Twenty-four horrifying hours on a slice of the Mississippi coast

Knight Ridder NewspapersSeptember 3, 2005 

WAVELAND, Miss.—With the water outside rising almost to the level of his head, Henry Duvelle made a decision: I am not going to die in this attic.

It was about 8:35 a.m. Monday, Aug. 29. Hurricane Katrina had already whipped the Mississippi Gulf Coast with hurricane-force winds for more than three hours—and would for nearly six more. Now the storm surge, which would reach a monumental 28 feet, was roaring in.

The police department in Waveland, a coastal town of 7,000 between Biloxi, Miss., and New Orleans, is housed in a single-story tin building on the north side of U.S. 90. The surge pinned the front door of the building shut. A floating patrol car blocked the back door. Outside, the water rose as quickly as it would in a bathtub with the spigot on full blast.

Duvelle, a Waveland patrol officer, was trapped in the building with the other 26 full-time employees of the department.

They, along with untold thousands along a disintegrating Gulf coastline, were preparing to swim for their lives.

Over the course of roughly 24 hours, from Sunday evening through Monday evening, many more would swim. Many would survive. Many would die.

What follows is an account of those 24 hours in the lives of a handful of people who fought to survive as the wind and water tore apart their homes, their livelihoods, their lives. It's based on interviews with survivors and emergency managers from Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties in Mississippi and official records of the National Weather Service.

SUNDAY

5 p.m.: The first rains, Katrina's fringes, begin to fall in Biloxi and Gulfport.

Its outer bands have yet to reach the coast, but weather forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami are already calling Katrina a "potentially catastrophic" storm.

7 p.m.: Harrison County emergency officials order people who live near the Wolf River to leave immediately. The county expects the river to rise more than 8 feet, flood level, in two hours. It will crest at 11 a.m. Monday, at 23 feet. The record crest had been 16 feet.

To the west, Christine Stach watches water rise near her home on Indian Street, a cul-de-sac in the Shoreline Park community near Waveland.

She'd rather not have to flee. Stach has muscular dystrophy on the right side of her body. She and her caretaker, Brice Phillips, begin stacking medical supplies, bedding, anything they can find, in the attic.

By midnight, the water in Stach's house is knee-high and rising. After hours of hauling everything they can to the attic, Stach and Phillips realize they're going to lose it all. It's time to leave.

MONDAY

4 a.m.: It's still dark when the surge starts to pound the home of Matthew and Jean Meissner on U.S. 90 in Biloxi. They and two neighbors retreat to their apartment on the third floor. They think—hope—they'll be safe there.

But hurricane-force winds haven't even reached the coast. The National Weather Service office at Gulfport/Biloxi Regional Airport reports the first hurricane-force gusts, 78 mph, at 5:20 a.m.

6 a.m.: The Gulfport/Biloxi National Weather Service office is knocked out of commission.

Harrison County Supervisor Connie Rockco, Emergency Management Director Col. Joe Spraggins and other officials take a brief walk from the Emergency Operations Center in the county courthouse in Gulfport to the intersection of U.S. 49 and 90.

They go while they still can. It's curiosity, in part. They also know that this probably will be their last glimpse of the coast as they know it.

High tide comes at about 7 a.m., and boats are washing onto U.S. 90. The Copa Casino, one of the coast's first casinos and one of the few that's a ship, has broken loose from its moorings and smashed into the adjacent Grand Casino Gulfport. The storm surge, Rockco realizes, is about to strike. The storm will rage for the next 12 hours, at least.

She knows this is going to be horrific.

7:10 a.m.: Observers in Pascagoula report a wind gust of 118 mph.

It's coming. Fast.

8 a.m.: Water begins to wash into the back of the Waveland police headquarters. This disturbs Sgt. Eddie Peterson. U.S. 90 is two miles inland from the Mississippi Sound. Even during Hurricane Camille—the catastrophic storm that struck the coast in 1969—the storm surge didn't make it anywhere near the highway.

The 27-member department gathered inside after boarding up the 8-foot-tall glass doors. They think they'll be able to ride this out, maybe even respond to calls.

But by 8:15, the department is preparing to split up. Half will stay and half will try to make it to a nearby motel. That way, if the police building is swamped, at least some officers won't be there.

The plan dies with an announcement by Sgt. Brent Anderson, who's been out back by the patrol cars: "Hey, we've got to make a move. We're starting to get water on the wheels."

In 15 minutes, the cops see water 3 feet up the boarded-up glass doors and rising. The current of the storm surge is holding the front door shut.

They try the other exit. But a patrol car, floating in the rising water, has lodged against the back door. There's no other way out.

Some of the officers begin to pull themselves together to make a run for the attic. But Henry Duvelle makes his decision, and everyone agrees: They'll swim for it.

They have to move quickly. About 10 of the bigger men begin hurling their bodies against the front door until they punch through the glass and plywood. The water rushes in. One by one, the 27 in the building battle the torrent as they fight their way outside.

The scene is beyond imagination. The wind screams. The storm surge is still rising. The cops are fighting waves as they form a single-file line, each hanging onto the one in front and back. The taller cops struggle to keep the shorter ones' heads above water.

Fifteen or so hang on to a tall bush out front. "We weren't standing hanging on the bush," Peterson recalled later. "We were swimming hanging on the bush." It's about 8:40. They remain, with the others on the roof or hanging near it, for two hours.

The water will peak 2 feet above the top of the 8-foot doors.

9:45 a.m.: The storm surge in Gulfport and Biloxi reaches an estimated 28 feet.

10 a.m.: The four people in the Meissners' third-story apartment on the beachfront in Biloxi have come to an understanding: They're going to die.

The water has risen to the windows. Someone produces a camera. They take turns snapping photographs of each other so that their loved ones will have a few photos to remember them by.

The Waveland cops aren't giving up, but it's looking dire. Some are cramping and hypothermic after more than an hour of swimming. Again, someone needs to act quickly.

A couple of officers atop the building manage to corral a detached cable from a nearby power pole, tie it to the building and ferry some of the sickest, two at a time, to the roof. Six, including Chief Jimmy Varnell, stay where they are.

The situation is just as bad everywhere around them. Nobody can do a thing except try to survive.

The staff at the Harrison County Emergency Operations Center in Gulfport hears a call over the scanner. A woman is crying. Her husband is a police officer in Bay St. Louis. She's heard that patrol cars are underwater and that the department is evacuating to the Bayview Apartments. She asks: Can anyone get out there?

Everyone in the room in Gulfport knows the answer. It's another question: Who?

Nearly six hours have passed since the winds reached hurricane force. David Russell feels his apartment building give way under him.

Russell is home at the Patio Suites Apartments on U.S. 90 in Long Beach, with a friend and his dog. He always stays for hurricanes because of the work that's needed afterward; he owns a tree-clearing company.

But Russell has never seen anything like this. He and his friend dive out the window. Russell grabs a board, and the two swim to the tops of some oak trees and hang on. They're there for the next several hours, watching buildings float by and screaming at each other over the roar of the wind to make sure they're both still alive.

By now, even towns far inland are taking a beating. A tornado rips through downtown Poplarville.

11 a.m.: Katrina's eye makes landfall at the Louisiana-Mississippi line.

The water is as high as 3 feet in the Hancock County Emergency Operations Center in Bay St. Louis, a building that's 27 feet above sea level. About 35 people, mostly emergency workers and law enforcement officers, huddle in the building and watch the water rise. It's dark inside because the windows are boarded up and the building lost power.

Someone has a suggestion, and markers are passed around the center. By flashlight, the people scrawl numbers on their arms and hands, then write their names next to their numbers on a sheet of paper.

The idea is to make it easier for the recovery teams to match bodies with names.

Administrative assistant Tamara Patterson hangs the list high on the wall near the front door. Then she perches atop a counter in the main corridor and, as she has since the storm began, prays the rosary.

12:15 p.m.: A National Weather Service spotter reports a wind gust of 120 mph in Wiggins, Miss., 30 miles inland.

In Bay St. Louis, the storm shifts into reverse.

The eye has passed. The people in the Hancock County Emergency Operations Center feel their ears pop from the rapid change in barometric pressure. The wind whips around. It had been blowing from the southeast. Within a few minutes, it starts blowing from the northwest.

This changes everything. The town is west of the Bay of St. Louis, so the wind in the first half of the storm was, essentially, blowing the bay into the town. Now it's blowing the other way. The water begins to recede.

For the first time in hours, Tamara Patterson thinks: We're going to make it. We're going to be OK.

2 p.m.: For the first time in nearly nine hours, the winds drop below hurricane force on the coast.

4 p.m.: About six hours after they leaped out of the apartment and latched onto oak trees, the water in Long Beach has gone down enough for David Russell and his friend to climb down.

Russell's business and home are gone. So is his dog. He has severe scratches from the debris that raked him in the water.

But he is alive.

7 p.m.: The National Weather Service downgrades Katrina, its eye now 30 miles northwest of Meridian, to a tropical storm.

AFTERMATH

Christine Stach and Brice Phillips rode out the storm at the Emergency Operations Center in Bay St. Louis, where everyone survived. They remained there through the end of the week, helping store supplies and serve food. Stach has lost nearly everything that helped her cope with her muscular dystrophy. She doesn't know what she's going to do about it, or where she'll end up living.

The Meissners in Biloxi made it out, and their home near the beach on U.S. 90 remained largely intact. But Matthew Meissner, a Michigan native who moved to Biloxi a year ago to be near the ocean, said he's seen enough. As soon as he can find a way out, he said, he's gone.

The Waveland cops survived. All of them.

By about 2:30 p.m., the storm surge receded enough for Peterson and Officer John Saltarelli to walk through filthy water that came up to the 6-foot-5-inch Peterson's chest. As they walked east on U.S. 90 toward the Emergency Operations Center in Bay St. Louis, the water kept going down.

Back at the station, the department's employees jumped or climbed down from the roof. They all made it to the center as well, where staffers reported that some looked like frightened children as they staggered in.

The Waveland police headquarters building is intact but unusable. The officers marveled that everyone got out alive.

Today, they know something else: Now comes a long slog through God knows what hardship in a place that's been demolished.

Henry Duvelle understands. He didn't want to die in the attic. He will now live in what's left.

"We're still in survival mode," he said.

———

(Lacour, a former reporter for the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., is now a reporter for The Charlotte Observer. Joshua Norman of the Sun Herald and Steve Lyttle and Dan Duffey of The Charlotte Observer contributed.)

———

(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050903 KATRINA Biloxi

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