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 look at two small communities in Jackson County, near the Harrison County line, where most of the deaths in that county occurred in Hurricane Katrina's surge: Porteaux Bay and Gulf Hills. These communities are part of an unincorporated area north of Ocean Springs that is known as St. Martin, home to over 20,000 people (about 140,000 people live in Jackson County total), and among the hardest-hit areas of Jackson County. From Google Maps, the location of this area along the Gulf of Mexico coastline impacted by Katrina:
Image courtesy of Google Maps
Today's Mississippi Press noted, “Fourteen individuals passed away as a result of Hurricane Katrina from the St. Martin community — Gulf Hills, Porteaux Bay, Old St. Martin and Back Bay Biloxi.”
Today is going to be a rather personal story, as it involves the experiences of my brother, a lieutenant with the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, who was responsible for rescues on the western side of the county.
Jackson County has a very large and wide river estuary running through the center of it – the Pascagoula River basin. Thus, during hurricanes, the county is usually cut in half, as the flooding along the river basin blocks off roadways. Since I-10 was built this is not so much of a problem. However, when Katrina hit, the southern span of I-10 was damaged by a boat that was pushed by the surge up the river and into the bridge, so that for months afterwards, all traffic along the coast trying to get east from all of Harrison and Hancock County, and traffic trying to get west, from Alabama, were bottlenecked over the one working span, reducing the freeway to a two-lane section.
Jackson County flooded as extensively as Hancock County, and all communities in the county were affected by flooding. Here is the FEMA surge inundation map for Katrina, showing the coastal flooding, and the river basin flooding almost up to the county line. Note that this was only surge; the river basin was actually flooded up into the next county, George County, by freshwater flooding that picked up where the saltwater flooding indicators on the map stop, so that the actual flooding was even more extensive than pictured.
Image courtesy of FEMA
Here is an image I shot (yes, while driving), from the raised portion of I-10 that goes over the Pascagoula River, looking towards the Escatawpa / Moss Point shoreline, just to give you an idea of the width of part of the estuary.
And here is another view of the estuary looking from I-10, south to the Hwy-90 bridge, the mouth of the river, and the Gulf of Mexico (uh…also, while driving).
Because of this geography, county facilities for the Sheriff's office include not only a main office in Pascagoula, but a secondary substation in the St. Martin area of Ocean Springs. And during hurricanes, each of the locations has its own M113 armored personnel carrier (APC), used for rescues. The APCs are seven feet in height. These vehicles can usually drive through a certain amount of water, for amphibious operations, but these vehicles were military surplus, forty years old, and leaked. So they were tested in streams and about six feet of water, but water did leak in. So it was determined they could get through places where a car or pickup truck could not, but were not safe for true amphibious operations.
The communities we're looking at today were so vulnerable to surge because they faced the Back Bay area of Biloxi Bay, right behind the mouth of the bay, and so were in line to receive surge directly off the Gulf, and probably with significant current and speed, as water was funneled into the bay. Here is a Mapquest image showing some of the streets in detail (not all the streets are on the map, because so much new building had been occurring in this area in the last couple of years).
Image courtesy of Mapquest
Amazingly, the substation was located right in this area – on Washington Avenue just south of LeMoyne Blvd – but the surge rose so quickly that rescue was attempted, but was not possible. In the story I'm going to tell, you'll find out that both the APC and the substation itself came very close to being destroyed as well.
Here is the NOAA aerial image of that area (north is on the right hand side of the image), followed by five details from the image, three from Porteaux Bay and two from Gulf Hills (this is right next to D'Iberville, which also had extensive destruction from surge). On the details you can see the surge was as powerful here as at Waveland, but did not leave empty slabs quite as far inland, and debris was surrounding the slabs because the surge took a long time to run out in this area (not until after dark that evening).
Image courtesy of NOAA
Image courtesy of NOAA
end of Riviera Drive -- image courtesy of NOAA
Image courtesy of NOAA
Image courtesy of NOAA
Image courtesy of NOAA
In spite of being right on the bay, and in spite of mandatory evacuation orders for the coastline up to I-10, an extraordinary number of people in this area stayed in their homes, as they did in other areas of Jackson County, along the coastline from Ocean Springs to Gautier (it seems Pascagoula had a higher evacuation rate for homes right on the water). If surveys could be done, it might be determined in fact that most people did stay, rather than evacuate, erroneously preparing for wind rather than for surge.
I had started looking at hurricanes in July of 2005, when I got a call from my brother asking me to see what I could find out about Dennis for him. When a hurricane hit the coast, he would usually give me a call, no matter the hour, and let me know he'd finished duty and was safe. I continued to watch hurricanes that summer, and learn what I could, and so when Katrina came along, and the NHC discussions were peppered with comments about how they could see no conditions unfavorable for strengthening in the GOM, I noticed. Because I was off work (I started a new job the day after Katrina hit), I was able to watch almost 7x24, catching a little sleep here and there, and leaving a trail of phone messages with the latest updates on my brother's cell phone.
I tried to explain the extent of the county that would be flooded with a Cat 4 hurricane, but it was hard to explain over the phone. “Only a stretch of land around I-10 is high enough to avoid flooding,” I told my brother. Of course there wouldn't be any shelter on the interstate, but I honestly couldn't find any safe places on the map.
I stayed up until the satellite images eclipsed overnight, and woke up early Sunday to see Katrina had grown into a Cat 5 monster. I knew my brother and his wife, who both work for the Sheriff's department, would have to go on duty and wouldn't have any time to save anything. Their tiny home like most others in Pascagoula was in close proximity to the Gulf.
My brother called that Sunday morning. He was on his way to report to duty, and was standing by the river bank. “I've never seen the water so high,” he told me. I asked if he was prepared to hang onto a tree if necessary when the water came. He said that he had put his cell phone and high blood pressure meds in a waterproof pocket of his vest. I felt awful. I think I said please be careful or something like that.
I spent the morning checking the weather and the news, incredulous that Nagin had still not called for a mandatory evacuation of NOLA (I believe he finally did, sometime before noon), and the rest of that day, watched Katrina on satellite images. Again I didn't get much sleep and was watching around 5 in the morning as the well-defined eye approached Plaquemines Parish on radar. At 7am I was horrified to read, in the NHC public advisory, “PASCAGOULA MISSISSIPPI CIVIL DEFENSE REPORTED A WIND GUST TO 118 MPH.” I knew that was the EOC, where my sister-in-law was working. At the time, I did not know that wind values of the anemometer at the EOC were not characteristic wind readings for that area (although they were actual wind values experienced at that particular location), because it was right next to the multi-story county courthouse, which was downwind of the EOC, and would have affected wind readings. The EOC also had somewhat of a marine exposure, near the wide estuary and the Gulf, which would have resulted in higher winds than what was experienced over most land areas. A more realistic wind value reported in the same advisory was, “GULFPORT MISSISSIPPI EMERGENCY OPERATIONS CENTER REPORTED SUSTAINED WINDS OF 94 MPH WITH A GUST TO 100 MPH.” What I knew was that as the crow flies the Pascagoula EOC was about 90 to 100 miles away from the powerful eyewall winds, and landfall of the eye, which would be far away at the LA / MS border, was several hours away.
What I learned from my brother, months later, was that they started experiencing gusty winds around 1am on Monday morning (about the time he was interviewed by CNN), and tropical storm force gusts arrived at around 4am, followed shortly after by sustained tropical storm force winds. By 6:30am trees and power poles were down everywhere, so it was starting to get almost impossible to get around by car. As soon as dawn came, they focused on making roads passable, using chain saws to remove some of the trees blocking the roads.
At about three in the morning, my brother received his first and only communication with specific surge numbers. At that time he was told that Pascagoula was expecting 17-19 feet (they actually received 16-18 ft of surge). That was when he knew his home in Pascagoula would be gone, as he knew the elevation of the slab was 13 feet, and the street, 10 feet. He asked how deep the water would be in the western part of the county , and no one knew.
The usual drill during a hurricane, is that after conditions become too bad for driving, the Sheriff's department personnel on the western side of the county head for the substation and hunker down. However in this storm they stayed out longer, continuing rescues, until about 9:30 or 10am in the morning. Thus it was that about 40 civilians and somewhere around 25 members of the Sheriff's department were at the substation by midmorning. But what transpired between the early morning hours and noon was horrific.
Around 7:30am, realizing that clearing the roads was more work than just a couple of deputies could do, my brother returned to the sub station, for more personnel. This was cut short because around 8am, the 911 calls started coming in from the Porteaux Bay and Gulf Hills areas. These 911 calls were mainly screams. This is what 911 operators heard all along the coast that morning. At around 8:05am, with five addresses in hand, my brother and two deputies got in the APC and headed to Gulf Hills, which was right across Washington Ave (Hwy 609) from the sub station. In that half hour, water had risen dramatically.
Gulf Hills, while not a “gated” community, was designed purposely with limited access, with one entrance on the south end, and one on the north end, exiting to Lemoyne Blvd, from the main road, Shore Drive, and a not very well known access behind a storefront. The two southern entrances were impassable due to water. The APC headed north on Washington, to enter at Lemoyne. But the APC couldn't turn on to Lemoyne, because at that point water was already about 10 feet deep after the turn, and APC was only 7 ft in height. That is an area where the bayou runs under the highway, and the elevation drops to about fourteen feet on Hwy 609, but much lower than that on Demoyne, to a depth of about four feet. So at this point the surge had reached about 15 feet in that area.
It was at that point that my brother says he remembered what I told him about how the (HES) map showed that there would not be any place in that location of the county that would not be underwater except close to I-10. He said he had a sinking feeling then that things were going to be very bad.
Not able to access Gulf Hills, they tried to access the Porteaux Bay area by going up to Big Ridge, which parallels Lemoyne to the north, and trying to go south on Sundown, and were able to get about a block into the Porteaux Bay area. At this point, suddenly, water started to rise incredibly fast, until it became level with the top of the vehicle (seven feet of surge). On top of the water came three-foot breakers, and those breakers, washing over the vehicle, quickly poured water into the open hatches. The air was so filled with water that it was difficult to breathe. My brother observed the water wash away a car in a nearby driveway. Since true amphibious operations were not possible they had to back the vehicle out. For a couple seconds it seemed they would not be able to make it. They were wearing SWAT callout gear, which included body armor, weapons, ammo, and communications gear, and weighed about sixty pounds. This gear would have been impossible to remove quickly. A truck with two other deputies had followed them but stopped a little ways back because of the water, unable to go further. The driver told my brother later, “I thought you guys were goners for sure.”
My brother calculated that with the elevation at the entrance to Porteaux Bay about 14 feet, and seven feet of surge, that the surge at that point was around 20 feet at that location, which was very close to the value that was later determined for that area. This was about 8:30 in the morning.
The elevation between Big Ridge and Lemoyne increases quite a bit, so that while Lemoyne was completely impassable, Big Ridge was not. Going back to the sub station, Hwy 609 (Washington Ave), which had been dry before, was now covered with six feet of water, at Lemoyne, making the surge at that point 20 feet, and so the APC was just able to get through. This is consistent with the estimated height of the surge at the entrance to Porteaux Bay, minutes before. Elevations in this area can be seen in the map below:
Image courtesy of FEMA
Returning to the sub station at around 9, there were more lists of 911 calls, with most places inaccessible. This included the St. Martin High School, which was being used as a shelter, when the roof blew off. That road was flooded and trees were down, blocking the road, as well. Rescues proceeded in places where they were able to get in, including the Reserve apartments further south on 609, where so much damage had occurred, including the stairways, deputies had to climb onto debris to rescue people from upper floors.
At about this time the roof blew off of the EOC in Pascagoula. My sister-in-law had to leave my brother a message on his cell phone, because by that time all communications were out (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency has promised satellite phones for future storms). For the next couple days the only communication was spotty service over personal cell phones.
Over the next hour more people were rescued and brought to the sub station, where there were about 25 Sheriff's department employees as well, but water continued to rise slowly. It had appeared that the surge came in two waves, but that was probably due to the topography, or that once ashore it took some time to continue further inland.
Around 10am the winds were high enough to make it difficult to do any more rescues. The wind was blowing so hard that debris was becoming dangerous. Shingles were blowing through car windows, and pieces of corrugated tin roofing were flying through the air and wrapping themselves around poles and trees. This was the onset of Cat 1 hurricane force winds. The roof of the sub station started to come off. They could see pieces of the roof going by, so my brother and another deputy went outside, dodging debris, to get a look at the roof, and saw pieces of plywood being peeled off (the shingles were already off). If the roof came off, the integrity of the building would be in question. My brother assigned each person three civilians to take care of if the building came apart.
Around 11am water reached the bottom of the doorway at the back entrance to the sub station. It had become an island as there were no areas that could be seen that were not covered with at least some water. That sub station is at an elevation between 20 and 22 feet, making the surge at around 22 feet, assuming around 21 feet of height at the back of the station, and adding some height as the door was raised above the slab. Also, when the APC returned, six feet of water was noted going over the 14 foot elevation of Washington Ave over the bayou bridge, which was clear from the height relative to the top of the vehicle, making a total of 20 feet of surge at that time, and the water had risen since then.
Now it was a question of whether the wind or the water would take the building apart, and after scouting the area it had been determined there was no nearby location to take people that would have been safe.
Shortly after the water came right up to the bottom of the door, the water level started to fall. That was the peak of the surge in that area, sometime between 11:30am and noon.
The highest winds in that area occurred between 1:30 and 2:00 in the afternoon. The cloud cover had been low and grey all day, but then the sky turned black, the clouds became noticeably lower, and the winds started howling. This must have been associated with a feeder band. These higher winds occurred until about 3:30pm. The roof of the sub station stayed on.
As soon as the winds died down a little, around 4pm, they concentrated on finding survivors, taking the APC some way into Gulf Hills near the Pine Road entrance, which was not passable due to downed trees, then off-road, then on foot, marking houses for the Search and Recovery teams. They also took SEATOW boats into Gulf Hills and Porteaux Bay, from the bay side, as that area was still flooded. The locations of the bodies were known from the 911 calls. They worked until about 9 or 10 at night, until it was too dark to see, and rescued about 60 more people, from various places. Six people were rescued from Gulf Park Estates in St. Andrews. Without night vision goggles it was not possible to continue rescue operations. The surge in that area finally went down completely sometime overnight.
Search and Rescue, and Search and Recovery operations went on for three days, aided by S&R teams that simply showed up from Florida, unasked. I remember reading a news article showing these teams delayed in Mobile, Alabama while the roads into Mississippi were made passable, anxious to get in as soon as possible.
Here is an image from the Mississippi Press from Porteaux Bay, looking south, at the corner of Riviera and Dismuke, after the surge had gone down:
Image courtesy of The Mississippi Press, Carisa Anderson
Here are some images I took along the end of Riviera Drive in Porteaux Bay, seven months later. All of the large debris had been removed, but smaller debris remained, including, as is true everywhere along the coast, debris draped in trees ten or fifteen feet off the ground. People are intending to rebuild here, but it was a very depressing and sad place in March.
One of the odd things that has occurred since the storm, probably due to continuing issues with bringing the phone system back online, is that the sub station regularly receives 911 calls from locations that currently are nothing but slabs, from these areas. Answering the call, there is only static on the other end. There is a list of addresses, numbering about 20 in total, hung up on the wall for the dispatcher, noting these locations. We think that possibly the last calls from these locations were 911 calls, and are somehow still electronically in the memory or database of the phone system.
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