10 years later, surviving Hurricane Katrina is still fresh in one Gulf Power employee’s mind
Saturday, Aug. 29, marks the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which was responsible for 1,833 deaths in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi and produced catastrophic damage, estimated at $108 billion. It’s considered the costliest U. S. hurricane on record. – FEMA.
On the Monday morning of Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the Mississippi and Louisiana coastlines with winds topping out at a devastating 155 mph.
Many residents had either evacuated the coastal zone or were hunkered down ahead of the strong Category 5 storm.
Some hurricane-hardened folks, however, stayed in their homes lulled into thinking Katrina would not be that bad as it began weakening – its winds dropping slightly as it approached the coast from 175 mph just 24 hours earlier.
Darrell Herron, a Power System coordinator Sr. and his family, living on an inlet about three miles north of the Biloxi waterfront a decade ago, were among them. He and his wife Lori had survived a number of hurricanes unscathed through the years including Hurricane Camille’s wrath in 1969, which devastated the Mississippi coast with a 24.6 foot-storm surge and the highest hurricane wind speeds ever recorded, at 190 mph.
As Katrina spun closer, the Herrons, including their 16-year-old son, Darrell Jr., were cooking breakfast and watching storm news on TV and the approaching weather from their waterfront porch. They were feeling confident in the safety of their new home, built two years earlier on a mound of dirt at Camille’s storm surge level and upgraded to exceed hurricane codes.
All along the Mississippi Coast hundreds of people, like the Herron family, would soon be caught off guard by Katrina and find themselves fighting for their lives and realizing that you can never underestimate a hurricane.
“You never know what a storm has in it, until it gets to you,” said Darrell, while sitting in the Pensacola home he moved into a year ago when he transferred from Mississippi Power to Gulf Power.
No two alike
“The property we lived on was the same piece of property my wife’s grandmother and her mother was born on,” he said. “They had known what the water had done since the 1940s. We had built to the Camille storm-surge level. That was the benchmark, the highest water level ever. We didn’t think we’d ever have another Camille.”
They had made all the routine preparations for Katrina, and then some. Windows were covered in plywood. Vehicles moved into the garage or on the highest ground. Extra food and generator fuel to last days and even share with family and neighbors who might become displaced by the hurricane was stockpiled.
“We made coffee, talked and thought we’re just going to ride it out,” Darrell said.
They were not even alarmed by the choppy bay water slowly creeping up to their house as Katrina’s eye approached Pass Christian, Miss., pushing a storm surge inland for miles.
“When the hot tub busted through the French doors, we knew things were getting bad,” Darrell said. “My wife said, ‘It’s time to get into the attic.’ Things were floating around the house. We didn’t want to get hurt.”
Even as they climbed into the dark attic with their Boston terrier, Baby, they were thinking they’d be climbing back out soon and mopping up water and drying out their belongings.
“Storms don’t last long. We’ve been through this before,” said Darrell, recalling their train of thought that morning.
They had no clue they’d feel Katrina’s lashing for nearly 10 hours.
“The wind was getting worse. Friends and family started calling us checking on us and telling us to get out,” Darrell said. “Once there was two feet of water in the house that meant the water was 16 to 17 feet deep in the yard. There was no way we could leave.”
He stopped taking calls about 9:30 a.m. that morning to conserve his cell phone battery. The power was out by this time and the only light shown dimly through the attic stairway opening.
“My wife is crying; my son is upset. They’re scared and shocked,” said Darrell, looking down as if the memory was painful to recall.
Fighting for their lives
Then over the constant roar of Katrina’s winds, they heard something even louder. Suddenly, it seemed like the air around them was sucked out through the roof soffits and insulation swirled around them like snow in a blizzard.
A tornado was pulling the roof apart.
“I hollered, ‘Head for the light!’ We needed to get out of there. The light was the roof coming apart,” Herron said.
In a split second, their security vanished when the roof disappeared and they landed in the deep, choppy, debris-filled water in the middle of the hurricane. Darrell and his son found temporary footing on what would turn out to be a piece of the roof that peeled off.
“My son said, ‘I can’t find Mom.’ We started hollering for her. Then her foot popped through the water, trash and debris. My son just grabbed it and pulled her up.”
The memory of that moment is still hard for Lori to recall.
“When I was under the water, I was face up under something very large,” said Lori, a first-grade teacher at Global Learning Center. “I remember trying to push up and turn over. Nothing worked. I remember thinking I'm 37 years old and not ready to die. I wasn't through living. I remember being more scared than I have ever been in my life.”
The dazed family went into survival mode. All they could see through the sheeting rain was choppy, wind-blown water in every direction. They treaded in water at least 21 feet deep. Seeing the metal roof from the work shed, they swam toward it. When it quickly slipped away in the water, the family swam to two nearby gum trees on which they clung for hours. Later they discovered one of Lori’s toes was nearly severed off, likely from running across the shed’s metal roof.
They felt lucky they were not killed in the ordeal. Darrell and Lori were in a tree about eight feet away from the tree Darrell Jr. wrapped himself around while Katrina’s deafening winds whipped debris around them.
“When we were sitting in the trees, all kinds of things – two-by-fours, anything floating – got picked up and flung by the wind. To keep from getting beaten to death, I tried to get Lori and Darrell Jr. to stay as close to the water as possible. The wind was blowing so hard, my son’s tank top was ripped off. Nothing was left but the strings around his arms where he was hanging on the tree.”
“At one time I heard my son scream,” Darrell said. “A piece of old, blue house foam about the size of a golf ball hit his back leaving a big whelp.”
As they fought to hang onto the trees, Darrell Jr. kept calling out to his dad, asking if he was all right.
“He kept hollering at me. ‘Are you all right?’ I hollered out, ‘I’m all right, son. Are you?’ He said, ‘I’m all right,’” Darrell said. “That’s when I had realized something was wrong with me.”
About that time, Darrell wiped his face and saw blood covering his hand.
“I looked down and saw blood dripping off the bottom of my shorts,” he said. “I felt around and put my hand on top of my head and felt my scalp rolled back. That’s what my son had been seeing; a big hunk of meat hanging off of my head.”
Even though he does not remember what happened, he suspects he scraped his head running out of the attic.
Worried he might lose too much blood and pass out; Darrell made the difficult decision to try to swim for a boat floating about 50 yards way on the edge of his property. It was a friend’s boat he was storing and had life jackets they could wear to possibly swim to his cabin-cruiser that was battered and damaged but still floating in the bay and tied with one line, about 80 yards away.
He swam through the debris, climbed into the friend’s boat and grabbed life jackets. Jumped back into the choppy water and swam back to his family in the trees.
“I just about had to drag Lori out of the trees because she was so scared,” he said.
Secured in life jackets, the family carefully made their way to a bigger boat where they could take refuge in the cabin, and find dry clothes and other supplies to hold them over until they could be rescued.
Once inside the cabin and as the hurricane continued to batter the area, the family did what they could for their injuries – Darrell’s head gash and a gash on Lori’s leg and her near severed pinky toe.
Waiting to be rescued
Even in the worse of situations, Darrell found a little levity.
“When we were sitting in the boat salon, my wife is laid up on the couch; her foot is bleeding and wrapped in the towel. My son is sitting quietly at the dinette table. Our dog is gone,” Darrell said. “I say to my wife, ‘Babe, we may have chosen poorly. We had a $25,000 boat and $600,000 house. We’re on the boat now.”
Around 3:30 p.m., nearly five hours since they were blown out of their attic, Lori kept saying she heard someone outside of the boat. Darrell assured her no one was there; she was just hearing the wind.
He finally decided to kick open the cabin door and ventured back out into the storm to check. There in the blinding wind and rain, he saw his brothers, Dwain and Carsten, waving and hollering at them from a 15-foot aluminum, bass boat bouncing on the waves.
The brothers had spent hours looking for a boat in which to search for their family.
“They came looking for us, thinking we’d be in the attic,” Darrell said. “They had chain saws and axes. They didn’t anticipate the house would be gone.”
Darrell and his family climbed into the 15-foot boat and were ferried to dry land and quickly taken to Ocean Springs Hospital, navigating around roads blocked by debris and National Guard troops. They were among the first injured to arrive at the hospital around 5 p.m.
Darrell and is son were treated and released. Though Lori initially was released from the Ocean Springs hospital, she ended up hospitalized for two weeks in a Georgia hospital when her wounds became infected.
After sending his family to stay with relatives, Darrell, with the help of his other family members began picking through the remnants of their home and searching debris piles for belongings.
All that remained of the house was part of the fireplace hearth, the slab and a single toilet. He did find his and Lori’s wedding rings and few pots and pans. He was able to retrieve still cold food out of his refrigerator he found stuck in debris yards from his home.
Lori’s greatest regret was not removing family treasures out of the house before the storm.
“Take everything that can be replaced with you, like baby books, pictures, mementos from your children’s childhood, things your parents and grandparents had given you and so on. The list is endless. I will always regret not putting those things in a safe place.”
They were however blessed with finding one precious item, by a stroke of luck, a few days after the storm passed. A neighbor showed up carrying a dog covered in mud that she had found in a debris pile.
“It was Baby,” Darrell said. “She was dazed, traumatized and dehydrated.”
Looking back, Darrell said if he could do anything differently, “Naturally, I would not have wanted my wife and child or dog there.”
He urges others to not underestimate any hurricane, saying, “Evacuate.”