Hurricane Katrina and the Mississippi Coast

During January of the Middler (second) year, ETSS students usually spend two or three weeks engaged in urban ministry in Austin or San Antonio, TX; Atlanta, GA; or Los Angeles, CA.  After Hurricane Katrina devistated the Mississippi coast in August of 2005, a fifth option was made available.  Three of us (and two others from the seminary) spent a dozen days in Long Beach, MS at Camp Coast Care, a Lutheran-Episcopal Disaster Response Center that was located in/around the gymnasium at the Coast Episcopal School.

I should note that at the time we visited, the only organizations serving Katrina survivors were faith based.  The Baptists had the largest presence, but our nearest neighbors in Long Beach were Nazarenes.  Some of what we distributed to survivors was donated to us by the Mormons; we were all in this together.  FEMA and the Red Cross had largely disappeared; Habitat for Humanity was waiting until the rebuilding phase, which was still months away.

Camp Coast Care

Camp Coast Care provided donated food, housewares, books, blankets, furniture, and clothing seven days a week to 2,000-2,500 people a day.  (600-700 people came through each day, picking up essentials for their families and neighbors.)  Free medical services were available Monday through Saturday and served an average of 150 people a day.  (Think M*A*S*H.) 

The camp also sent out teams of day workers to assist people with clearing out and rebuilding their homes.  By the end of January, 2006, some 700 work orders had been completed by our volunteers out of a total of somewhere between 20,000 and 70,000 that had been estimated to be completed by all relief efforts.

For my part, I spent two days working in the "store" (food/supply tent), two on the (un)loading dock (I hadn't driven a fork lift in 30 years, but it came back to me fairly quickly), a day working at St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Long Beach, four days on work crews, and one day in New Orleans.

Grasping the Scope of the Destruction

I created this page in order to collect my impressions and pointers to other sources.  I wrote five months after the storm, when most Americans had all but forgotten about it.  The reality is that recovery will take several years and billions of dollars that Mississippi simply does not have and cannot generate until its economy recovers.  Five years later, there is still much to be done.

Photos simply don't do justice to the scope of the devastation.  As I wrote to a few family members, first
imagine a block of small, well kept houses surrounded by mature trees looking out onto the beach.  Now imagine all of them gone.  Only their foundations (some slabs, some 6' pilings) remained, with an occasional pipe sticking up.  Every tree had been knocked down, stripped of its leaves, and/or poisoned by the 20+ feet of salt water that washed over all of it.

Now imagine the same scene for 150 miles of coastline.  As bad as it was in Long Beach and Pass Christiane, it was far worse in Waveland and Bay St. Louis, a few miles to the west.  The storm surge there approached 40 feet and washed miles inland, as far as Interstate 10.  We helped remove the layer of mud that remained at a home that had received 9' of water, two miles from the Gulf shoreline.

Though New Orleans got all the press, the worst of Katrina's fury was spent on the Mississippi coast.  Hurricanes rotate counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, so the winds blowing onshore to the right of the eye wall create the storm surge that produces the most destruction.  On the left side (where New Orleans was), the winds blow offshore and there is no storm surge.  New Orleans' infamous Ninth Ward was flooded by the failure of the levee system, not by Katrina itself.  In addition to the storm surge and sustained high winds, hurricanes spawn tornadoes that do additional damage at random, especially to the north and east of the eye.

We heard one comment repeatedly as we spoke with Katrina victims who had also weathered Hurricane Camille in 1969.  Until Katrina, Camille had been the most destructive storm ever to hit the US Gulf Coast.  Victims of Camille would say, "My house survived Camille in 1969 and it was 'cat 5,' so how much worse can this be?"  The answer was that Katrina was a lot worse.

Camille was a Category 5 storm (winds > 151 mph), but it was also fast-moving.  Camille did its damage and was gone within an hour or two; Katrina crossed the Gulf at Category 5 and weakened slightly before making landfall at Category 4 (winds around 140 mph), but it lingered for up to 12 hours!  That gave it the chance to build a truly frightening storm surge, which was close to twice the predicted height of 20'.

Before and After Photos

A number of people and organizations have posted photos of Katrina damage of their various web sites.  The first link below provides some aerial photos from the US Geological Survey that provide "before" and "after" shots, along with a sense of the scale of the destruction.

A second link is to the Mississippi Heritage Trust site, with shots of historic properties that were (in many cases) destroyed by Katrina.

The Gulfport/Biloxi Sun Herald newspaper's online site also provided before and after shots, but those articles have since been taken down.

A First Hand Account

The retired Editor-in-Chief of Car and Driver Magazine rode out the storm in his house in Pass Christian.  Like all too many others, he had weathered Hurricane Camille in 1969 and assumed this storm couldn't be as bad (it was "only" category 4, after all).  Alas, Camille blew through in an hour or two; Katrina lingered for 10 to 12 hours.

Rebuilding Will Take Years!

I created this page to help keep the plight of Katrina victims (especially in Mississippi) from being forgotten.  Even after five years, there is a vast amount of work yet to be done.  Though I was greatly impressed by the level of activity in the destroyed areas of the Mississippi coast (and saddened that there was none at all in parts of New Orleans), the reality is that actual reconstruction couldn't start until what remained of the most damaged homes was removed.  That took months after my visit.

Bill Kindel
MDiv Class of 2007
Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest
Austin, TX
27 Jan 2006
Revised 29 Dec 2010