BILOXI, Miss. — Tommy Longo swam for his life on Aug. 29, 2005.
He was not alone. Hundreds along the Mississippi Coast shores did the same.
They thought they would ride out Hurricane Katrina, just as they had huddled in hallways and closets through Hurricane Camille 36 years earlier. But Hurricane Katrina made Camille look tame. Katrina packed a storm surge that washed six miles inland in many areas, the National Hurricane Center concluded, and up to 12 miles inland along bays and rivers.
Coast residents dug out so they could dig back in and rebuild, as they always did, as they always will. They could not foresee an economic recession that combined with soaring property insurance rates to stifle recovery. They had no forewarning of personal losses or hardships to come. No, back in the summer heat of 2005, Coast residents faced ruin with faith.
Each has a story to tell of how they survived, how they rebuilt, how they are moving on. A few shared their stories with the Sun Herald on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the day Katrina replaced Camille as the most destructive storm in the Mississippi Coast’s recorded history.
Waveland, the epicenter of Katrina’s third landfall, saw the worst of Katrina.
Longo, the mayor, was just another resident fighting to survive. He had undergone knee-replacement surgery four days earlier. The tide tore off his soft cast, swept away his crutches and walker. He had no time to tend to the knee. His town lay in tatters. Today, the 52-year-old shuffles like a centenarian through the temporary offices city officials occupy in a strip shopping center off U.S. 90.
Longo has moved six times, and relocated his city office four times, in the last five years. His family is finally settled back in their house, but a town center is just now rising from the ground on Coleman Avenue.
“I’d rather not think back to the way it was five years ago, or even three years ago,” Longo said. “But there’s an awful lot that has been done. There’s no road map for what it takes to rebuild a city — literally from under the ground up.”
He said 95 percent of homes and 100 percent of businesses were substantially damaged or destroyed.
“To say that it’s been a tough recovery is an understatement,” he said.
Still, he was able to celebrate on a recent Thursday afternoon. He climbed into his truck at 5 p.m. for a ribbon-cutting at a new business, Ever After Formals. off U.S. 90. A ribbon-cutting expert, he showed owner Mayvalan Hudson how to work the oversized scissors.
Residents have been slow to come back. Waveland’s population, he said, is still down 30 percent. The shoreline Waveland shares with Bay St. Louis is particularly barren.
One of those empty lots belongs to Kelvin and Emily Schulz, former owners of Big E’s, a seafood market and beach store named for Emily Schulz. The business and second-floor home overlooked the Bay of St. Louis. Emily Schulz worked as a nurse in Biloxi through the hurricane. Her family swam from the building as it disintegrated around them.
Her mother, 80-year-old Jane Mollere, did not make it. She refused to budge from her recliner. “Kelvin,” she said, “I’m too old for this.” One of the family dogs stayed by her side and perished as well.
Another dog, Schulz said, suffers from post-traumatic stress. The Schulzes, about to celebrate their 31st wedding anniversary, are of two minds about returning to the waterfront. Like so many couples, one longs to go back but the other wants no part of it. They are currently living in Diamondhead.
Kelvin Schulz misses the beach. He misses the apartment above his business and the quaint, quirky atmosphere that is Bay St. Louis. He wants to rebuild there. “Eventually,” he said, “we’ll make a compromise.”
Bud and Louise Ray finally decided to rebuild, sort of. The Long Beach couple first endured a protracted fight with their insurance company. They were among hundreds who sued insurance companies. The Rays spent more than $15,000 of their own money on expert reports, and also documented that their insurance company’s expert analysis had been altered, minimizing wind damage their policy covered. They were finally able to settle their claim on confidential terms.
Bud Ray wonders how many people just accepted what their insurance companies initially offered.
“That’s probably the biggest heartbreak I have for the Coast,” Ray said. “So many people had faith and confidence in their insurance companies. The poor people just got ripped off.”
The state Legislature in those early post-Katrina days seemed receptive to stronger laws to protect consumers, said Ray, who attended a legislative hearing on insurance after the storm. Action failed to follow.
“I don’t see anything, from a legislative or political point of view, that we’ve done to protect the public from being dragged through what they were after Katrina,” he said. “I think the insurance companies still have the same bag of tricks now that they had then.”
The Rays, who own car washes and other businesses, have rebuilt their pool-house apartment on the beach. Although they are quite comfortable in their elevated perch, they also have drawings to re-create their waterfront home. “We do intend to build back,” Bud Ray said, “but now, with the economy so uncertain, we’re scared to death of turning loose of a penny. I have never in my life been so worried about the future of our country as I am now.”
He said they plan to secure building permits, which are good for a year. He figures they will know by then whether to rebuild.
Meanwhile, they’re lonely on the beach, where overgrown lots surround them. The Rays lost one of their three sons in 2008 to an undiagnosed illness that could have been treated. The material possessions they lost in Katrina seem insignificant.
“Now, that’s a loss,” Louise Ray said. “That house? That house was just a thing.”
As a minister, the Rev. Anthony Thompson grappled with the losses his church, congregation and community suffered in Katrina. Tabernacle of Faith Ministries in northwest Gulfport had lost its insurance prior to the hurricane. Rain during and after the storm damaged drywall along the sanctuary’s entire south wall.
World Vision, a humanitarian Christian group, helped the church with a grant for repairs and also members who needed emergency and building supplies.
Thompson, who had no carpentry skills, insisted on rebuilding the pulpit himself. Today, the church has auditorium seating, recessed lighting, ceiling fans and crown molding.
Thompson acquired community-organizing skills in the post-disaster environment. He has been active in programs that help low- to moderate-income families with home ownership.
It’s hard to keep track as he rattles off the various groups involved in community education, cleanup, housing and disaster preparedness.
“God has put some things into motion,” Thompson said. “Any time something bad happens, you look for the benefit. We don’t focus on the destruction. People can look back and see there are some things now that they have that they didn’t have before Katrina.”
Bobby Williams also is a get-it-done guy. The charter boat captain said he knew his large extended family, Coast residents for generations, needed to flee for Katrina. The day before the hurricane hit, he saw the storm’s barometric pressure was 909 millibars, one of the lowest ever recorded and a very, very bad sign. His wife, Veronica Williams, was inclined to stay in their two-story brick home in Woolmarket.
Her choice wasn’t to stay or go, Williams told her: She had to decide whether she wanted to evacuate conscious or unconscious. In other words: “Get in the car or I’ll knock you out.”
Family and friends caravanned to Panama City, Fla. Bobby Williams immediately bought and filled every gas can he could find. He returned ahead of the others, instructing his wife to buy an extra chain saw, bleach, gloves, masks, food and water.
“I tell him all the time he should be the civil defense director,” Veronica Williams said. “You have no idea.”
Their house was still standing, powered by a generator. Other family members had lost their homes. For months, 15 or more people stayed with the Williamses, eating and bathing in shifts.
Williams went to work immediately, repairing damaged family homes and even returning to a cemetery vault the casket of a beloved great aunt. He rebuilt his mother’s house in three months flat. He and another man paid to have electricity run to their boats, which had been returned from safe harbor to the battered Point Cadet Marina in Biloxi. He bought an ice machine to supply his charter fishing business.
He had steadily rebuilt his business, catering to casinos whose high rollers enjoyed catching the big fish from his 46-foot Bertram. And then came the BP oil catastrophe in April. For awhile, Williams fished on. But the casinos soon informed him they could send him no more charters: They fear lawsuits from customers who might think the fish made them sick.
The blown-out oil well has been capped and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources maintains Gulf seafood is safe to eat.
However, the charter fishing season is already shot. This latest Gulf catastrophe is, in a way, worse than Katrina.
“I’m a hands-on person,” Williams said. “If I see it, I’ll go fix it. I can’t fix this. I don’t trust the government; I don’t trust the DMR because they don’t know what the long-term effects are. I’m not saying that they’re wrong. I’m not saying they’re right. I really don’t know what the future is going to bring for the charter boat industry of the Gulf Coast.”