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September 3, 2005

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

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. Its based on interviews with survivors and emergency managers from Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties in Mississippi and official records of the National Weather Service.

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