October 19, 2005


The Storm: A First-Hand Account of Katrina

I am a news producer for a TV station in a little town on the Gulf of Mexico. A little town that many people hadn’t even heard of until a few weeks ago. A town called Biloxi, MS.

The Mississippi coast once conjured up images of Southern Belles drinking sweet tea, shrimp boats in the harbor, gambling barges, and the slow southern way of life.
Now, all anyone knows of the area is destruction.

To fully understand the devastation, one must realize what this area was like before.

Biloxi is just one of many small coastal towns that are strung together by the water. If you had asked me what it was like a month ago, I would have told you about the new art museum being built, the Hard Rock casino that was almost finished, the beautiful plantations by the water. I would have told you to eat a shrimp po-boy and check out some of the small town coastal events like a Crawfish Festival and old car shows. Biloxi even boasts of hosting one of the first Mardi Gras celebrations.

Now, all that can be seen is piles of timber, scattered like splinters and sawdust. A casino barge rests on top of the new museum designed by Frank Gehry, squishing one of the most pristine antebellum houses in Mississippi. Mardi Gras floats became deadly torpedoes, and classic cars flooded and sank.

As a journalist, I am used to writing about death and destruction. Natural disasters that rip through homes and lives, leaving tattered and torn pieces of towns in their paths. The tsunami, floods in California, earthquakes in Japan. I have become accustomed, even calloused to these horrors as I write about them and survey the video from a distance. I will never do that again. Hurricane Katrina brought all us down from our ivory towers. It opened our eyes to the frailty of human life, and man-made structures. We are so small compared to Mother Nature.

My TV station sits about four blocks from the beach, just behind the railroad tracks. I guess we thought we were invincible, because no one there evacuated. As the storm got closer I started to get nervous. Not because of the warnings we were giving to the community, or the projections on the Weather Channel, but because I could hear the fear in our own meteorologists voices. Professionals who have lived through hundreds of storms were shaking.

As Katrina hit land, the wind sounded like the ocean was in pain, and angry. In awe, we stepped out into our courtyard. I watched as the rain that was falling in sideways circles, ripped the roof off of our newsroom. I ran back inside, only to see a hole above my desk and rain pouring onto my computer. In a frantic rush we grabbed equipment, mainly weather computers, and raced to the other, “safer”, side of the building. Pieces of insulation began falling, and metal shards flew past, it felt like a combat zone with enemy fire coming from all directions.

The lights in our studio began pulsating, threating to become hundred pound
projectiles. We rushed to the cinder block section of building which had
dubbed "hurricane proof" and set up makeshift operations, only to hear a
crash above us. A piece of concrete has slammed through the roof and into
the second floor. Water began seeping in the front and back doors. Then one
of transmitting towers, weighing hundreds of pounds, collapsed. It looked
like a twist tie that had been hastily discarded just inches from where were
huddled.  If the storm had been any stronger, or lasted even an hour more, I
don't know that we would have made it.

As scary as it was at the station, that wasn't the part that frightened me
most. As we were rushing out of our crumbling newsroom the phones were still
ringing, with frantic viewers on the other end of the line. The sound of the
phone crying made my heart ache. I had talked to dozens of people who were
stranded, trapped, and scared just minutes before. I still wonder what
happened to the woman who called sobbing, climbing to her attic with her
baby. There was a man stuck in his house, trying to punch his way to the
roof. One of my coworkers called as she jumped out her bedroom window, and
her house was sucked into the murky waters. I can only imagine the horror of
seeing a 30 foot wave coming towards you and making what might be your last
phone call.

When the storm was over, the sun came out, the sky was blue and cloudless,
and little birds came out from their hiding places. On any other day, the
beach would have been filled with sunbathers, cars would have been driving
down beach boulevard. But on that day there was nothing but silence.
After awhile the victims started emerging. This area is known for its
parades, and that's just what one group of survivors did. They picked up the
flags that used to be proudly displayed on a wall by the beach, and started
walking. They came past our station, into apartment complexes, and past the
ruins of houses. They helped people up out of the rubble, and helped lift
our spirits.

Finding myself in a moment like that, seeing pride and good will after a
disaster, brought back memories and the old fears of that day in September.
I was at GW student at the time, and watched with horror as the towers
collapses and pentagon caught fire. That panic search to try and find those
you love, to get through on phone lines that are constantly busy. And then
that moment afterwards, where you want to hug everyone just because they are
alive, and offer to share what little you have left with someone who lost

I walked down to the end of our street. Common things like an Olive Garden
are now horrific sites. The building is gutted, only a few metal beams and a
roof remain. The Wendys next door doesn't exist. The same sight up and down
the coast. Homes completely washed away, with only the front steps in tact.
The steps that lead to nowhere.

Everywhere you look there is a reminder that life is changed forever. With
each step through the rubble I am afraid of coming across someone who didn't
make it.  Walking down the road, the stench of death is overwhelming. I am
afraid to step on the rubble, not knowing what is underneath. The stench of
rotting fish, shrimp, and food are the least of my worries.

The ocean is calm now. Little wave no bigger than a few inches lap against
the white sands. It's hard to believe such an evil force could come from
something that used to be so soothing. I will never look at the beach the
same way again.

The devastation has been difficult to bear. There is a sick fascination to
take it all in, to observe each twisted tree and shattered home. But I ache
for the lost and the suffering, and I cry for the wondrous cities that are
now lost.

Shilo Groover is a graduate of GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs (BA, 2003). She now works as a television producer at WLOX (ABC 13) in Biloxi, MS.

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