16. September 2005 · Comments Off on KATRINA WAS DEVASTATING, BUT THE GULF COAST WILL RISE AGAIN · Categories: Ain't That America?, Good God, Home Front

Earlier this week, I returned from doing what I could to help in the wake of hurricane Katrina, finding disaster at home, but we’re on the road to normal again, as are the victims of this destructive storm. The President spoke last night of the courage of those who survived Katrina, and I got a chance to witness that up close and personal. Here’s what we did and how and when….

After the first roadblock, losing the transmission in my van, I got underway again, in my wife’s Dodge Durango. I have no idea why she wanted to buy a 4wd, but I’m glad she did. However, it doesn’t hold nearly as much as my Lumina! BTW, the van is now in the shop, the transmission is out, and a new used one should be installed by Monday. I opted for the used one instead of a rebuilt not only due to cost, but as the van has 155,000 miles on it, I probably will replace it sometime next year. We just pray that a used transmission will hold up better than the one that just gave up the ghost! You see, the original one failed at 100,000, and this one only lasted 55,000 miles. OK, it was some 3 years ago that it was put in. It probably would have lasted for a good long time without such a heavy load, but I had it loaded to the gills, so it was hauling about the max weight, which I believe is why it failed…..

I have already blogged here about leaving home and stopping for the night at our son’s home in Alabama. That post has the links to the earlier posts about the trip. Visit those links, and that brings you up to date with the whole history of this adventure.

Leaving Birmingham, I took I-20/I-59 west and south, entering Mississippi a couple of hours later. I had picked up an additional radio that I had purchased from a fellow ham in Atlanta the day before, and the materials I needed to construct an antenna for it in Birmingham. I already had VHF radios, and the new one is a “low bands” rig, for frequencies from 1.8 MHZ to 50 MHz. I had earlier sold my low band radio, and regretted it the day I did! I like the new one a lot better, though, it’s a lot more advanced technology. For the fellow hams, it’s an Alinco DX-70-TH. Enough of the technical stuff.

Damage seemed to start like a switch being turned on as I entered Mississippi. We have a niece who lives in Laurel, and they took a couple of trees on – and in – the house they had just moved into. Thank God they had spent the night in a shelter, as one tree went through the roof over their bedroom, and another wound up with a huge limb in their baby’s crib. I talked to her on her cell phone as I was going through Laurel, she was out buying furniture, they have an apartment now while their house is being repaired…glad they’re OK. I dropped off the interstate at Hattiesburg, some 60 miles or so from Gulfport, and that’s where I got my assignment, to Gulfport. From Hattiesburg, which had significant damage with trees and power lines down everywhere, I took US 49 south. The road was mostly clear by this time, and I had a lot of company on the trip south. All kinds of vehicles, especially 18-wheelers with loads of relief supplies.

About 25 miles out of Gulfport, I managed to make contact with the Harrison County EOC (Emergency Operations Center – the hq for coordination of all relief efforts) and got directions to my operating location. We had taken over an elementary school in Gulfport, and it was the comm center coordinating with the Red Cross locations throughout the Mississippi coast region. Other radio operators were already there, and some seemed really glad for the relief.

They sent me over to Biloxi, to the largest RC distribution center, to get orientated, and I was in for a big surprise there. Special recognition is due the Alabama Baptist Convention for their massive Disaster Relief Team. They had several 18-wheelers with such things as a kitchen for cooking the food that was distributed daily to residents, and they were coordinating delivery of food by Salvation Army vans throughout Biloxi and Ocean Springs. Located at a very large Baptist church on Popps Ferry Road, they were together with the Red Cross, giving out everything from soap to soup, clothing, ice, water, just everything. And not only for the residents, the ABC was also providing everything for relief workers, from showers to food to ice and water. They even had a laundry trailer, where they were doing laundry for us. Incredible! I had never seen such a large effort by any one organization, and my hat is off to those great Baptists from Alabama. Especially to one guy, Rick, a ham op who gave me the tour and orientation. I don’t think he stopped the whole time he was there, every time I went over to Biloxi he was there, doing one thing or another. Wish I had gotten his last name, and I’m gonna try to get it from the ABC, he was just such a super guy, tears in his eyes as he brought me up to speed. Like everyone I met there, Rick really cared about what he was doing there….

Back in Gulfport, it was 24/7 on several radios. One was the separate freq for the Red Cross, another for VHF, a repeater that covered the area well, and the other a low-bands radio used for more distant comm. I finally got some sleep late the first night, moving stuff out of the back so I could lie on my air mattress bed. I was so tired I was gone by the time my head hit the pillow. Some of the guys slept in the building, but there was no power except generator power, and no A/C, so it was about 90 degrees inside. Others did like me, sleeping in their vehicles with the engine idling, running the AC. Worked fine, and didn’t use much gas.

I woke up about daylight, some 5 AM or so, and went inside to work radios for the day. A couple of hours into the shift, one of the Biloxi guys was calling for a technician to help put another repeater on the air. Since they knew I was a radio tech, the finger pointed to me, and I was off for the 10-mile trip to Biloxi via I-10. You couldn’t get there by Beach Boulevard or by Pass Road, two of the main roads. And Popps Ferry road was impassible just west of Biloxi, a bridge had washed completely out. It is unbelievable just how powerful was the storm surge, about 30 feet in the MS area, and so wide spread. Can you imagine how much force it takes to completely destroy a bridge weighing tons? The bridge across Lake Ponchartrain in LA, from Hammond to New Orleans, is just gone! It was only recently that they constructed a second bridge alongside the old one, making it a 4-lane road. For many years it was a 2-lane, 24 miles over water, and a lot of people, including the folks that Jen worked for, had to commute daily across the lake. I will say this: I wouldn’t have wanted to be there to watch those bridges being destroyed.

From Biloxi, the US-90 bridge to Ocean Springs to the east, is totally gone. Good Lord, the power of that water seems to have been many times more than just wind alone. Well, that’s backed up by the National Hurricane Center, who warns every time that the storm surge will get ya if you don’t get out of the way. (We saw the same results in 1989, hurricane Hugo, in SC. The small town we were sent to had been mostly flattened by storm surge. Shrimp boats were 1/2 mile inland!) Back to Katrina, it is, or was, really difficult to get through many of the streets in Biloxi, and I just went with the flow, deviating where I had to. At the Biloxi center, Rick gave me a map, showing how to get to the repeater site. It was only a few blocks away in one of the Cable Company’s buildings. We needed the second repeater to take some of the strain off the 13/73 machine, which was nearly constantly in transmit mode. They were afraid that it would quit, and we’d be left without a repeater to cover the area.

For the most part, we had to tune the duplexer, a device that keeps the transmitter signal isolated from the receiver, enabling one single antenna to be used for transmit and receive. Now, tuning those “cans” isn’t fun even with proper test equipment, which was very noticeably absent at first, but it was nearly impossible with nothing but my portable, handheld radio, to work with. Finally, one of the local techs showed up with the right equipment, and we got a 28/88 machine on the air, taking up slack from the other one. The numbers I put there are for the hams. They are part of the frequencies of the TX and RX, and that’s what we use to identify a repeater. For instance, 13/73 means that the repeater receives on 146.13 MHz (Input) , and transmits on 146.73 MHz (Output). Now you all know one more “ham” secret…..

While at the cable building, since they had power, I plugged in my cell phone charger to an outlet, as I had misplaced my vehicle charger and it was getting low. I also took advantage of enough room, to build my tree-mounted antenna for the HF, making what is called a “folded dipole” for 80, 40, and 20 meters. That’s a simple, old-fashionedlong wire antenna that can be configured in a number of ways, making multi-freq ops easier. Now we were ready for boondocks ops if needed.

By the third day, Sep 7, someone noticed that he had some amount of cell signal. Sure enough, there was a fairly good signal on my phone, but it was impossible to get a channel. I guess, as the day went on, cell techs got more channels up and running, and by evening I was able to talk to Jen. That was really a pleasant surprise, as these days we don’t usually have TDY’s like this, and we miss each other! It was really nice for each of us to know the other was fine. Jen’s a big worrier (ducking!) and (LOOK OUT!) she was glad to know I wasn’t lying in a ditch bleeding to death. (That’s an inside joke. It’s what we used to tell the kids when they were teenage drivers and they didn’t let us know where they were when they were driving around)

Having cell phone signal back was great, and at first we thought it would ease the traffic load, but what we were doing didn’t lend itself to phone contact. When one of the shelters, or distribution centers, needed something routed to them, they called us, and we had to find the resource and direct it to them. There was lots of that, calls for more ice, calls for more MRE’s, and such. I went over a couple of times to Biloxi to pick up things like that and take them to the Gulfport area. Ice and water were really important to everyone. It was 90 degrees in the daytime, not much better at night until just before dawn, and really easy to get dehydrated. People working in debris removal or traffic control had it rough. I kept my cooler full of ice, sitting on the right front seat, water inside, and when I came to an intersection where traffic was being directed by a NG troop or a police officer, I got into the habit of passing him a bottle of water as I passed. Sometimes some of those guys had several empty bottles at their posts, so others were doing the same thing. Around Thursday of last week – I lost track of the days – power came back on at our base location. Then it went off. Then back on. OK, by that evening, we had AC working, and it began to be cooler in the building.

Destruction in the Gulfport – Biloxi area was pretty bad, but the speed with which recovery is going is really impressive. Power companies from all over the country are working to get power back on, and other people, such as law enforcement folks are there from nearly everywhere. I met a group of state troopers from Indiana at Hattiesburg, even before I got to Gulfport. They were on their way down. There were groups of Florida state troopers there. Sonar guy asked me in a comment if there were Naval Reservists there. In fact, there were. On Thursday, on a trip to the Biloxi center, I met up with a whole group of Naval reservists, unloading trucks and passing out supplies. They were really working hard, doing the grunt work. Someone else asked me about NG and ANG troops. They were all over. Many of the NG troops were directing traffic in both cities, and that was really needed, as both power being out and many of the traffic lights just completely missing. It was impressive to see that many troops working so diligently, helping others when they could have been home in comfort and doing their civilian jobs.

Getting gas was no problem, as my Durango had been given a placard designating it an official vehicle. A Chevron station across from the school where we were had been designated for official vehicles only, and their gas was only $2.39, while folks here in GA were paying more than a dollar more per gallon. We had to go in at night to fill up, and I tried to keep my tank full, just in case.

On Friday, the EOC sent me to check on a few other towns, small towns west of Gulfport, such as Picayune. I left, traveling on I-10, going west along to Bay St. Louis and Waveland. You may have seen pictures on Fox News of the destruction there, but it was near total. I did take a lot of pictures, which I will try to post on my web site, Patriot Flyer.

Along I-10, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but there were cars just blown off the road lying upside down in the ditch, and even up in some of the trees. Trees, of course, were down everywhere, and animals of all kinds were lying, washed up and drowned, in the median and alongside the road. There were cats, dogs, even hogs and possums, raccoons, it was amazing. Something else brought to my attention, was, “Where are the birds?” There were no birds, no bugs, and I saw only one mosquito the whole time. I’m sure they’re breeding by now, and birds, probably totally blown away, will return. One other thing on that subject: We had a garbage dump at the Biloxi center, and nowhere to be found were the usual varmints, like possums, coons, squirrels, and other scavengers. There were none around! Also along I-10, there used to be these huge billboards, and every single one of them is gone. Every billboard, the frame is blown inward from the gulf, or completely knocked down. Got some good pictures of that.

At Stennis airport, I stopped in at Hancock County EOC, where I found the greatest concentration of NG and ANG troops. I took time to eat lunch there, an MRE, and sat and talked with a guy from I believe, Ohio. The Guard had also set up a medical facility, as the Hancock Med Center had been largely destroyed. They had one of those packaged MASH units, very impressive. I took the time to talk with a Lt. Col, doctor, outside the tent, and didn’t get his name or where he was from.

Stennis Airport is one of those ventures, a “boondoggle,” that was constructed, and named after the late Mississippi senator, John Stennis, in the early 70’s. It was supposed to be a reliever airport for New Orleans, something which never happened. Being some 35 miles away, it was just too far. In 1979, when we lived in NO, I took Jenny and flew over to Stennis, which was at the time just an 8,000 foot runway with nothing else around. I was trying to teach her to land the plane, in case something happened to me, so she could get us down safely. Lost cause. We flew over there in a Cessna 150, old, worn out, with wind whistling through holes in the thing, and she was just too nervous to learn. I think today she could keep it in the air until somebody could get up there to help her get down, but Stennis didn’t work out!

Stennis today has a few hangars, but they’ve all been damaged, and I saw a few planes lying in heaps. I forgot to mention the military airlift into Gulfport. While I was there, it was constant, with a C-17 or a C-130 Herky Bird landing every few minutes. I even saw a few KC-135’s, also one of my past aircraft, on approach. I mean, it was just a constant stream of military aircraft. Reserve and AD both, and that itself was impressive.

While I was at Stennis, I checked my cell phone, and was surprised that there was a good signal. With the return of cell phone service along the coast, the need for ham operators decreased pretty quickly, and time came that I decided to go back home, as my funds were dwindling pretty rapidly and there was no more to draw on, and no ATM’s working anyway. Over the weekend I began the long drive home, some 900 miles. Leaving Picayune, I drove back to Birmingham, intending to drive all the way home, but Jen called and insisted that I stop at L’Joe’s for the night. That was a good call, as I was pretty tired by the time I got there. The next morning, I finished the trip, and was home by Monday night.

It was not like my experience with other storms. Frederick, in 1979, did nearly as much damage to Mississippi and Alabama, but this monster was much bigger, and the damage will take a lot more to recover from. It will happen, though, and will probably take more than five years to replace all the large structures, like bridges, that were destroyed. Imagine the incredible force it takes to destroy something as heavy and strong as a concrete and steel highway bridge! I’m grateful for the experience of meeting the heroes of this storm, the people who live there, and the folks from everywhere who are doing so much for them. The Red Cross is really doing a fantastic job of helping, and their volunteers are great. Give to the Red Cross if you can, as it is really going to the right place, I can testify to that. Pray for those folks who have to start their lives over again, they need your prayers and I know they appreciate everything that is being done for them.

And, thanks for reading this enormous post! God bless!

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