It's that time of year again. Time for me to make my annual birthday post. And yet another re-telling of the greatest birthday present I have ever received. Back in June in another Outside the Comfort Bubble moment I sat at a table with 9 people who spoke English as a second language and tried to relay the story and STILL, 13 years later it chokes me up.
Many of the times I have posted this story I have used photos, which admittedly are powerful images of the destruction. But those photos do not truly show the intensity of the destruction. The sheer power of the 360 degree as far as the eye can see up, down, left, right, ahead, or behind, damage cannot possibly be relayed in a picture, only re-lived. There were other images burned in my memory from when I got to town the Saturday after, Seeing flotsam that was storm floated three stories high. Historic homes that had disappeared. Buildings that had been hit by floating casinos. Casino barges sitting atop former buildings. Beachfront property that did not even have debris left to comb through. The Church of the Redeemer bell tower foundation. The bell tower itself, the stalwart, unbreakable, unmovable icon that had withstood Camille, fire, lighting strikes, and my own childhood was missing. Picking up broken pieces of stained glass from the windows I had admired as a kid. Watching a helicopter and an LCAC land on the front beach. Powerful images that no photographer can capture but that make them want to try.
Katrina. The bitch that changed it all. No one who lived through the storm will ever forget, and most will remind those who didn't experience the storm firsthand to never forget that the storm did NOT hit the city of 400,000 plus to the west, it hit the coast of Mississippi. There were articles set to go out, and some already in the newspaper printers talking about how that town had dodged a bullet when the levees cracked.
Eventually the intensity of the storm was downgraded from Category 5 to 4 at landfall, but that was when it hit the dooey of Louisiana which turned the storm due north to Waveland. By the time it hit Mississippi it had downgraded to a 3 (because MS has never been hit by a Category 4). The reason the storm caused more damage than the biggest bitch Camille is that Katrina hit as the high tide was starting to go out. Her storm surge included extra water that was already at the high mark. But we didn't know that yet.
We all knew it would happen. When we legalized gambling in Mississippi we all said that we'd have one hurricane wipe the casinos out and they'd be legal on land. Technically it was two hurricane because Georges didn't do it. But likewise, we all knew what else would happen in the aftermath. In my interview with Fox 6 in Birmingham the Sunday after the storm on the grounds of missing church I had been baptized in at 1, the same spirit that kept people in their homes for the storm would cause them to rebuild afterwards. I said it may not be a month, it may be more than a year, but come back to Biloxi because it will be rebuild better than ever. It has been. It now is.
Thirteen years ago Wednesday, I lost contact with all but one of the family I had in the middle of Hurricane Katrina. My Dad, Mom, Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, there are too many to count. Predominantly they were in Biloxi, a few in Ocean Springs, one as far away as Diamondhead (near where the eye passed), but brackish blood runs through the Byrd veins.
The unwritten rules of hurricanes seem strange to most uninitiated. Cutting the grass the day before it hits, having an ax in your attic, calling everyone you know after the power goes out. I was at work 320 miles away as the storm hit, but still in contact with my family. My sister had half-evacuated. She left her home a half mile from the beach in Biloxi and went to her fiance's house in Saucier, maybe 10 miles inland. Mom, Dad, 3 uncles, 2 aunts, at least 2 cousins and a second cousin all stayed in Biloxi. Another aunt, uncle, and at least 2 cousins were in Ocean Springs watching the storm arrive.
About 10 o'clock. I couldn't get Dad. He, Mom, and a friend of the family were in his house four miles from the front beach. I heard from my sister about 10:30, there was water up to the window sills in the house. None of my other relatives were reachable. Then my sister again about 11, the house had 4 feet of water in it. And then the reports stopped. Not the calls mind you, just the reports there was no news to report. No one knew anything. I was on the phone with cousins in Texas, Washington, an Aunt in Georgia, and people I had not talked to in over ten years. But no one in my family on the Coast except my big sister. The storm passed through my own neck of Alabama. Bad wind, lots of rain, a few limbs down, power out. A neighbor lost some shingles. The power came back on, still no news.
Eleven o'clock turned to noon, one, three, nine pm. The phone was glued to my ear but not with family on the Coast except T-Byrd. On the way home from work I flagged down an SUV that was so full of people there were two guys riding in the back with their feet hanging out the glass because there was no room and told them to follow me for a meal. I tried to take them to our church where we housed a Red Cross Emergency Shelter full of people with names like Thibodaux and Arceneaux with thick Cajun accents. Working with them reminded me of the family I had no contact with. These were the lucky ones that got away just before the levees cracked. They were anxious to get back home to pick up the pieces and start rebuilding, as they had three times before. Yet still no word.
Tuesday, 8 am. Noon. Two o'clock. I talked with people I didn't even know. Someone who lived down the street from my second cousin twice removed--this is not an exaggeration but the actual relationship. I relayed messages and numbers from friends, old friends, and strangers to anyone I could find. Five pm, and still no word. Seven, midnight. My cousins in Texas and Washington were as frantic as I, yet none of us wanted to admit it to each other--a fact I later verified. I was the connection between all of them. I had no idea where our family was, but I was not going to let them down. My own wife had our children under control, freeing me up to do what little could be done to find out about the rest of the family.
Wednesday morning, six am, nothing. Eight, nothing. Then nine, a strange number on the phone. Nothing odd about that now. I had been dialing and being called from area codes and phone numbers I still don't know. I answered and heard my Dad's voice.
The relief that washed across me was strong, but guarded. They were alive. The conversation went like this (not a paraphrase or fuzzy memory here, this is my occasional anal-retentive memory at its best):
"Dad, you have no idea how worried I was."
"Why, we were alright?"
"Dad, the last I heard there was 4 feet of water in your house."
"Dad! Mom's only 5 feet tall!"
I could hear him shrugging his shoulders. They had borrowed a neighbor's car and went out checking on things until they found someone who had a working cell phone and called. Within an hour I had reports from all of the Byrd extended clan, no fatalities, no injuries, two and a half houses in need of complete stud to stud, floor to ceiling rebuilding. Uncle Pat and Tara had some pine trees down in their yards (within a mile of one another).
This was the point at which the wave of relief was complete. I hung up my phone for a half hour and basked in the glow. After nearly forty-eight hours of not knowing, I received the greatest Birthday present of all time: the knowledge that my family, that had not bothered to evacuate or retreat in the face of a hurricane was alive.
At the least it was better than my sister's who now shares a birthday with not only the late Michael Jackson but the anniversary of the storm that changed it all.