Hurricane Katrina

'Me and Mama are gonna die' Dispatchers saved lives of desperate Katrina callers

AMANDA McCOY/SUN HERALD
Lou Blomberg and his mother rode out Hurricane Katrina in their home on The Point. As the water rose it washed the home from its foundation, and the two floated down the street while sheltering in the highest point of the home. They survived, eventually stopping in Michael Kovacevich's yard.
AMANDA McCOY/SUN HERALD Lou Blomberg and his mother rode out Hurricane Katrina in their home on The Point. As the water rose it washed the home from its foundation, and the two floated down the street while sheltering in the highest point of the home. They survived, eventually stopping in Michael Kovacevich's yard. SUN HERALD

The dispatchers have avoided lists that name Hurricane Katrina's dead, but they can still hear the voices of people who called 911, trapped in the storm.

The wind shrieked as the water climbed steps, covered floors, mounted countertops, reached ceilings, poured into attics.

Even police officers caught in storm surge radioed dispatchers to say they were trying to reach higher ground. First responders had to stand down by 9 a.m. as East Biloxi, Eagle Point and other areas were lost to the storm.

Dispatch supervisor Sheri Hokamp found for the first time in 20 years she had to tell people she could not send help. The callers would have to wait.

The calls started with the first dispatch shift at 6 a.m. Aug. 29. By 8 a.m., the callers were growing frantic. The volume of calls picked up. By 9 a.m., they were steady as a drumbeat. Hokamp said she felt like she was trapped in a horror movie, or somebody else's nightmare. "We're drowning," more than one caller said.

Dispatchers logged the calls on cards, noting addresses and the number of adults and children at each location, so they could rescue people or recover their bodies when the water subsided. Ten years later, the cards reside in a box in Hokamp's office.

8:58 a.m.: Woman on roof with four children, six months to 11 years old, 7th Street.

9:07 a.m.: Six adults, two children stranded on SUV roof, Bowen Street.

9:19 a.m.: Water 5 feet; 11 adults on ground floor, 10 children in attic, Nixon Street.

9:39 a.m.: First-floor apartment flooded; trying to get seniors out. Back Bay Place, Bayview Ave.

9:47 a.m.: Nine adults, two kids and four dogs on party barge, Lee St.

No, Hokamp did not want to see the lists of the missing or the dead afterward. Dispatcher Desiree Hernandez said she brought herself to visit the Katrina memorial on Biloxi's Town Green only a few years ago. She did not read the names etched in black granite.

Hokamp explained:

"It's easier for your mind's eye to think that they made it -- even though how slim of a chance it would have been -- than to know that you were the last person that talked to them, and they died and you couldn't help them.

"Because that's what we do. We help people. That goes against everything that we are. We felt like a failure. We hid from society.

" We felt like we had failed our community. And we did. We could not send help and that's what we do. We help and we save people. If somebody had ever told me that I wouldn't be able to save somebody that was dying, I wouldn't have believed them. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy."

Michael Kovacevich did not call the dispatchers, although someone in his house on Howard Avenue did at some point, just to let someone know how many souls were there.

Kovacevich, 56, is one of the last of The Point boys, born and bred. Point Cadet is a peninsula in East Biloxi. Back Bay wraps around its north side, flowing into the Mississippi Sound to the south and the Gulf beyond.

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 lashed 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.

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 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 swore she saw someone inside. He didn't believe her.

When the water finally washed out about 4 p.m., 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. The statue remains on the front porch of his refurbished home.

Kovacevich was chunking debris off the front porch when someone yelled for him. Lo and behold, someone was in the house against that oak limb after all.

On The Point, Lou Blomberg and his mother also had been watching the houses of neighbors float past. He heard the snap, snap, snap of 100-year-old timber in his own house. He and his mother fled to the second floor.

"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, does not like to talk about that day and has never been interviewed about what happened.

The city of Biloxi preserved a snippet from the 911 tape.

"Jo, this is Lou, I just wanted to let you know that me and Mama are gonna die."

"Where at?"

"We're trapped in our house at 126 Pine Street."

"Are y'all in the attic, Lou?

"Yes, We cannot get to the roof! It's blowing too hard! Mama can't swim, Jo! We're gonna die!"

"OK, Lou."

"I know there's nothing you can do. I just wanted to let you know."

"Well, just stay on the phone with me, Lou. And y'all are on the second floor?"

"Yes."

"OK."

"Jo-Jo, there's nothing we can do."

"Do y'all have any life jackets anywhere, Lou?"

"No."

"No life jackets? Do you have any coolers?"

"Mama, hang onto that cooler."

Water was up to his mother's neck. There was a mattress, too. Burgamy told him to put his mother on the mattress. She couldn't make it, so he sat his phone down on a floating box, dove under and shoved his mom onto the mattress. The phone fell into the water.

"I felt in my heart right now had I not made that call," Blomberg said, "there's no telling what would have happened. Because I've got all this stuff going through my head. 'What am I gonna do? What are we gonna do? So, she calmed me down."

Blomberg and his mother prayed during Katrina. A lot. Blomberg believes today God's answer came to him through his friend Burgamy. "It was meant for me to call her. It was meant for her to tell me what she told me. So I said, "Yeah, God's got a female voice because she told me. 'Calm down, take a breath.' She literally saved us both, she really did."

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."

The dispatchers of Katrina would never take credit for saving anyone. Sheri Hokamp has now worked as a dispatcher for 30 years. The voices of the storm were in her nightmares for months afterward. They have subsided, but talking about the hurricane summons them again.

She particularly remembers the call with the 10 children in the attic. Only one adult could fit up there with them. So many people with children called.

When told no children were among the 51 who died in the hurricane in Biloxi, relief washed over her face. She did not know.

"Most people -- and I mean almost everybody -- always think that they're the exception to the rule. Until something bad happens to them, they think it's going to happen to someone else, not them. And that's not the case. It happens to someone, and it can be you as well as anyone else.

"And by the time they realize that, it's too late because it's happening to them."

Emergency dispatcher Melissa Ishee was struck by the 10-year-old's faith that someone could and would come to save her.

To calm her down, Sarah Armstrong's parents had put her on the phone with Ishee as Hurricane Katrina flooded their house on Eagle Point, an area circled by the Biloxi and Tchoutacabouffa rivers and an inlet.

Sarah cried through the call. Ishee kept reassuring her that her mother and daddy were right there, and they would take care of her. It would be OK.

Couldn't they send a boat? Sarah wanted to know.

"Baby, we can't get a boat there," Ishee said.

"Why?" Sarah asked.

"Because of the weather," Ishee said. Sarah then requested a helicopter, but Ishee told her that wouldn't work, either; someone would be there to check on her family as soon as they could. Ishee suggested Sarah find something to color or draw on.

"Everything's wet," the child wailed.

Today, Sarah Armstrong Jeanfreau is 20 years old, married with two toddlers. She remains on the Coast, but lives on high ground north of the interstate. Time has softened her memory of Katrina and the emergency call. She doesn't remember being that upset.

The Armstrongs spent about 12 hours in the attic of their one-story house. Water washed out the ceiling. Sarah watched family treasures bob below in the water: photographs, her mom's Pati Bannister print, her stuffed elephant, Truffles. The memory stuck with her. Today, she has family photos and other important belongings locked in safes in case of fire and ready to load if a hurricane approaches.

During Katrina, she and her parents read the family Bible, the only possession they carried to the attic. They listened to what sounded like trains punctuating the ceaseless wind, assuming they were hearing tornadoes. Her father pounded a hole in the roof with a barstool that had floated by in case they had to swim out.

The Armstrongs' house remained intact. When the storm subsided, a neighbor retrieved them in a kayak and took them to high ground, where neighbors waited. An Eagle Point couple died in Katrina, although Sarah did not know them.

The emergency calls Ishee took that day are a blur because, she said, she had to put them out of her mind for her own well-being. But she has always remembered Sarah's call. In the days after Katrina, Sarah took flowers and a card to Ishee.

"To just drive around and look at the devastation, it was just like a feeling of despair," said Ishee, now the mother of an 8-year-old and a special education teacher in her hometown of Monroe, La., "and so Sarah and her family were like the sun peaking through the clouds. I don't think there's a better way to put that. They were that hope for survival that just appeared."

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