Family forced to evacuate during storm returns home
GULFPORT -- Robert Wicht said it all happened very quickly and without much warning.
Wicht was with his wife, Rita, and their two children, preparing for a normal rainy day in their home on Depew Road, a subdivision off O'Neal Road in North Gulfport.
He said they have lived in the house, which sits about 30 yards from Flat Branch Creek, for more than a year.
"When we woke up, we heard some hail, and it was pretty soothing -- we enjoyed it," he said. "But I was not at all prepared for what was going to happen."
Wicht's family was one of several Thursday who had to be evacuated from the neighborhood by Gulfport police as heavy rains and a rapidly rising creek filled
a portion of the neighborhood with water, flooding homes, cars and anything that stood in its way.
"It was like someone opened up a levee," he said. "There was just no warning."
Wicht said as the morning progressed, a neighbor told him they needed to move to higher ground because of Flat Branch Creek.
"I had no idea about that creek," he said. "I looked over across the street, and it was about ready to release a lot of water into the neighborhood -- five minutes ago, there was like just a little bit of water and now it was almost over my mailbox."
Although Wicht's house sits on a slope, the water proved to be relentless.
"It was about 3 inches from coming in our house," he said.
As he was absorbing the scope of the situation, Wicht said, there was a knock at his front door.
"The Gulfport police showed up and asked us if we wanted to leave," he said. "We decided that was the best thing for us to do, so we went to a friend's house about three streets up -- we waded through about 5 feet of water to get out of there."
After a few hours, it was over and the water subsided.
Thursday afternoon was hot and muggy as the sun beamed down on Depew Road. Wicht and his family, like many in his neighborhood, were picking up debris from the storm. His house, he said, didn't receive any water damage. His neighbors across the street were not so fortunate -- water heavily damaged several homes along the creek bank.
Wicht reflected on his day and said he was glad his family was safe.
"I've never been through anything like this," he said. "Even with Hurricane Katrina, we had time to prepare, but the subtleness of this really puts it in its own category."
Gulfport police and firefighters jumped into heavy trucks and launched boats Thursday morning to rescue about 30 residents from their flooded homes north of Interstate 10 after more than 10 inches of rain fell over a few short hours.
"It was really, really bad," said police Sgt. Damon McDaniel, who was in the Orange Grove area Thursday morning. "I watched one of my officers, who was approximately 6 feet 4 inches tall, with water up to his chest. He was having trouble getting through it. The water was moving very fast. If someone had fallen in it, they would have been swept away."
McDaniel said the northern end of North Hills Subdivision was hit particularly hard.
People also were rescued from Budget Cleaners off Dedeaux Road, he said, in large vans and vehicles.
McDaniel said the water was receding Thursday afternoon from Dedeaux and other areas, although more rain is expected.
Police and firefighters went out into the storm after people started calling in to report they were trapped in their homes.
Thanks to the first responders' efforts, McDaniel said he had no reports of injuries early Thursday afternoon. By that time, Mayor Billy Hewes had declared a state of emergency.
"Our vehicles and our personnel are all over the city," McDaniel said. "It hit the northern areas really fast. (But) we were getting reports from all over the city."
Police and firefighters took some residents they rescued to a shelter at the Orange Grove Community Center, where they were offered blankets and food.
Hancock Emergency Management Director Brian Adam said he was aware of three families stuck in their homes from the flooding, off Mississippi 43 and off Crazy Horse Drive.
He said a resident helped first responders rescue a man clinging to a tree in a flooded area.
Adam said the man had driven around a barricade on Spring Creek Road. At some point, he got out of his vehicle and fell in the water.
"A nearby resident saw him, got out his flat boat and helped get him out with the help of two firemen," Adam said. "They put him in an ambulance and sent him to the hospital."
Biloxi police and fire departments received 170 emergency calls between 5 and 9 a.m. Seventy-nine of the calls were for service, mostly involving stranded motorists, stalled vehicles or impassable roads. Police Chief John Miller said he put 53 officers on patrol on Biloxi streets, three times the normal complement. Also, the Biloxi Fire Department's two high-water rescue teams with all-terrain military vehicles worked with police to help stranded motorists. Trailered vessels were on standby at Fire Station 9 in the west Eagle Point community.
"The fact is," Biloxi Mayor Andrew Gilich said in a press release, "no system can handle the amount of water that we saw, but we have to make sure we're doing everything we can do.
"Our job is to protect life and property, and we appreciate the public's cooperation and patience."
Anita Lee and Justin Vicory, Sun Herald staff writers, contributed to this report.