Katrina's Surge, Part 7

A Weather Underground 16 part series about Hurricane Katrina, by Margie Kieper.

For the remainder of the month, we're traveling the coastline destroyed by Hurricane Katrina's record storm surge. This is something that has never been shown on the news or talked about, either in the overall, or in detail. What you'll be seeing here is what people on the Gulf Coast have been calling the “Invisible Coastline” for almost a year now.

Today we'll cover the last of Louisiana's GOM coastline, and cross over into Mississippi, when we look at the effects of Katrina on Slidell, LA, and Pearlington, MS.

It has been difficult to write this series for so many reasons, and one of them is the thought that only now are we getting to the part of the coastline where the surge was the highest. Also, we're leaving the area bounded by levees, where people live with the daily awareness that water would, but for a wall of earth, take away their land, and we're going now to a part of the coastline that, while part of a flood plain, would see flooding beyond any average resident's understanding of what nature was capable of generating: water higher and further inland than had ever been documented, and, which would, subsequently, trap and in many cases kill many more people than in Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes.

It's hard to write about disaster, especially when a year later there is still so much tragedy – no Hollywood ending, here. Also, because I decided to do this only a little over a week ago, which now seems more like a month, I'm having to do research each evening, on the fly, which is definitely not my preferred method (I've been researching a story since April that I'm going to write about, after this long, long month is over). Researching takes time, especially hoping each evening that I'll find something unique about each location, so that I'm not just bringing you day after day of images of empty piers and piles of lumber where homes used to be, and so the six to eight hours that go into each blog entry have had to be wedged in between work and normal bedtime, which has now come as late as 3am. So until the end of the month, it seems that I am spending most of my waking time reliving Katrina.

Prior to researching and writing about Slidell, I had to, as a matter of course, first go back and read and cry again about a cat-heroine, Miss Kitty (pictured below), whose companion, Bill Harris, passed away shortly after the hurricane, but not before she saved his life in the dark pre-morning hours that the surge rolled in to Slidell.

Miss Kitty

Feline hero and media celebrity, Miss Kitty; image courtesy of MSNBC

I was one of many people caught up in the story of Miss Kitty, who, like my blogging companion Squeak, and my previous kitty, Shadow, is also a diluted tortoiseshell, with a coat of “blue” (i.e. gray), cream, and white. One time I mentioned this, and the person I was talking with – not a cat person, obviously – thought that I said I had a “deluded tortoiseshell,” which, upon reflection, I would have to say is also often true. The latest example of this was early on Friday morning, when Squeak did not hover around the breakfast dish, but instead sat looking out the glass panes of the side door, and after a minute I realized she was having a stare-off with the largest, most casual bunny I have ever seen. Bunny's coloring, in a way, was similar to a diluted tortoiseshell, but I don't think that was the main attraction.

When a boat came along and Bill Harris was finally rescued, they would not take Miss Kitty, but instead left her abandoned in the flooded condo! But through the efforts of Noah's Wish volunteers, who save animals in disasters, Miss Kitty was found and reunited with her person.

I was reading MSNBC online regularly, because in the days after the hurricane there was nothing on the news except NOLA, which the media kept annoyingly referring to as "the Gulf Coast" (not a map or geography buff among them), and I was frantic to find out news about Jackson County, MS. But MSNBC put together an outstanding online blog covering Slidell, and Waveland and Bay St. Louis in MS. That, aside from Anderson Cooper's forays into Hancock and Harrison Counties, was pretty much the only media coverage of the area, aside from local news on the web, which quickly became the lifeline connecting people around the country.

There are a couple of things in Bill Harris's story to note regarding his description of the storm surge. First, the current associated with the surge was tremendous. It is this current that is commonly underestimated by people who try to cross flooded roadways, or to navigate other flooded areas. In Bill Harris's case, the current was trying to pull his bed out the broken window of his condo, and pulled him under four times when he got out of bed and tried to maneuver around the bedroom. In a day or two we're going to look at the deadly force of water in a storm surge and how that is often not anticipated by people caught in it. The fact that the surge did pour in quickly and with such a strong current indicates that the land between Slidell and the GOM, namely, the peninsular area south of the Rigolets from Part 6 of this series, was completely inundated, but is also a testament to the power of this particular storm.

I talked with Jack Beven of NHC regarding the West Rigolets lighthouse in yesterday's blog entry. Jack is by his own admission kind of a walking encyclopedia on hurricanes (he said that he carries most of the big ones around in his head). Anyway having read that Katrina's surge completely destroyed the lighthouse, he wondered why the 1915 hurricane did not (the building sustained damage but was still there; however it was moved to higher concrete pilings after that storm). I wondered if it wasn't because of the differences in the marshland between 1915 and today providing more protection against surge, and he thought that would not be a bad working hypothesis.

The second thing from Bill Harris's story was that he stated the water had not gone down for three days. He was right on the water, and surge right at the coastline usually runs out as quickly as it comes in, but in trying to reconcile this, I've wondered if the water level didn't go down quickly along Lake Ponchartrain because it would have had to trickle out through the limited access to Lake Borgne via the Rigolets and Lake St. Catherine. If that was the case then residents trapped by surge in Slidell would have had to wait for several days for boat rescues.

I know when my brother (who is a lieutenant with Jackson County Sheriff's Department) was doing Search and Rescue on Monday evening, they were still having to take boats into the Porteaux Bay and Gulf Hills areas from the bay side (those communities are in western Jackson County bordering Biloxi Bay), which continued until 9 or 10 at night, but which then had to stop as there were no night vision goggles. That area was still flooded in late evening, so surge did not run out there until sometime overnight. They were able to rescue 50 to 60 people that evening by boat. When I get to the blog entries for Jackson County I'll have a lot more to tell about his experiences (note: night vision goggles are incredibly expensive; after some days the National Guard lent them 15 pair, and they recently were able to obtain 10 pair of state of the art night vision goggles, which cost on the order of $10K apiece -- called Night Optical Devices, or NODs -- by applying for grant monies).

So, back to the topic at hand, here is our location today, from Google Maps:

Slidell, St. Tammany Parish LA

Image courtesy of Google Maps

And here's a Mapquest image showing the locations of the cities of Slidell and Pearlington:

Mapquest -- Slidell, LA and Pearlington, MS

Image courtesy of Mapquest

Quite a bit of this area was inundated with surge, especially to the east along the Pearl River basin, as can be seen on this FEMA map of St. Tammany Parish (the flooding continued into MS, which is the grayed area to the east):

FEMA Inundation Map of St. Tammany Parish

Image courtesy of FEMA

Once again, this surge had a devastating effect on these coastline communities. Below is a series of aerial images showing what Slidell looked like five weeks later, on October 4th, 2005:

Slidell, LA Slidell, LA Slidell, LA Slidell, LA

By now you've seen a lot of these types of images: from the air. And this is because in many cases access from the ground was not possible right away. But I did find a set of images from the Slidell area, taken on the ground, that really do start to show just what the debris on the ground looks like after a significant amount of surge sweeps through the area. This is the link to the entire photo series. There are two things to note: First, these images were taken some days after the storm had passed, because roadways had been cleared of debris, enough to allow access (dates on the digital images show they were taken between Sept 14th and Sep 16th, several weeks after the storm). Secondly, this is the same type of debris that we will see in Hancock County and the very western edge of Harrison county, bordering St. Louis Bay, but in those locations the debris pile that was left behind by the storm was between 30 and 40 feet high.

Slidell -- surge debris field Slidell -- surge debris field Slidell -- surge debris field Slidell -- surge debris field

And when you get back to your home, if it has still been left standing by the surge, this is what you do: throw out anything and everything on the first floor, including carpet, wallboard, and kitchen cabinets -- or abandon your home as it will become one big ball of black mold on the inside, in just a matter of days. Debris was pushed back from the streets and joined by huge piles of personal belongings and furniture from every single home on every street, until debris removal could begin (weeks, sometimes months away). Meanwhile clothes and other items were blowing from every tree that was left standing, and the ground littered with many small pieces of trash; this debris still remains to this day, along the entire coast, because so many essential tasks still remain that there is no time or resources to attend to the niceties of smaller cleanup jobs.

Slidell -- emptying homes of flooded belongings Slidell -- emptying homes of flooded belongings

Pearlington, a tiny Mississippi community situated in the marshland along the Pearl River on the border with Louisiana, suffered the same fate as Slidell, but, like the remainder of the Hancock County coastal communities, was inundated with dramatically higher levels of surge (tomorrow I'll explain how surge is dependent on the local geography, and why Hancock County is subject to the highest surge along that area of the northern Gulf Coast -- and also, coincidentally, that Rita hit in the other most vulnerable spot of the northern GOM, Louisiana's western coast, resulting in another set of record statistics). This small community is the focus of the Pearlington Project; here is an excerpt from their web site:

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina literally swept away the rural, unincorporated community of Pearlington, Mississippi. After sustaining a direct hit, very few structures were left standing; and, the ones that were quickly filled with toxic mold due to the depth of the flood waters. Six months after their community of 1,700 was leveled, the approximately 700 persons who have returned live their lives in limbo, not knowing when – or even if – their tiny community will recover. Not one store, school, bank, or gas station has re-opened. Referring to themselves as “forgotten,” the people of Pearlington eke out an existence in a surreal world of debris and devastation, adjusting to a new normal that should never be experienced by any citizen of the wealthiest nation on earth.

Please read this second link from the site about the many ways that you can help Pearlington.

According to Wikipedia, when a state emergency response team reached Pearlington, ten days after the storm destroyed the town, there was no Red Cross or shelter, and residents were living under makeshift tarps. Pearlington is unincorporated, does not have a mayor, and government is provided by the head of the local fire department, West Hancock Fire Rescue.

This local blog says, last Thursday, "The anniversary of the storm approaches and things are relatively quiet in Pearlington" and "I've been informed that the ... grants are going to be slow in coming. The first of them won't hit the ground until late September and the balance could be as much as a year after that. If the people of Pearlington and elsewhere seek temporary solutions to get into a house, we are told that the grants may not be used to pay that back and in fact, will disqualify the homeowner." There are a number of other blogs on the web from Pearlington, and it seems like the web is the best way to keep up with what is happening in these communities as they try to recover.

Another link on the Pearlington Project web site is a CNN story about how FEMA hauled away portable toilets (outhouses) six weeks after the storm, leaving residents with none, and which also details other horrors of life, weeks after the storm. It was only in mid-October when the Red Cross finally showed up, twice a day, with meals -- or, rather, the same meal: tuna fish. I guess that beats what they served my brother day after day in Pascagoula: white rice and canned peaches. The article states, "For now, anyway, the people of Pearlington continue to live like refugees in conditions not unlike those of the primitive tent city of Cité Soleil in Haiti, where sewage runs in the gutters."

This article on Pearlington was posted in the Sun Herald just this past Wendesday, documenting the history of the structure in the before and after images below, that was built in 1859 by a freed slave, Usan Vaughn, for his wife Anna.

Pearlington -- before and after

Image courtesy of Sun Herald Before and After series

Hurricane Katrina Storm Surge:

Weather Underground Storm Surge Articles

Storm Surge Safety Actions

  • Minimize the distance you must travel to reach a safe location; the further you drive the higher the likelihood of encountering traffic congestion and other problems on the roadways.

  • Select the nearest possible evacuation destination, preferably within your local area, and map out your route. Do not get on the road without a planned route, or a place to go.

  • Choose the home of the closest friend or relative outside a designated evacuation zone and discuss your plan with them before hurricane season.

  • You may also choose a hotel/motel outside of the vulnerable area.

  • If neither of these options is available, consider the closest possible public shelter, preferably within your local area.

  • Use the evacuation routes designated by authorities and, if possible, become familiar with your route by driving it before an evacuation order is issued.

  • Contact your local emergency management office to register or get information regarding anyone in your household whom may require special assistance in order to evacuate.

  • Prepare a separate pet plan, most public shelters do not accept pets.

  • Prepare your home prior to leaving by boarding up doors and windows, securing or moving indoors all yard objects, and turning off all utilities.

  • Before leaving, fill your car with gas and withdraw extra money from the ATM.

  • Take all prescription medicines and special medical items, such as glasses and diapers.

  • If your family evacuation plan includes an RV, boat or trailer, leave early. Do not wait until the evacuation order or exodus is well underway to start your trip.

  • If you live in an evacuation zone and are ordered to evacuate by state or local officials, do so as quickly as possible. Do not wait or delay your departure, to do so will only increase your chances of being stuck in traffic, or even worse, not being able to get out at all.

  • Expect traffic congestion and delays during evacuations. Expect and plan for significantly longer travel times than normal to reach your family's intended destination.

  • Stay tuned to a local radio or television station and listen carefully for any advisories or specific instructions from local officials. Monitor your NOAA Weather Radio.

Source: NOAA