Mississippi hurricane veterans have advice for Harvey survivors that may surprise you

Eddie Favre, then mayor of Bay St. Louis, sits in the devastated downtown area after Hurricane Katrina. The Bay has since come back strong and Favre, who swore to wear shorts until recovery was complete, is working as Hancock County administrator. Patience, he said, is what southeast Texans need because recovery will take years.
Eddie Favre, then mayor of Bay St. Louis, sits in the devastated downtown area after Hurricane Katrina. The Bay has since come back strong and Favre, who swore to wear shorts until recovery was complete, is working as Hancock County administrator. Patience, he said, is what southeast Texans need because recovery will take years. File

Mississippi Coast residents understand what the people of Southeast Texas are going through.

We hurt for them. We know they will recover. But we also know this recovery might take longer than they expect and they will encounter hurdles never anticipated.

We are sending truckloads of donations, money, prayers and best wishes. We’ve also collected some of the best advice we could muster from hurricane-tested veterans on the Mississippi Coast.

The Sun Herald asked these storm veterans, “What do you know now about recovery that you wish you had known when Hurricane Katrina hit?” Everyone we talked with paused and sighed, as thoughts overwhelmed them.

But it was surprising how quickly each interviewee mustered the one piece of advice that stuck with them more than any other. OK, in a few cases it was two or three pieces of advice.

Kacey Peterson, Kiln

Somebody’s always worse off than you. If you are tempted to cry over your losses, think about what the person in front of you might be facing.

Kacey Peterson of Kiln was a 20-year-old college student when Katrina hit. She worked then as a cook and cashier at her parents’ business, Dolly’s Quick Stop, a convenience store and restaurant that became recovery central in the rural community.

Her “aha” moment came when her best friend stopped by after the hurricane.

“How did your house fare?” Peterson asked.

“Everything’s gone,” her friend said.

“What do you mean?”

Her friend said: “My house is gone. Everything is gutted. There’s just 2-by-4s.”

Her friend wanted to know about Peterson’s situation. Peterson’s pride and joy was her shiny new, candy-apple red Toyota Tacoma. The first model with four doors had just come out.

A piece of tin blew into the truck, broke the taillight, and scratched and scuffed the paint. Peterson started crying when she told her friend about it. Peterson’s mother overheard, as mothers tend to do.

Her mother said, “Your best friend just told you she lost everything, and you’re crying about your truck?”

Peterson concluded: “That’s what opened my eyes. I thought, ‘You know what, I better be grateful for what I’ve got.’ ”

Eddie Favre, Bay St. Louis

Eddie Favre was mayor of Bay St. Louis when Katrina hit. Most of the city was destroyed.

Patience was his biggest lesson.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” he said, “even if somebody gave you a blank check. It’s going to take time — not days, but years.”

“It will be a little time down the road before there’s any normalcy again.”

He couldn’t resist one other piece of advice, which mayors up and down the Coast have learned.

“Don’t ask for the Taj Mahal, just what you need to recover,” he said.

Those multimillion-dollar buildings funded by FEMA look great and all when they’re spanking new. But the recovering locality is left to pay the bills, including maintenance, utilities and insurance. Insurance can get costly in hurricane zones.

Favre wasn’t joking when he said recovery would take years, something he hadn’t fully realized when he promised to wear shorts until his city was back on its feet.

He wore shorts for five years and five months. His city still had not recovered, but he finally gave in and donned slacks for a court appearance because he did not want to disrespect the judge.

Jackie Washington, Biloxi

This fourth-generation resident rode out Katrina on the second story of a house in East Biloxi, where water lapped at the top step before it began to recede. When she walked outside, she said, her city looked like a war zone.

At first, a sense of community buoyed her neighborhood. But that spirit flagged as the recovery effort progressed. She said services were hard to locate.

For example, she lost her driver’s license and it took forever to find out how she could get new identification. Her daughter, an attorney in Baton Rouge, called around until she found an answer.

Washington had to drive to Hattiesburg for a new license. She said public and private services need to be logged with a central command center at the district or regional level, with satellite offices where workers can point survivors in the right direction.

So many relief agencies pour in after a disaster that people get lost in the maze.

“We were so unknowledgable about where to receive services,” Washington said.“We couldn’t connect the dots. There was no centralized communication because of the small communities.

“In the lack of knowledge, we perish.”

Doug Handshoe, Hancock County

Doug Handshoe is here to testify that insurance companies are not always your friend, despite what the commercials say.

Handshoe, who swan out of his home with his family during Katrina, became a champion in the great wind vs. water battle on the Coast between policyholders and their insurance companies.

Thousands of homeowners sued because their claims for wind damage were denied.

In at least some cases, homeowners proved in court that they were owed for wind damage. They also found that engineering reports written for insurance companies had been altered to blame water, covered under federal flood policies, when the original reports had pointed to wind damage.

Handshoe kept up with the insurance wars on his blog,

Homeowners eventually hired their own experts, including engineers, to fight insurance companies for coverage of wind losses.

“You’ve got to verify everything,” Handshoe said.

Reilly Morse, Gulfport

Morse, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Justice, was a senior attorney at the nonprofit organization when Katrina hit. The center tried to look out for low-income and marginalized communities during recovery.

His advice is for government officials and employees, and civic activists and organizers.

“Get in as many rooms as you can,” he said. “Get in as many meetings as you can.

“Penetrate as many layers of decision-makers as you can, as early as you can. Things can move really fast after a hurricane on the broad choices of how the recovery will be prioritized.

“If you’re in there and you can have a say, it’s a lot easier to influence a decision on the front end than to undo a bad decision months or years later.”

The billions in federal dollars that poured into Mississippi for housing relief, for example, originally benefited homeowners who had private insurance policies, lived outside flood zones and had no flood insurance.

Thousands of residents failed to qualify for those original federal grants, a situation that took years to rectify and slowed recovery for those most in need.

Michele Coats, Jackson County

Coats offered a handy list:

  • There are 10,000 uses for bleach.
  • Sometimes the people you think will be strong aren’t and the people you think can’t handle adversity will surprise you.
  • Water can come in a can.
  • MREs are only meant to be eaten ONCE a day.

Chip McDermott, Pass Christian

Mayor Chip McDermott talks and thinks so fast, he couldn’t stick to one piece of advice.

The first thing that came to mind for him: “There’s always one worse.”

His father told the family nothing could be worse than the hurricane of 1947, then Pass Christian was bull’s-eye for Hurricane Camille, a Category 5 storm in 1969. Sustained winds were 190 miles per hour. Gusts were off the charts.

Everyone was pretty much feeling like they had been through the worst. And then came Katrina in 2005, with a storm surge that topped 27 feet in some places.

So be prepared, always, he said.

No, scratch that. The one thing he really wants Texans to know is this: “What I didn’t know then was how good the American people are and how fortunate we are to be American citizens.”

“That bunch in Texas, they’re going to pour money on them like you’ve never seen.”

Vincent Creel, spokesman for the city of Biloxi during and after Katrina, echoed McDermott’s sentiments, with an emphasis on faith-based groups that poured in to rebuild. Without them, countless households might never have recovered.

Creel said he remembers that, before Katrina, President George W. Bush established an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

At the time, he wondered, “Why in the world would we need something like that in the White House?

“And then I saw the power of faith-based initiatives after Katrina.”

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99