Relive Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of 10 people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast

Editor’s note: This story originally published in August 2015.

A mother. A daughter. A son. A police officer. An activist. A firefighter. A restaurateur. A coroner. A schooner captain. A bed and breakfast owner.

10 people. 10 stories. 10 perspectives.

Journalists the from Sun Herald and McClatchy present 10 stories 10 years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

These people were here on August 29, 2005. These are there stories.

Waveland: ‘It still hurts. It will always hurt.’

As Katrina bore down on Waveland, Susie Meeks DeStefano spoke to her mother by phone one last time, trying to convince her to evacuate from the five-bedroom home where DeStefano grew up in with her family -- just four houses away from the Bay of St. Louis. Patricia Meeks told her daughter she was going to a friend’s house, but she instead stayed at home with her beloved pets in the 100 block of Whispering Pines.

“She was going to try to leave and the phone cut off, and that was the last time that we spoke to her,” DeStefano said.

The night before Katrina hit, when the rest of her family decided to go to Stennis, they went to retrieve Meeks but she said she would stay with her friend if the storm got bad. After sandbags were placed around the house and everybody left, DeStefano said she had a feeling it would be the last time she saw her mother.

Once the storm had passed and left miles of destruction in its wake, DeStefano left the shelter as soon as she could to look for her mother. It took her three days to get within walking distance of her childhood homestead.

There were no roads, no stoplights and no street signs. The path to her driveway was covered with trash and debris, and it took DeStefano and her family six hours to walk two blocks.

“It was like walking through a garbage dump,” she said. “We were really trying not to think. When we did think, it was just hoping to God my mother got out.”

But DeStefano said she knew in her gut that her mother wouldn’t leave the home that was custom designed for their family’s needs decades earlier. Meeks was a collector who had one room full of Tupperware and a space she kept locked that was full of computers. Once everyone left home, she also made one wing a farm area for a pet pig, who along with the German shepherd that lived with her.

When they finally got to the lot where their home once sat, DeStefano and her sister, Diane Capo, found the red kitchen sink among the rubble. They smelled decay three separate times, but held out hope their mother was alive because they couldn’t find her vehicle.

Nine weeks later, Patricia Meeks’ remains were found and identified her through DNA. The family wasn’t allowed to view the body.

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Susie DeStefano talks about her mother, Patricia Meeks, dying in Hurricane Katrina. Jessica Koscielniak McClatchy

DeStefano said she often thinks that she should have handcuffed Meeks to her side.

“There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think about what happened,” she said. “It still hurts. It will always hurt.”

DeStefano said her mother always wanted her to take art classes. Since Meeks’ passing, she began taking painting lessons and said she paints at least once a week.

“I always think of my mother when I paint,” she said.

Waveland: For a police chief, ‘stuff is stuff’

Katrina’s winds started flexing the Police Department’s roof at 2 a.m., Aug. 29, 2005, but the officers and dispatchers inside voted to stay rather than risk leaving.

The building on U.S. 90 was miles from the Mississippi Sound. Still, water rose around the building until those inside realized they needed to get out. When they broke a window and pushed away the boards protecting it, 4 feet of water rushed in. They held hands as they waded, single file, outside.

David Allen, a patrolmen then and police chief today, recalls 27 officers and dispatchers were there when the storm hit. Some wound up on the roof, some atop a tool box in the back of a truck and others, including Allen, in a tree with branches that spread from the base.

Allen watched his vehicle float away. Debris cut them. Gasoline from vehicles filled the water and stung their cuts. Roofs, trees, animals -- everything imaginable -- floated by.

Allen thought about his house south of the highway. He thought about his girlfriend and her two children. They had moved in together three months earlier.

“I remember making a pact with God and saying, ‘If I get out of this, I’m going to ask Brooke to marry me,” Allen said.

When the water subsided, the officers and dispatchers clambered to the ground and started walking.

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Waveland Police Chief David Allen Jessica Koscielniak McClatchy

They had no equipment, no vehicles, but they were problem solvers. They found a way. At first, Allen said, he caught a ride to Walmart to stop looting. Soon enough, they patrolled the streets in Dodge Rams commandeered from a dealership on the highway.

Allen’s girlfriend thought he was dead. She broke down in tears when he reached the family in Oklahoma about six days later. Relief had poured in, so Allen made his way to Oklahoma the next day. Dirty, unshaven and scraped up, Allen proposed when he arrived:

“I said to her, ‘I don’t have a ring, As a matter of fact, I don’t have anything anymore, but will you marry me?’”

David and Brooke Allen married Dec. 31, 2005, in the trailer that was serving as the Police Department. The Police Department still operates out of a trailer today because there are problems with the new building. But Allen doesn’t sweat the small stuff like he did before Katrina.

“If right now my house was to burn down and I lost everything,” Allen said, “you know what? My kids are OK. My wife’s OK. Stuff is stuff. We’ve lost all of our stuff once already.

“So, for me personally, it put a different perspective on things.”

Biloxi: ‘I love you, Mama’

Mother and son had fought before Hurricane Katrina crashed ashore.

It was one of those silly fights that would have passed as inconsequential except, later, Elizabeth Duvall called her 19-year-old son, Dustin, to make sure he was evacuating. She got no answer.

The day after Katrina, Elizabeth Duvall and her husband, Leon, made their way to East Biloxi, where both grew up. Coming over the bridge, she smelled raw sewage and death.

She pictured Dustin’s body in the water. She feared they would never find his remains.

The Duvalls surveyed what was left of their beloved Point, as the community is called. Rubble, piles and piles of rubble. She searched, calling her son’s nickname.

And then she saw his bedraggled blond head. Dustin had spent the night in Gulfport. He, too, feared his family was gone.

A body was the first thing he saw when he went to search for his family on the Point, where Back Bay and the Mississippi Sound converged during Katrina.

Dustin heard his mother’s voice. He ran to her. They locked in a hug captured by a Sun Herald photographer.

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Elizabeth Duvall Ali Rizvi McClatchy

Their house and all their possessions were gone. But that was OK.

Since the storm, they talk every day. The married father of two never forgets to say, “I love you, Mama.”

Harrison County: ‘It is my responsibility to make sure everyone is identified’

Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove was determined to identify each person in his jurisdiction that Hurricane Katrina killed.

The count was 97 dead, three missing, in Harrison County and 56 dead in Hancock County, where he assisted the coroner’s office.

“I owe an obligation to the public, as an elected official, to do everything I can not only to protect the public, but to protect the rights of the deceased and the family of that person,” Hargrove said. “It is my responsibility to make sure that everyone is identified, that there is a cause of death and a manner of death.

“Now, I take it personal because I know if it was my family, I would want whoever was doing this job to do everything they could to get them identified and returned back to me so they could be put to rest in their final resting place.”

Hargrove, Hancock County Coroner Norma Stiglet and a FEMA mortuary team managed to identify all but two bodies, both men who died in Harrison County. Hargrove arranged to have the men buried on Katrina’s first anniversary beneath markers that identified them as Will and Strength.

His assistant, Joy Yates, said after the service: “It’s always going to bother him that he had to bury them unidentified. Not a day will go by that Gary doesn’t think of those two men.”

Hargrove identified Will in May 2007 as James L. Blair, 78, of Pass Christian. The coroner still remembers Blair’s address: One Hurricane Circle.

Hargrove had hoped Strength’s tattoo would crack the mystery of his identify. It appeared to say, “Love Jones,” but Hargrove was not sure because the ‘s’ was incomplete. He searched many databases, hoping to find a missing man with the all-to-common name Jones and a tattoo.

The coroner talked on more than one occasion to a woman whose son was still missing. Once, she said the young man had no tattoos; another time, she said he had a bunch of them. Then the young man’s half-sister called, saying their mother had passed away.

Her brother, she recalled, was trying to give himself a tattoo that said, “Love Jones,” but their mother caught him and took away his tools before he finished the “s.” Hargrove took DNA samples from the woman and her half brother’s grandmother, sending them to a lab in Texas.

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Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove Ali Rizvi McClatchy

On March 19, 2009, Katrina’s last victim in Harrison County was identified as 20-year-old Frank Jones of Gulfport. His body had been found in a canal.

“That,” Hargrove said, “was probably the best day of my life.”

Gulfport: ‘Where am I going to have this baby?’

In Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, Lisa Robertson hoped to retrieve clothes and supplies for her unborn baby, toddler and teen-age stepdaughter.

The family returned to the Coast Aug. 31, 2005, from a hellish evacuation. Robertson wanted to regroup and leave again with the children, not realizing until they saw for themselves just how bad Katrina had been. Her then-husband, an emergency room physician in Biloxi, had to get to work.

“My very worst moment was when I crawled over 5 feet of debris, nine months pregnant, to get to my house,” Robertson said. “ . . . We walked through the door that was already open and saw the destruction. I mean, it was all around us, but when I walked through my personal living space, I just kind of fell apart.”

And then the unthinkable happened.

“Honestly,” Robertson said, “there was so much going on that I wasn’t really thinking about the fact that I may go into labor while I was there.”

“ . . . When I realized I was going into labor, it happened so fast and I was so far along that there wasn’t really time to think about anything except, ‘Where am I going to have this baby?’ “

She had meticulously planned the birth of Sofia Marble, from the baby’s room to the epidural she would receive before delivery.

Instead, she and her husband drove from the home near the waterfront in Gulfport through debris and military checkpoints to get to a hospital. Garden Park north of Interstate 10 in Gulfport had flooded. They wound up at Memorial Hospital in Gulfport.

A midwife delivered her daughter. There was no pain medicine. The next morning, she had to check out.

She left newborn Sofia with her mother in her parents’ relatively undamaged Long Beach house, then spent four hours gathering cash and supplies.

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/MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS Lisa Robertson talks about giving birth to her daughter, Sophia Marble, during Hurricane Katrina. Jessica Koscielniak McClatchy

“The adrenaline and everything else that was going on, I didn’t feel like I had just given birth,” Robertson said. “I was fine.” In hindsight, she realizes that she was “in survival mode.”

As it turned out, Robertson never left. Her sister’s power was restored, so the family spent more than a week in one bedroom, then found a duplex the owner was willing to rent because of their circumstances.

Sofia Marble celebrates her 10th birthday Sept. 1. Sofia has told friends about the circumstances surrounding her birth.

The little girl said, “They were so amazed that my mom was one of those survivors and that I lived.”

Gulfport: ‘We go stronger to overcome everything’

Mercedes Carranza, a native of Mexico, found his welcome in Gulfport, where he moved in 1995 with his wife, a Mississippi girl he met in Los Angeles. He is glad he left the long commutes and high cost of living in a big city for a community where he has time with his family and more friends than he can count.

The affable restaurateur managed El Maguey across from the beach, destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

After the storm, Hispanics poured into the community for construction work. Their nail guns pounded from sun up to sun down, seven days a week, as they re-roofed damaged houses.

“A lot of times, you would find them sleeping in trucks in parking lots because there were no rooms to rent and no places to stay,” he said, “but they were able to help tremendously in rebuilding the community.”

Workers came from Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua and Mexico. A friend, who owned a general store specializing in Hispanic food, brought on Carranza to help because of all the new business.

Carranza’s volunteer work as an interpreter was more in demand than ever. He organized dinners where the newcomers sampled one another’s cuisine, arranged dental and doctor’s appointments and put workers in touch with the Department of Labor when unscrupulous contractors stiffed them on pay.

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El Maguey Mexican restaurant customer Pat Hill found this American flag to replace the one lost by restaurant manager Mercedes Carranza when the restaurant was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. James Edward Bates Sun Herald file

Two years ago, Carranza opened a new restaurant, El Agave, in downtown Gulfport.

“Katrina was an event that really changed my life,” he said. “I started looking at things in a different way. We started focusing on what really mattered because we can have a Katrina moment at any time in our life.

“You know, when you think you have it all, when you think you’re the healthiest person, it can hit you, something like that. You’re never prepared for it. But if you focus on the right thing, which is the family and the people we love ... We grow stronger and we overcome everything.”

Biloxi: ‘A much greater need’ in East Biloxi

As a child, Jackie Washington waded with her family through Hurricane Camille’s storm surge in East Biloxi.

Washington found herself on the second floor of a two-story house in the same community during Hurricane Katrina, having waited too long to evacuate. She thought of the Bible story in which Jesus calms a raging sea. “Peace, be still,” kept running through her mind.

The water lapped at the top step before it started to recede.

Biloxi looked like a war zone when the storm passed, but Washington reveled in the community spirit that gripped her city, where she is a fourth-generation resident.

“After the storm,” she said, “it was destruction and death, and the smell of death in the air. When people came out, it was, to me, like turtles coming out of a shell. They were disillusioned, and everyone was happy to see someone alive, whether we knew you or not: the hugs, the kisses.

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Jackie Washington Ali Rizvi McClatchy

“The language barriers, the cultural barriers, the old feelings of racism died . . . “

Soon enough, though, federal dollars arrived and the old walls started going back up, Washington said.

Her neighbors, especially the elderly, had a hard time navigating the myriad avenues to assistance. She started a newsletter to keep the community informed about relief opportunities. She worked at a church-based food bank, delivering meals to the elderly.

“That’s how I got through the aftermath of Katrina,” said Washington, whose house was rebuilt over 18 months by non profits and volunteers. “I came out of self and saw that there was a much greater need.”

Bay St. Louis: ‘It’s a tree of life, really’

Watching weather forecasts, Nikki Moon thought New Orleans would bear the brunt of Hurricane Katrina.

Her bed and breakfast, Bay Town Inn, was built 1890s strong. The former Demontluzin home overlooked the water on a bluff 24 feet above sea level.

But the Bay of St. Louis lapped at her front door that Monday morning. Her car was floating. Tidal surge shattered the Dock of the Bay restaurant and bar across the street. Debris pounded the house.

Moon and six friends retreated to the second floor. The surge soon mounted the staircase. The old inn collapsed under its force.

They launched one couple, two friends in their 80s, into the water on roofing material. Moon feared she would never see them again.

Moon, her Scottish terrier Maddy and two friends, Kevan Guillory and Doug Niolet, clambered from the water onto the branch of an ancient Live oak beside the house. The water carried away a second couple.

The three friends clung to the oak branch for hours, pounded by one wave after another.

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The tree that Nikki Moon and others clung to to survive Hurricane Katrina was carved into a pair of angels and now overlooks the Bay. Ali Rizvi McClatchy

“I really did think I was going to die,” Moon said.

Once the water receded, they jumped from the tree. The two couples separated from them had also survived, they later learned. The oak tree fell victim to the cleanup, its roots smothered by debris.

Moon had the bald oak, angels carved into two branches, anchored into the ground on the waterfront. She can see it out her kitchen window at the rebuilt Bay Town Inn.

“It’s a tree of life, really,” Moon said, “And it’s a tree of a town, I think, that is so strong. It survived so much and 10 years later is just amazing.”

New York: ‘These people were going through what we were going through — losing loved ones’

New York Fire Department Battalion Chief Joe Downey can still recall the destruction in South Mississippi. The casino in the middle of U.S. 90. A story of a man swept out to sea while clinging to his roof. The damage and destruction from the storm surge -- something he had never seen before.

New York Task Force One (NY-TF1), one of the 28 urban search and rescue teams nationwide, was deployed just one day after Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast. Its mission was to assist in the rescue and recovery efforts in Gulfport.

The activation was special, Downey recalls. It marked the team’s first deployment since the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center when the team lost 37 of its elite members, including Downey’s father, Deputy Chief Ray Downey.

“My dad had built the urban search and rescue system in the country, he was one of the godfathers of the FEMA system,” Downey said. “Now I was task force leader for New York Task Force One and we had members of the FDNY going down there representing those guys that were killed during 9-11.”

The newly rebuilt team traveled 36 hours to Gulfport from New York City, hoping to make an impact.

“It almost looked like a small bomb hit that area, where houses were knocked down, houses were swept away, houses were filled with mud up to second level,” Downey said.

The team went to work soon after they arrived, surveying the sections they were assigned, hoping to make an impact on the community just like the country rallied around the FDNY following Sept. 11, according to Downey.

“We were overwhelmed with the support we got during 9/11,” he said. “We had teams coming from all over the world to help us with our rescue, and we always felt we wanted to give back in some way.”

Seeing the destruction became a difficult reminder of what they endured only four years prior to Katrina.

“These people (were) going through what we went through -- losing loved ones,” Downey said. “To hear their stories was kind of difficult.”

But the NY-TF1 carried out its mission to help Gulfport residents in whatever way possible.

“Whether it was putting tarps on the roof or crawling through a collapsed house looking for people or recovering someone’s loved one ... it was done with dignity,” Downey said. “Although the team made no excuses, they did whatever they could to make an impact.”

“They were giving us support, which was heartwarming to us, offering us their water, and basically they had nothing left of their homes. They were giving us what they had.”

Biloxi: ‘We didn’t have a Coast to dock them to’

At 85 years old, Capt. Ronald Riecter hasn’t lost a step.

Riecter, found one morning sanding down the mast of the great schooner boat “Captain Mike,” is a native of Michigan who found his true calling as a sailor in Biloxi, where he moved in 1985 with his wife. Not that the sailing in Lake Michigan isn’t enjoyable, it’s just that he loves that they sail year round on the Mississippi Coast.

Plus, the warm weather doesn’t bother him as much as the cold up north did.

“Before the storm, we took the schooner boats up the river as far as we could and tied them up. They had minor scratches on them and were ready to go immediately after the storm,” he said. “But the real problem we had was the fact that we didn’t have a Coast to dock them to.”

The seasoned sailor rode out the storm in his house in Biloxi. Though the water damage to his property was minimal, he ended up evacuating to his friend’s place down his street, which was built on higher ground.

Despite that, he vows to stay behind if a similar threat came to be.

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Ali Rizvi McClatchy

“It’s easy to leave because it is tempting to get away from the chaos and the aftermath of the storm,” he said. “But once you leave, they won’t let you back in until the authorities deem it fit and under control. Meanwhile your property lies there, and there is nothing you can do about it.”

His views on the storm are unorthodox.

“I like to think that the storm did a lot of good for the city of Biloxi,” he said. “I mean for one thing, the rebuilding effort cleaned up all the shanty construction on the Coast. I will admit, though, that before the storm this stretch of the Coast was one of the few places in the U.S. where lower income people could live near the beach but with the insurance rates now, that is all gone.”

Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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Justin Mitchell is the southern regional growth editor for the Biloxi Sun Herald, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer and Macon Telegraph. He also reports on LGBTQ issues in the Deep South, particularly focusing on Mississippi.