do we do now?'"

"We were open to the front," she says. French doors in the dining room were gone. The china cabinets were gone, but their dishes were left sitting on the floor. Other furniture had disappeared. An empty picture frame hung from a chandelier.

"Water coming in the house was one thing," René says. "The (water) pressure leaving the house wreaked havoc."

"In the afternoon, once the excitement quieted down," Randy says, "the adventure began."

Randy's first order of business was to make a cup of coffee. He had drinking water and instant coffee stashed upstairs. The Coleman stove, however, was in the garage. He made his way through mud and debris to retrieve it.

"I'm a retired Navy engineer," Randy says. "We thrive on little sleep and lots of coffee. Making a cup of coffee was the most immediate problem I had to solve."

He also found sugar, still dry in a 1970s-era Tupperware container, on a bottom shelf in the kitchen. "Props to Tupperware," he says.

For Matthew and Richard, 16 at the time, the experience was "surreal." They said it "seemed like forever" before the water receded.

"That mud was everywhere," Richard recalls.

Soon after the winds died down, Stephanie and her brothers walked the four blocks to her house on Oliver Street, where she had intended to stay. "We had to force the door open. Water had gotten all the way up to the ceiling. Everything was ruined," Stephanie says.

"We did find two tubs. One had my baby blanket in it and sheets and blankets and some towels," she says. "My high school yearbooks were somehow in there with the towels. I don't know how they ended up there, but I'm glad they did."

She said a lot of her friends on Oliver Street "ended up in the attic or riding out on the rooftops." She was lucky not to be among them.

Back at 702 Eastwood, the first family dinner after Katrina's rampage was canned ravioli.

"The boys had their first beer that night," René says. "That we know of."

They slept in dry beds. They had flashlights, candles, some food and water.

Tuesday morning, René's mother, Carolyn, who had as much as 2 feet of flooding at her house on Martin Street a few blocks to the east, drove up in her van to take them to Theodore, Ala., for a shower at sister Traci's house.

In the following days, weeks and months, the family set out to reclaim their lives and salvage their property. Much they had to buy new. Four vehicles and two motorcycles "drowned."

"On Wednesday, we started making the calls to insurance companies," René says. The family also got groceries and "mucky boots" to set about clearing out the house.

"We'd come home, get our boots on and slosh about doing what we had to do," she says. "We had the first floor cleared out within two weeks." She'd ask her husband what to save and what to toss. His reply was to save everything they could, adding, "we could always throw it away later."

By mid-October, the Shaws had two "monstrous" piles of debris already removed from their home and property.

One more pile was left to go, from the back yard. During Katrina, their privacy fence to the north acted as a barrier for debris that washed up from the houses to the south.

The Shaws did the best they could to sort out items that belonged to neighbors, including a widowed neighbor's husband's war medals, most of his pipe collection, her jewelry box and many pictures. All that was left now was rubble.

On Oct. 19, 2005, René's 43rd birthday, she came home from work to find not only electricity restored to the house, but also a clear back yard and driveway. She grabbed the video camera to document its beauty.

A volunteer from a Nebraska church, with Randy's blessing, had stacked that last pile of debris neatly at the curb for pickup by the Army Corps of Engineers.

She would later send a donation and write a letter to the church's pastor, thanking the man "who came to her rescue."

"As it also happened," she wrote, "we had a new water heater installed that day before the pile was removed. So for my birthday, the back yard had been cleared, I was able to sweep my entire driveway and then go take my first hot shower in my home since the storm. The gifts I received last year, of which your church was a part, brought an emotional response from me that I still feel to this day."

By December 2006, the outside work on the house had been completed, though not without its troubles and contractor disputes. The Shaws say they had more than $50,000 in judgments they were unable to collect.

In 2007, the twins graduated high school and began junior college.

Also in 2007, Randy broke his left arm. While putting up molding on the walls above the stairs, scaffolding gave way and he plunged to the floor.

"I felt for my arm in front and it wasn't there, it was behind me," Randy says.

After four days in the hospital and surgery to pin his arm back together, Randy came home but was in no condition to do more work on the house.

"Things slowed down drastically after that," Randy says.

In 2008, the twins transitioned to a four-year college, the University of South Alabama, with increasing costs.

By 2010, René was laid off.

Even so, work did continue through the years, with the help of Matthew and Richard and friends. But today there is still work to be done inside -- the living room, the study and the master bedroom upstairs that the family chose to also renovate.

There is comfort in their home. And there's relief in knowing a serious flaw in their home's construction has been found and fixed.

"At some point, structural inspectors from California were here, and we had gutted the inside. They were looking around and they looked at the sill plates," René says. "They said, 'Where's your foundation bolts?'"

The house, built in the 1970s, must have escaped a time when building codes required bolts. There were nails holding the home together.

"So, we had to drill through and put in foundation bolts," René says. "That's why I say God held our house up and He held our house down."

The Shaws say they also bought every kind of strap they could buy, reinforcing and securing the foundation and walls.

"If another storm blows it away," René says, "it'll be in one big piece. It's put together that well now."