BILXOI, Miss. — Robert Latham spent Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005, riding along U.S. 90 from Jackson County to Hancock County along Mississippi's Gulf Coast, marveling at the number of people grilling, swimming and playing volleyball on the beach. They seemed oblivious to the monster storm that churned in the Gulf of Mexico, headed their way.
Latham, the director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, and other emergency officials monitored the hurricane advisories and knew Mississippi likely would take a big hit. What they didn't know was how much of the coast would be wiped away in an eight-hour span.
“I will never forget coming along 90 on Saturday, and it was almost as if it were just another holiday weekend,” he said. “People were on the beach, and I remember seeing parties and bonfires and I thought this thing was setting up to be another Camille.”
Katrina wasn't Camille, the legenday Category 5 hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast in 1969. It was worse. The winds were a strong Category 3, but the storm surge topped 30 feet in some places, crushing tens of thousands of houses, churches and businesses and covering many more with water.
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In all, Katrina killed 1,833 people in five states, including 168 in the three Mississippi coastal counties and 231 statewide. It's considered one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the United States. While most of the nation's attention in the aftermath of the storm focused on New Orleans — whose levees collapsed after Katrina passed, drowning the city and unleashing death and devastation — Mississippi took most of the hurricane's fury, with entire towns reduced to little more than piles of rubble.
Its fury did not discriminate. Katrina killed young and old, rich and poor. The oldest Mississippi victim was 96-year-old Pearl Frazier of Biloxi. She couldn’t leave the home her late husband had built on Back Bay in the 1970s. The youngest known victim in Mississippi was 2-year-old Matthew Tart of Pass Christian. The 20-foot storm surge overtook the home he lived in on Lorraine Avenue.
Katrina took four members of one family — the Banes of Waveland. The family — Edgar, 48, Christina, 45, Edgar Jr., 15 and Carl, 13 — all died when their home on Rue De La Salle washed away.
AN ODD BEGINNING
Katrina’s beginnings were somewhat different from other storms. It grew from a combination of a tropical wave, a trough and the remnants of Tropical Depression 10 nearly 950 miles east of Barbados. It became Tropical Depression 12 on Aug. 23, 2005, and passed over South Florida as a Category 1 hurricane two days later. The storm weakened only slightly and the eye stayed intact as Katrina moved into the Gulf of Mexico. Low wind shear and warm water fueled the hurricane and by Aug. 28, Katrina took up nearly the entire Gulf and had winds of 175 mph.
The original forecast called for the storm to curve to the northeast toward the Florida Panhandle. But that turn never happened, and on Aug. 27 the storm targeted the Louisiana-Mississippi line. The massive hurricane came ashore in Plaquemines Parish, La., during the early-morning hours of Aug. 29 and later hit in Mississippi's Hancock County.
Earlier in August, supervisors in Harrison County hired Gen. Joe Spraggins to head up the emergency management agency. His first day was supposed to be Aug. 29, but Spraggins had to start work a few days early. He stayed at the emergency operations center most of the weekend, and that’s where he rode out the storm, feeling helpless as residents called from their attics and roofs as the water rose.
“There was no way to get to them,” Spraggins said. “Any time we got a call we would plot where they were and tried to rescue them if we could. It’s a horrible feeling to be sitting in the EOC when someone calls and says they’re on the roof with their daughter and the water was coming up.
“It’s a horrible feeling when you can’t do anything. Luckily, most of them lived.”
Katrina’s wind, rain and surge pounded Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama for about eight hours, and once the fury stopped Spraggins went out with supervisors Connie Rockco and Larry Benefield to assess the damage.
“I had watched stuff fly by the EOC, and we had to go outside several times to reset the generators,” Spraggins said. “The first thought in my mind was this was the worst thing I’d ever seen. I knew when we saw the Copa Casino (barge) next to the Grand, it was worse than we thought.”
Spraggins and first responders immediately began searching for people who may have been injured during the storm, a job that continued for several weeks. He doesn’t remember eating or sleeping during that time.
“The looks on (people’s) faces and in their eyes was a state of shock,” he said. “I’ll never forget it. I hope I never see anything like that again.”
SEARCHING FOR SURVIVORS
First responders searched for survivors for two weeks; after that the mission changed.
“The hardest day was 14 days after Katrina when the rescue teams came to me and said they needed to go from rescue to recovery,” Spraggins said. “But we didn’t stop searching for people.”
Food, water and gasoline were scarce in those first few days, before the federal government made it to the Coast to provide some relief. Roads were congested as residents tried to make their way to their torn-up homes and communities. So many landmarks were destroyed by Katrina that the few who traveled the beach road couldn’t really tell where they were.
Max Mayfield was director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami when Katrina hit. Two days after the storm he flew from Grand Isle, La., to Biloxi to Mobile and couldn’t believe the devastation.
“I had no clue where I was until I passed the lighthouse in Biloxi,” he said.
It was the same way for Latham, who flew to the coast the Tuesday morning after Katrina hit.
“We asked the pilot to run the entire length of the coast,” he said. “I didn’t see a structure that I recognized. I didn’t even know what city we were in. The only building I saw that I recognized was the Coliseum. At that point we really knew what we were dealing with.”
Latham was frustrated by communication problems during and after the storm. He had stayed at the state EOC during the storm and felt helpless by the lack of reports.
“We knew it was making landfall, but we couldn’t get any information,” he said. Latham was able to find out the Hancock County EOC had collapsed and there was water in the Beau Rivage casino.
“The lack of communication made us realize that things probably were a lot worse than we thought.”
The situation didn’t improve once Latham got to the Coast.
“I got in the car and drove to Hancock County because before that we were sending written messages back and forth,” he said. “It was like Pony Express.”
Five years have passed since that day. Latham, Spraggins and Mayfield all have retired from public life and have gone to work in the private sector. This area is rebuilding, although more slowly than residents and officials would like. Insurance costs have skyrocketed, making it impossible for some home and business owners to rebuild along the beach.
But there are signs of progress. The bridges linking Biloxi to Ocean Springs and Pass Christian to Bay St. Louis were rebuilt within two years of the storm, and most people who relocated temporarily are back.
Emergency officials hope people who were on the Coast for Katrina learned the lessons the storm brought with it. When Latham was the director of MEMA, he kept a book on his desk about Hurricane Camille. He doesn’t have one about Katrina, but he’s thinking of writing one.
“I don’t think the general public outside of the Mississippi Gulf Coast knows the real story,” he said. “I pull out my notes and look at them occasionally. Those notes keep me grounded.”