Katrina: Five Years Later

Published 6:00 pm Sunday, August 29, 2010

He waited for what seemed like a lifetime as the two speakersbefore him ran over their allotted time, ignoring the red light ontheir microphones and raving passionately about the effect thestorm had on their communities.

It was Sept. 28, 2005, almost one month after Hurricane Katrinahad twisted parts of the South into submission, destroying wholecommunities and rearranging the face of the region with the powerof the breath of God.

Bob Massengill, at that time mayor of Brookhaven, was seatedamong the long-winded speakers at a table facing the SenateCommittee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. He waswaiting for the green light on his microphone to blaze and allowhim to tell Sen. Joe Lieberman, Sen. Susan Collins and othernational leaders how the tempest had affected HomeseekersParadise.

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The green light ignited and Massengill spoke for 10 minutes.When the right light flashed, he followed the rules and fellsilent.

In that short span of 600 seconds, the mayor told the committeehis story, not a story about destruction or desperation, but aboutbrotherhood and Christian reaction. Pockets of his community stilllay in darkness, without electricity, and city crews were exhaustedfrom endless cleanup and maintenance, but Massengill’s mind fell onlove and charity.

On Hurricane Katrina’s fifth anniversary, his mind hasn’tchanged.

“The first thing that pops into my mind is the collaborativeeffort by churches in our area,” Massengill said. “Those that couldhouse people did, and those who couldn’t prepared meals. The cityand county couldn’t have made it without the churches.”

In churches scattered around Brookhaven and Lincoln County, morethan 3,000 evacuees from New Orleans and other parts of Louisianawere riding out the storm, with most having arrived with only theclothes on their backs, needing food and shelter. Massengill’schurch, Faith Presbyterian, had previously housed 125 people in itsmulti-use building for three days. Now, there were 270, and with nohomes to go back to and a second hurricane – Rita – barring theirjourney south, they stayed for almost six weeks.

And despite an entire county plunged into darkness, despiteshortages of food and gasoline, despite everyone fighting their ownfights, Brookhaven and Lincoln County citizens gave their all,feeding thousands three times a day for more than 40 days.

“I remember, at one point, some people from another church cameover to Faith Presbyterian with six boxes of food, asking if weneeded it,” Massengill recalled. “We had already fed everyone thatnight, so we said, ‘Well, maybe we can use it tomorrow.’ We werestill cleaning up the kitchen when a family of six pulled up andtold us they had been driving all day and hadn’t had anything toeat – did we have anything?

“I get choked up remembering it,” he continued, removing hisglasses to wipe his red eyes. “That’s how people worked together.This was a time when the community rallied.”

The community did rally, but just days before the storm, no onehad any idea what lay ahead. There was never a Katrina before, andthere hasn’t been one since.

Hurricane Katrina formed over the Bahamas as Tropical Depression12 on Aug. 23, receiving its name the next morning when it reachedtropical storm strength. The storm made landfall in Florida as aweak Category One on Aug. 25, churned across the peninsula andspilled into the Gulf of Mexico, weakened.

By then, Lincoln County Civil Defense Director Clifford Galeywas watching. He had just buried his father, James Galey, on Aug.22, but there was little time for grieving.

On the day Katrina made landfall in Florida, he began callingcity and county elected officials to warn them of the possibledanger. That danger was imminent – the hurricane blossomed into aCategory Three storm and would peak at Category Five the next day.Forecasters began predicting its second landfall somewhere near themouth of the Mississippi River.

At 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, Galey got a phone call from theMississippi Emergency Management Agency. New Orleans and othercoastal areas were evacuating. Interstates and highways would beconverted into northbound-only traffic – contraflow – thatafternoon.

“When I got that call, and they ordered a mandatory evacuationof New Orleans, I knew we’d be affected, no matter where thehurricane went,” Galey said.

By the afternoon of Sunday, Aug. 28, the panic was on. Galeyconvened an emergency meeting at the county courthouse that wasattended by all city and county elected officials, all city andcounty department heads, power company officials, water associationexecutives, business leaders and more.

“I told them they better go home and take care of their familiesbecause this was going to be the worst thing that ever happened inLincoln County,” he recalled.

Katrina made landfall on the Mississippi coast as a CategoryThree storm just after 6 a.m. Monday, Aug. 29, packing winds inexcess of 125 mph. The eye passed east of Brookhaven, putting allof Lincoln County in the path of the eye wall.

“My wind gauge at the office broke at 100 mph,” Galey said.

When the storm had passed, all of Lincoln County’s approximately33,000 citizens were without power, and some would be for as longas 20 days. Around 700 homes were damaged in some degree, and wellmore than 2,000 trees had fallen in Brookhaven. Every single roadand street in the county was blocked at some point by debris orfallen trees. By the time cleanup ended weeks later, more than100,000 cubic yards of vegetation had been chipped and disposedof.

There were no deaths attributed to the storm.

“We were just d— lucky,” Galey said.

Galey would spend the next 22 days running the EmergencyOperations Center without going home, directing relief andenforcement resources across the county. Every volunteerfirefighter, every medic and every law enforcement officer wouldwork long hours in the coming weeks, and he would help coordinatethem all.

Some situations called for drastic measures. Emergency personnelcommandeered a local gas station to make sure ambulances and lawenforcement could get fuel. Security was tightened and enforced atthe Lincoln Civic Center (then called the Multi-Purpose Facility),where thousands of people – honest and dishonest – rushed to applyfor money being distributed by the American Red Cross in one of theworst ideas to come out of the relief effort.

Galey brokered a deal with one emergency official just passingthrough, sent to collect dead bodies at harder-hit coastallocations. He traded the official 250 body bags for a tanker ofgasoline and diesel fuel, which was escorted in by police.

But not all of Galey’s army of rescuers came with badges anduniforms.

“None of us could have done any of our jobs without the peoplearound us,” he said. “We had people from Lincoln County and othercounties, other states – ‘What can we do? Help clear roads? Helpput tarps on roofs?’ Any time you can help your neighbor with atree across his house and he doesn’t have to call emergencyservices, it helps me out a lot.”

People began showing up at the EOC, at firehouses and otherplaces public servants were gathered, bringing food and water.

“Someone showed up at my office with a cake and said, ‘Here,y’all. I know you don’t have time to go get anything, have a pieceof cake,'” he remembered. “A lot of times emergency services feellike nobody knows they’re there, but they proved us wrong.”

Help poured in from everywhere. The City of Brookhaven, New Yorksent an ambulance and its crew to help local medics. The mayor andcouncilmen of Park City, Ill., arrived in two weeks with atruckload of supplies. Lincoln County, N. M., raised $4,000 to helptake care of evacuees.

And many Brookhaven and Lincoln County citizens, as soon asthey’d secured their own homes and families, departed for the coastand for New Orleans to help with rescue efforts in much more direareas.

Eventually the damage would all be repaired, but Lincoln Countynever went back to “normal,” said District Four Supervisor DougMoak. Some evacuees would stay and become citizens. Equipment wouldbe upgraded, emergency plans redrawn.

And from now on, the Brookhaven and Lincoln County will alwayswatch the sea.

“Every time they say ‘depression’ or ‘wave,’ it gets myattention,” Moak said.