Five years ago today, Starkville was battening down the hatches as Hurricane Katrina churned northward after making a devastating landfall along the Mississippi-Louisiana line on the Gulf Coast.
Katrina made landfall packing 145 mph winds and sending a storm surge that was documented as high as 37 feet in Pearlington and Waveland and as high as 20 to 25 feet in Pascagoula 75 miles away.
New Orleans saw some flooding from the storm, but suffered more catastrophic damage when levees along several canals and along Lake Ponchartrain broke, flooding significant portions of the Crescent City.
Fleeing the storm
A couple of days earlier, Emily Jones, who was then the lifestyles editor for the Daily News, had fled New Orleans with her sons, William and Braxton, after they had gone to the city that weekend to celebrate William’s 31st birthday. William was living in New Orleans and working at the Loew’s Hotel, Jones said.
“Our plan was in place: Eat at the finest restaurants, run around a few blocks and eat again at another of our old favorites. We lived in the Big Easy during the ‘80s and loved the city, the cuisine, the people – everything.
“About 10 p.m. on the 27th, I told
the boys to go out and celebrate on their own, I was bushed. I turned on the TV and there was the mayor announcing that everyone should leave the city,” Jones recalls
“I called the boys on my cell and told them to get home immediately. We were going back to Mississippi. William refused. He said his hotel (he worked for the Loews Hotel) had a plan for times like this. He could take his dog and get on the upper level of the property and ride out the storm.
“I stood in the door of his house with my hands on my hips and said, ‘No way. I’m not leaving the city without you!’ He really didn’t want his mother on board to ride out the storm so he reluctantly began packing up,” Jones said.
It would be at least six weeks before her son could get back to New Orleans, Jones said.
The storm moves inland
Though New Orleans would see catastrophic damage from the flooding, Mississippi would bear the brunt of the severe weather, with Katrina retaining hurricane status for several hours after landfall.
Jim Britt, Oktibbeha County’s emergency management director, remembers that local E-911 operators were fielding calls for help from Gulf Coast and south Mississippi residents on cell phones. As Katrina knocked out emergency communications networks in the southern areas of the state, the system rolled calls to operators in the northern counties, Britt said.
“The routine is that when one area goes down, the system rolls over to the next available public safety calling point,” Britt said. “Everything south of Interstate 20 was down, so we started taking calls.”
Local E-911 operators managed to find help for those Coast and south Mississippi residents who got through to them, Britt said. Since many were calling on cellular phones, E-911 operators were able to pinpoint their locations using GPS technology, Britt said.
“We didn’t drop one single call and found a way to get help to them. It’s something to think about what our 911 operators did that day,” Britt said.
“Some of those cell phones were hitting towers at unbelievable distances.”
Katrina remained a low-grade Category 1 hurricane as it neared Starkville and the Golden Triangle, downgrading to a strong tropical storm as it passed through the area packing sustained winds of 60 to 70 mph and hurricane-force gusts.
After ravaging the Coast and southern-central Mississippi, the approaching storm sent residents of Starkville and the greater Golden Triangle into overdrive as Mississippi State University and local public and private schools closed at noon and numerous local businesses — including major retailers such as Wal-Mart — closed early.
City and county government offices also shut down as the storm approached, though police officers and firefighters remained on duty with others placed on standby to assist through the night if the situation warranted.
Acting under provisions of state law, then-Mayor Dan Camp and the Starkville Board of Aldermen met in a brief special meeting hours before the storm hit locally to declare a state of emergency for seven days and authorize Camp to take whatever action is needed as the storm situation merits.
As part of that declaration, Camp was also granted authority to extend the state of emergency beyond the seven-day period as needed.
That state of emergency would remain in effect for several weeks following the storm as the community coped with the aftermath.
Starkville Police Department Lt. Mark Ballard was on duty when the brunt of the storm struck.
“I remember the loss of three patrol vehicles within moments of the storm hitting. The flooding of the streets was so intense that officers assisting citizens would find their entry routes closed off by rising water. Flood waters entered into the engines and shut down our vehicles,” Ballard said.
“Trees were falling onto homes and winds were significant enough to blow debris through business windows. Thankfully, though the weather was severe, no major injuries were reported.
“I remember pulling into my driveway the following morning and not being able to see my home. It was the first time the storm got personal for me. Large trees had collapsed under the combination of intense rains and high wind and preventing my entry. Again, I was fortunate that no one in my family was harmed,” Ballard said.
Awakening to damage
After a night of driving rain and howling winds, city and county residents awoke to find a good bit to clean up.
During the storm’s height as it passed throughout the area, electricity was knocked out for most of the city and county, with service in key areas — downtown Starkville where emergency response agencies are headquartered and around Oktibbeha County Hospital — restored and maintained through the storm.
Broken and uprooted trees in yards, on vehicles and on some homes and fallen power lines constituted the bulk of the damage from Katrina, though flash flooding did occur along Highway 182, Hickory Grove Road, Howard Road and in other isolated areas around the city and county.
Electricity was restored to most of the city within 24 hours after the storm, though isolated pockets remained without power over the next few days because of the effort involved in locating and repairing damaged lines.
4-County Electric Power Association reported that more than 32,000 of its customers across an eight-county area were without power at the storm’s height, and 24 hours later, more than 19,600 system-wide remained without power due to extensive damage to utility poles and lines.
Local charitable agencies also went into full gear prior to and after the storm, providing food, money, clothing and other supplies to hurricane evacuees who sought refuge in Starkville.
The American Red Cross opened an emergency shelter at First United Methodist Church for evacuees, eventually converting the shelter there to a disaster assistance center to serve as a “one-stop shop” for needs. Locally, the Red Cross served more than 1,900 people and expended some $1 million.
To provide a coordinated effort in assisting evacuees, city officials converged emergency response personnel, disaster relief entities, charitable agencies and local media into a Katrina Response Team to ensure that resources to aid evacuees were spread as far as possible.
The team was coordinated through MSU’s John C. Stennis Center for Public Service.
Then-Mississippi State University President Charles Lee created the Bulldogs in Response task force to pool university resources, hold drives for supplies and assist students affected by the hurricane.
Helping those on the Coast
Local churches also banded together to collect supplies for Coast residents, sending some of the first supply trucks to the hurricane-ravaged areas and continuing to do so over several months.
Police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians were sent to the Coast in the first days after the storm to help with immediate relief efforts.
Ballard and fellow SPD Sgt. Tom Roberson were dispatched to the Coast alongside Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics agents working in Waveland.
“We unloaded at least six 18-wheeler loads of supplies in less than 48 hours, all from churches. I was so impressed with the fast and effective support the churches provided. Without volunteers, I am not sure how the people of that area would have made it,” Ballard said.
The immensity of the destruction was stunning, Ballard said.
“It never seemed to end. In Waveland, the power of the storm surge completely destroyed the railroad tracks and all the homes to the south of those tracks. The landscape was silent, hot and smelled horrible. Boats and some cattle were laid into trees,” Ballard said.
“Our truck tires did not last long due to debris and nails. We were constantly changing them. I recalled seeing only labs and retrievers in the streets; dog breeds that are considered strong swimmers. I took a picture of Waveland’s dedication sign to Hurricane Camille. It was the only thing standing in Waveland after Katrina. For me, I will never underestimate the power of Mother Nature or the resourcefulness of devoted people.”
Bill Broyles, assistant vice president for student affairs at Mississippi, volunteered to head to the Coast since he is an EMT.
He and three others — another EMT and two volunteer firefighters were sent to Hancock County “the Thursday after the storm hit, Broyles recalls.
“When we arrived in Bay St. Louis and Waveland, the destruction we saw was indescribable. Everything south of the railroad tracks was gone. We worked with other EMT’s from Starkville, Eupora, Tupelo and Columbus going door to door in the rural areas of Hancock County providing whatever assistance was needed,” Broyles said.
“We came upon an elderly gentleman in the Lakeshore community who had ridden out the storm because ‘the water in Camille did not get this high’ — a refrain we heard over and over. Scotty (the elderly man) was all right, but since his house had flooded, his two dogs had nothing to eat. We were able to go back into Bay St. Louis to a flooded-out Fred’s whose owner had told us to get whatever we needed from the store.
“We retrieved enough Kibbles and Bits to keep his dogs happy for a while. The look on Scotty’s face when we brought back the dog food was worth ever effort we had made. Sometimes it is the small things in life that make the biggest impact,” Broyles said.
In the days after the storm, things grew more chaotic locally and across the nation as gasoline prices skyrocketed due to the forced closure of refineries on the Coast because of hurricane damage and flooding.
This prompted a rush by motorists at gas pumps locally and across the states, with many retailers imposing limits on gasoline purchases pending resupply from other sources.