Kacey Peterson and her sisters knew their family’s convenience store was going to be washed away or demolished.
Peterson, Lindsey Lee-Bounds and Tiffany Cowman, along with parents Keith Lee and Dolly Lee, evacuated to Selma, Alabama, the day before Hurricane Katrina ravaged South Mississippi in 2005. Their uncle and aunt, Steve Lee and Dolly Rester Lee, stayed behind in Hancock County to keep an eye on Dolly’s Quick Stop.
The Lee brothers co-own the popular service station in the heart of Kiln — Dolly’s is known for its ethanol-free gasoline (which boats need); its deli case filled with daily lunch specials and fried chicken on a stick; and the murals on the outside walls that pay homage to Hancock County–native football star Brett Favre.
On this day, which is the 11th anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall in South Mississippi, the daughters of the owners of Dolly’s Quick Stop still remember the day they came home to see if their store had made it through the storm and what would happen to business in the days, weeks and months after Katrina left disaster, destruction and heartbreak in its wake.
Peterson and Cowman pulled out an atlas Aug. 30, 2005, and directed their father home. Behind them, a trailer filled with supplies was hitched to Lee’s vehicle.
“We went through some backwoods, country roads pulling this big old trailer by using this atlas,” Peterson said. “Me and Tiff (Cowman) were telling him every which way to turn and managed to get into Hattiesburg.”
When the family reached the Hub City, they were shocked to see such heavy damage so far north. Peterson said that’s when she worried the store where she’d worked for years would be nothing but a slab.
“We couldn’t get in touch with anybody down here,” she said. “We just had it in our minds that we were about to walk and the store was going to be gone.”
Clean out, open the doors
But when Peterson and her family arrived home Tuesday night, they saw that Dolly’s was still intact. Hiram Arthur, a stocker at the store, had trekked from his home a couple of miles away and checked on the place during the storm. Some windows were knocked out, a few diesel pumps were damaged and a couple of inches of water covered the floor. But other than that, Dolly’s was just fine.
“The windows had blown in, so Hiram got a chair and parked it where the ice machines are currently and wouldn’t let anybody in the store,” Peterson said. When law enforcement arrived, Arthur told them he wasn’t leaving until Steve or Keith Lee arrived. Immediately after the storm, Arthur climbed through the broken window, grabbed food and drinks and wrote down what he took on his charge account, Peterson said. He could have taken anything, but Peterson said he protected the store instead until the Lees could regroup.
At daybreak Aug. 31, 2005, the Lee families were sweeping out water, boarding up windows and allowing people inside to get anything they could.
Tiffany Cowman and her husband, Josh, arrived first that morning and began cleaning up and letting families come in to buy whatever they could. Tiffany used a calculator to round down prices. It was dark inside, so she used a flashlight to see.
“We came in at 5:30 a.m.,” Peterson said. “We were advertising that we were going to open at 6 a.m. because we had to have good light. The first thing we did was move the freezer from the back door to get light to see the kitchen.”
The frozen food was still good. Peterson got to work and started baking biscuits. The grill, fryers and oven operated on gas, so they worked. She threw link sausages and bacon on the grill and boiled a pot of water for coffee.
As soon as people saw Dolly Lee’s blue Ford Expedition — the license plate said “DOLLYS” — they started lining up. Lindsey Lee-Bounds said the line of people wrapped around the parking lot to the highway.
As people bought drinks, necessity items, diapers, cleaning supplies and beer, Peterson handed out hot coffee and fresh breakfast at no cost while her baby sister handed out free ice cream.
“I put it in little milk crates, and I gave ice cream away to customers waiting in line,” Lee-Bounds said.
‘We didn’t open up to make money’
Both Lee families never thought twice about opening their doors as quickly as they could. Dolly’s prides itself on being open 365 days a year. The only time it ever closed was for a hurricane, and only if the law required it, Dolly Lee and Dolly Rester Lee always joked.
“We didn’t open up to make money — it was never about that,” Peterson said. “When we came here and realized that all we had was a broken window and little bit of water on the floor and we had perishable goods in here that other people could use, it came to a point where you had to do your duty and feed your community.”
The first day, Lee-Bounds was getting cell reception. She let a man use her phone to call loved ones, but it only worked if you walked to the highway. Hours later, she realized she hadn’t seen her phone. She thought she’d lost it and shrugged it off. But a line of people were using it to call friends and family to say they were OK. A woman returned her phone. Its battery was dead, but it had brought a small joy in so many people’s lives, Lee-Bounds said, something that will stick with her forever.
The lights came on about five days after the storm — the day after Budweiser made its first delivery.
“Everybody cheered like it was a parade when they pulled in,” Peterson said.
The Lee families and their staff — those who had worked at Dolly’s for years and teenage friends of Lindsey Lee-Bounds — kept Dolly’s open around the clock.
As soon as the power was on, Keith Lee turned on two gas pumps and allowed people to get about $20 of gas at a time. The line for fuel snaked west down Kiln-Picayune Road.
“He just stood out there with bags collecting money,” Lee-Bounds said. The register, which blasted a loud beeping noise every time somebody wanted to fill up, became a staple sound. Whoever was on duty would just accept the cash. There was no need to even try to keep up with the till.
Dolly’s was serving hot food for about a week before the first batch of MREs — the shelf-stable, marginally edible, military-issue Meals, Ready to Eat — were delivered in the area, Peterson said.
A safe haven for Hancock community
Military teams used Dolly’s as a drop-off point for ice and meals, and Lee-Bounds remembers the exact moment the first massive shipment of ice was dropped down in the field next to the store. Everyone in line rushed over to get ice. People were crying for joy. Dolly Lee and Lindsey Lee-Bounds brought food to the helicopter pilots, who had not eaten in more than 24 hours.
In north Hancock County, Dolly’s has always kind of been “the spot.” High school students would meet in the parking lot to hang out and grab breakfast and a chocolate milk before class. Workers would come in for lunch, especially for red beans day on Mondays or fried fish Fridays. After Katrina, it was no different. Disaster relief dropped off loads of goods, people met in the parking lot to find friends and share stories, and others just came to find a sense of normalcy.
“It wasn’t just a convenience store at that point, it was a safe haven,” Lindsey Lee-Bounds said.
Once Dolly’s reopened, it never closed again. The shelves would empty, and food would sell out, but it would remain open until more came in. When the lights came back on, the Lee families slept in the store to soak up the air conditioning. They hadn’t yet had a moment to tend to their own homes.
“The only good nights’ sleep we got was in here,” Peterson said. “We weren’t focused on eating and taking care of ourselves because there was always somebody out there that had it way worse than we did.”
Peterson’s home at the time had flooded. She remembers going to the Broke Spoke for hot pizza and cold beer after her long shifts and walking back to Dolly’s to sleep before she turned the key and opened the doors the next day.
The days turned into weeks, the weeks into months. Still, the community rallied at Dolly’s. The four cash registers set up on any empty counter space clanked constantly. The lines stayed long, and the people remained loyal.
“For months after the storm, we stayed very busy with all the out-of-town workers and all of the people who came to help,” Dolly Rester Lee said. “Some people who lived south (of Interstate 10) got flooded and relocated to the Kiln. I would ask people how they made out in the storm. It seemed like every other person I asked said they lost everything.”
Dolly’s: Heart of the Kiln
Dolly’s Quick Stop has been open every day since Aug. 31, 2005.
Peterson and Dolly Rester Lee still manage the store — they rotate every other week. Cowman teaches art at North Bay Elementary, and Lee-Bounds is a teacher at West Hancock Elementary.
Some who got jobs at Dolly’s after Katrina still work there, and many of the teens who helped keep the store running at night went on to college but still live close by.
Local customers still sit in the booths and tell stories about Katrina, and many of them bask in the memory of the smoked meat Dolly’s used to sell. The smoker, destroyed in the storm, is the only thing the Lee brothers did not replace.
This year, the store celebrated its 25th year in business.