Katrina + 10

Jim Cantore: Katrina 'sets the bar for just how bad it can be'

Storm tracker and now ‘AMHQ’ co-host Jim Cantore reports from the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport as Hurricane Katrina’s surge waters flood the parking lot, and then after the water receded.
Storm tracker and now ‘AMHQ’ co-host Jim Cantore reports from the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport as Hurricane Katrina’s surge waters flood the parking lot, and then after the water receded.

If Jim Cantore's headed to your town, take cover.

It's a reaction so ingrained in the psyches of residents on the hurricane-prone Coast that when he was announced grand marshal of a 2015 Mardi Gras parade in Biloxi, people were affronted.

"We are doomed now," read one of many comments on the Sun Herald story. Another said, "Category 5 hurricane on its way!"

The reaction is not unexpected. Cantore sees as much on social media while tracking storms for The Weather Channel. And the last time he broadcast live from the Mississippi Coast, Katrina had just barreled through.

Now, 10 years later, he still recalls it as the hardest time of his life.

"It's amazing that's 10 years ago," he said. "I still think that hurricane sets the bar for just how bad it can be."

No stopping it

Cantore and his video crew started their marathon of coverage in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., five days before Katrina reached the northern Gulf.

"Nothing was stopping it at this point," he said.

By Aug. 27, the cone of uncertainty pointed toward South Mississippi. But not many were evacuating.

"It was a big time for Mississippi; it's a big economy to have everybody in those casinos so you don't want to kick them out," he said.

He waited until as long as possible to recommend evacuation, which he called a risky proposition. He remembers talking on air, pointing to the Treasure Bay Casino in Biloxi and saying it probably wouldn't be in good shape after a 25-foot storm surge.

"And Mayor A.J. Holloway came down and he said, 'Jimmy, you're scaring me.' And I said, 'Good! Because I want you guys to get out of here because it's really it's really gonna be bad.'"

Just how bad few could imagine.

"Even saying that at the time I really had no idea just how bad it was going to be," Cantore said. "I tried to imagine it and I tried to really relay that message but I just really can't picture in my mind miles and miles of destruction like that."

After the evacuation order, things escalated quickly, he said.

"Within 24 hours, all hell broke loose."

The not-so calm

While Cantore and crew were out filming, he said, a representative from the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport sought them out and offered shelter, noting the building was 27 feet above sea level.

Mary Gominger, then-AFRH spokeswoman, was assigned to keep track of The Weather Channel crew.

She said the veterans and staff had just gone through a test of its preparedness plan about a month before, and the mood was much the same at first.

But it started to shift that night, after Cantore arrived and televisions on each floor started showing national coverage of the area.

"Of course, you know, everywhere he goes the storm is gonna come," she said. "So that gave us the added, like, OK, this is where the 'X' is," she said.

By 5 a.m., it was dark and quiet except for the flicker of televisions and sound of the wind picking up. Gominger said Cantore was already up, checking The Weather Channel.

"He was really getting the feeling that this is gonna be huge," she said. "You could just tell in his mannerism."

The night before, Cantore said the crew had arrived at the AFRH too exhausted from days of coverage to move in equipment from their vehicles. Monday morning, with landfall still hours away, they went to the parking lot and found water already halfway up the tires.

As they scrambled to save equipment, Cantore said he had to pull some of his co-workers out of the rising water, convincing them the salt-water damage had already been done.

"There was a lot of initial panic," he said.

He did a live shot standing nearly waist-deep in water, and within an hour it was covering the top of a van.

Surprise surge

As someone who prides himself on knowing exactly what to expect, the early storm surge was a shock, especially when water started flowing into the AFRH's first floor.

"I'm like it has to be (storm surge,) but it can't be," he said. "It can't be this high, not if we're at 27 feet."

Ever the fact-checker, Cantore later looked up the building's specifications. It was 20 feet above sea level, not 27. "Big difference," he said.

All the food, medicine and supplies on the first floor, as well as the long-term care patients. He said people sprang into action to move everything and everyone to higher floors.

The generator was also on ground level so the power went out, disabling the elevators.

"It was kind of pandemonium," he said. "It went from bad to worse that morning."

Unable to film, Cantore and the crew pitched in to help alongside about 20 Seabees.

"Thank God we had those Navy Seabees there. Thank God, or there would have been death," he said.

Gominger said they were literally passing veterans up the stairwell along with supplies.

After everyone was settled, it was an anxious waiting game for the familiar crescendo, pause and decrescendo outside.

Cantore said one of the bright spots was spending time with the retirees.

"Half the fun was staying with these guys and talking to them and realizing they went through a war -- or two; they can make it through this," he said.

Outside, roiling waters surrounded the building and winds broke through some smaller windows designed to withstand 180-mph winds.

"The wind and the water was pushing the cars on top of each other," Cantore said. "It was amazing."

'Like a movie set'

The sun rose on an entirely new landscape Tuesday.

As is typical for August, temperatures quickly rose into the 90s. The contaminated water and no-longer-living organisms started to cook, creating the infamous "smell of death" as Cantore and many others have called it.

The crew got its satellite truck operational as soon as possible and started doing live shots, struggling to comprehend the destruction around them.

Weather Channel footage shows Cantore with the Gulfport water tower on its side in the background, apparently giving an answer to how long the storm lasted.

His usual determined gaze and confident tone are gone. He's looking at the ground, shaking his head, trying to associate numbers with the previous night, and exhales sharply.

"Phew, gosh, it stayed for a long time; it felt like forever," he says quietly, pausing. "I mean, I don't even know, it could have been four or five hours," and looks back up at the camera.

Cantore said images that stick in his mind are wrecked antebellum homes, a boat sticking out the second story of a hotel, casinos covering the road, a dying sea lion.

"It was like a movie set," he said. "I mean it was just brutal."

In the busy-ness of the aftermath -- always another task to be completed -- the full impact of what happened took a while to sink in.

"We operated at such a speed that you didn't have time for emotion, you didn't have time to process," the AFRH's Gominger said.

And the processing was often triggered by seemingly insignificant things.

For Gominger, it was a dead squirrel. For Cantore, a lost sneaker.

About a month after the storm while filming a follow-up story, Cantore asked Gominger to take him up to the AFRH room he had stayed in. There he found a shoe he had left behind.

"He got so emotional, he really did," she said. "I guess it just all started flooding back to him."

Cantore is glad he stayed in Mississippi, though.

"We let everybody know The Weather Channel rode through this in Mississippi, we did not go to New Orleans," he said. "We were in the worst part of the natural disaster, which was the Mississippi Coast, the forgotten coast, as it's often called."

Not his meme

One thing the now-host of The Weather Channel's morning show, "AMHQ," would like to clear up with South Mississippians is his association with the land mass meme.

Cantore stayed as long as he was able to after Katrina, first in the stifling AFRH after the veterans had been dispatched on buses to Washington, then sleepless nights in a car. His last night here, he remembers being exhausted, eating Frosted Mini-Wheats and Cheez Whiz for dinner.

During that time, he shaved his head for the first time, and has kept it that way.

"It was actually hard to leave," he said. "I felt like I was abandoning the people that I went through that with."

Cantore did not call Mississippi a land mass. As happens on the Internet occasionally, a small gaffe snowballs into a flood of inaccurate outrage.

During a forecast for Hurricane Isaac on Aug. 26, 2012, a broadcaster for Canada's The Weather Network spoke of "the Louisiana and Alabama border." That same day, a page titled "The Land Mass Between NOLA and Mobile" was created, a ranting video was made, a blog posted. The next day, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith joined the fracas.

Smith, smugly reporting from New Orleans, said, "Between Mobile in Alabama and New Orleans in Louisiana is what The Weather Channel has inexplicably named a land mass. Hello, Weather Channel! That's called Mississippi. It's what Hurricane Katrina hit and destroyed. Maybe you missed it."

Then Cantore said he was bombarded with tweets asking how he forgot Mississippi.

"The Weather Channel absolutely knows where the state of Mississippi is. I was very hurt by that and insulted by that. We never forgot Mississippi, nor have I ever forgotten Mississippi. That fact should have been researched before it was blamed on us."

Lessons learned

That misconception also stings because, as many Coastians do, Cantore considers Katrina a major, if harrowing, milestone that left him changed.

"It was my war," he said. "That's nothing like what our soldiers served in, in any way, shape, or form, but in terms of my life, that was my war. And unfortunately, it still is."

It also has permanently shifted his life's priorities, as Coastians can relate to.

"I certainly don't spend as much time sweatin' the small stuff," he laughed.

Covering the aftermath also affected his reporting.

"I realized that I couldn't get everybody out of harm's way, because not everybody listens, he said. "But I certainly had a lot more confidence going forward, when I thought something was going to be bad, to project the right tone and message in my broadcast."

He again mentioned Holloway.

"When Mayor Holloway came down and said, 'You know, Jim you're scaring me,' I wasn't afraid to tell him that's good, I'm glad that I'm doing that, sir."

The next one

One thing Cantore says he is always worried about is another Katrina.

He said there will always be hurricanes, but climate change could make their effects worse. If oceans continue to heat and sea levels rise, as they have for the past 30 years, he said, "then there's a chance to have worse storms than Katrina."

For example, he said if the sea level were to rise 2 or 3 inches in the next 10 years, areas that didn't flood during Katrina would flood with a storm of the same strength. It's not something that would likely be measurable in our lifetimes, he said, but "it's certainly a valid point going forward."

Valid especially for new construction.

"If I were going to build a house in 10 years that I wanted to last until 2150, I would think twice about where I put it on the sea coast, or at least build to that potential disaster," he said.

Many Coastians have already done that. He said it's weird coming back to Waveland and Pass Christian and seeing houses 30 feet in the air. "It's like, wow, you really like it here."

He can see the appeal of the Coast.

"It's a beautiful, special place," he said. He mentioned specifically frequenting Mary Mahoney's restaurant in Biloxi, where he had been before the storm.

"And then to come back a few years later and having that restaurant still there, and walking in and seeing the water lines," he said, pausing. "You never forget."

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