As a writer from the Montgomery County Journal/Examiner, we knew Hurricane Katrina hit hard, but like the federal government we didn’t have a plan. Unlike FEMA, we had an excuse – being from Montgomery County, Maryland – until the MoCo Urban Search and Rescue Team got called in to help provide aid and look for bodies.
With little more than an okay from Montgomery County Fire and Rescue and my editor, I set out after them, stocking up on fuel cans, food and other random provisions whenever I stopped for gas. I wasn’t even sure how to find them once we arrived, but I knew where they were headed and where the search operations were based – Gulfport, Mississippi.
I grabbed a hotel and filled my tanks in Meridian, and refueled my car in Hattiesburg – where at 70 miles from the Gulf, things were starting to look a little apocalyptic. Half of Hattiesburg was out of power, so finding a gas station with power and without a mile-long line was not easy.
The drive south left civilization as I knew it behind. Caravans of utility crews from across the nation replaced regular traffic, and four-lane US 49 frequently single-tracked around fallen pines as road-clearing crews moved painfully south.
The closer I got to the Gulf Coast, the worse things were. Power was out, refueling was not an option and when it was, the lines were ridiculous. Surprisingly little traffic was leaving the coast. By I-10, billboards were skeletonized, towers were down, and windows that weren’t boarded up were shattered or missing. Taller buildings had large gaps in their glass fronts, and occasional piles of debris were pushed out of intersections like some dystopian snowplow had come to deal with the planks and splinters of Gulfport’s former markets.
I used less than a half tank getting to Gulfport where MEMA (Mississippi) had set up operations – and less than a half-day finding a Montgomery County team member and figuring out who in the FEMA hierarchy had to sign off on my presence. It would have been nice to have something in writing from MCFRS, but I had to deal with the cards in my hand. They were kind enough to feed me a burger while I waited for the higher-ups to shake time free to deal with the stray journalist.
It was pretty late on the second day when I made my way to Waveland, where the team had encamped in a Sonic drive-in – a patch of open ground and pavement with a large canopy (Pictured in top photo).
The team I encountered first were the logistics crew — the crafty bunch charged with making this camp run, gathering supplies, anticipating needs and making do. They had already converted a storage shed blown on its side into his and hers outhouses that would do for a couple of days, transformed two-by-fours and tarps into a four-stall shower, and secured a washer and dryer from the local WalMart. That evening a water tanker rolled in ” non-potable water for washing clothes and bodies.
While I set up my one-man tent under the Sonic sign, the crews rolled back in from their 14-hour day and started decontamination.
My next four days consisted primarily of traveling with the teams down into Waveland, walking the remains of that community and recording their interactions with the handful of people who had come back, rode out the storm or gotten by somehow.
I was allowed to use their satellite uplink late at night, after all official business was concluded, and filed stories for at least three of those four days, with art. Calling home was almost hopeless. Back up on I-10, you could almost get a regular signal in some places, but down at US-90, I had to climb on the roof of the Sonic, get on top of the air-handling unit and hold my Motorola in the air and repeatedly hit hang-up/redial until something got through. Texting was only a little bit easier as the one-bar signal faded in and out. Conversations sometimes woke my editor at 1 a.m. — when I could get through.
Fortunately, again, they fed me and subjected me to daily physicals along with the rest of the team — checking heartbeat, blood-pressure and breathing. I also got to enjoy their warm shower setup, which earned me the scorn of other reporters who came in on day three to interview the Montgomery team.
“Did you just get here?” asked a particularly bedraggled lady from the Post.
“No, I’ve been embedded with this team two days now.”
I lived on MREs and Sqwinchers electrolyte drinks, along with my stash of service-station granola bars.
While walking on a two-story pile of timber, one of the drivers asked if I had steel-toe/steel-shank boots on. When I said I didn’t, I wasn’t allowed to climb any more, but followed along at street level. The town of Waveland was re-built by large claw-equipped backhoes to faintly resemble the grid of roads that once divided up the coast. In between roads sometimes ankle-deep with green-black muck that tried to suck off your boots and added five pounds to each foot, the remains of the beachfront homes mingled with those as far as a mile inland.
The destruction the teams encountered was near 100 percent.
Several blocks of homes were swept completely from their foundations and carried a mile or more inland along the beach front. The homes were crushed into a debris field just over two-and-a-half stories tall that stretched for 10 blocks. City hall, the main fire station, and police station had literally vanished.
A storm surge, estimated at 30 feet, rolled through the city carrying away everything in its path. A railroad berm broke the surge to a certain degree, but flooding, collapse and waterlogged homes were the story of the time spent on the ground in Waveland.
— Task Force Lead John B. Tippett Jr.
The search teams worked 12-14 hours a day in temperatures near 100f°, and kept conversations light when they stopped for water or a meal. Their good humor and attitudes made the mind-numbing work of searching for survivors and bodies tolerable.
In my presence they offered help to a lady walking the streets in shock, who declined, and gave assistance to a man who rode out the storm on a rubber raft docked on his neighbor’s roof, only to be struck by fire ants when the waters receded. Another team rescued one older couple dead, barricaded inside their home by furniture pushed against the doors by receding waters and found another body.
The most incredible story I heard over evening rations, however, was of a house on stilts, still standing somehow. One searcher smelled something and was certain there would be a body, but they could find nothing — until they looked up. There, hanging from its horns on the roof-joists, was a bloated heifer that had apparently floated there, then fell through when the waters stranded it on the roof.
Eventually I got reinforcements — another Examiner reporter and photographer Andrew Harnik came with a relief caravan from Northern Virginia. I’d never been so excited to see someone else from work before or since. The next day, after touring the area with Andrew, it was time to head home.
Karl Hille lived and breathed local news beat reporting in Greenbelt and the Baltimore/Washington region for more than 12 years until the 2007 recession. While learning and improving the online side of the Baltimore Examiner operations, his platform dropped out from under his feet, then his rebound job at a regional business news magazine downsized him three months later. Now, working for the “dark side” – public communications work by day for the awesome government agency – he is going back to school to find the critical intersection of news, investigation, and the Internet – and re-learning how to be a student while he’s the only guy on campus sporting a fedora.