Mississippi's Resilience in the Wake of Katrina
The following is an excerpt from Haley Barbour's book, America's Great Storm: Leading through Hurricane Katrina.
On August 25, 2005, as Hurricane Katrina crossed Florida as a Category 1 storm, I called Gov. Jeb Bush to offer the assistance of Mississippi’s National Guard, as I had several times previously when his state was hit with five serious hurricanes during 2004-5. Little did I know or expect that four days later that same hurricane would visit my state as America’s Great Storm, the worst natural disaster in our nation’s history.
This book is my personal account of the twelve months that followed Katrina’s destructive path over our Gulf Coast and through the southern half of Mississippi. It is not an all-inclusive narrative or a comprehensive history of that period--the books by James Patterson Smith, Douglas Brinkley, and others largely achieve that goal--but more a memoir of the experiences of the fellow who was providentially placed at the head of the eff ort to prepare for the devastating storm with its massive destruction, then the frantic search and rescue, and on to the cleanup, recovery, rebuilding, and renewal of more than half of my state. That being said, much of what I write about is covered by neither Smith nor Brinkley. I also wanted to share lessons in leadership I learned from this megadisaster, lessons that I believe apply to almost any major crisis.
Our recovery from Katrina is the story of strong, resilient, self-reliant people who were knocked flat but then got back on their feet, hitched up their britches, and went to work helping themselves and helping their neighbors. My mother taught Wiley and Jeppie, my two older brothers, and me that crises tend to bring out the best in people, and although there were, of course, exceptions in the weeks and months following Katrina’s drive across Mississippi, I saw Mama’s observation demonstrated over and over and over again.
Because the news media focused much of their initial coverage on looters and those who failed to protect lives and property in Louisiana, many Mississippians were angry when their horrendous losses were ignored or, at best, underreported. I reminded them, “The news media doesn’t like to cover airplanes that land safely.”
Nevertheless, as time went on, Americans began to notice the way in which Mississippians met head-on the challenges of recovery. I have come to believe that the response of the people of Mississippi to Katrina’s destruction did more to improve the image of our state than anything that has happened in my lifetime. Not only were neighbors helping and, quite honestly, making sacrifices for each other, but first responders and other government employees performed their jobs magnificently in the critical first hours and days of search and rescue and security--and for the weeks, months, and years that followed. An oft-cited example of that fidelity is the Waveland Police Department’s response after the storm slammed that small town of about 6,700. Waveland is the western-most incorporated municipality on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and, thus, the closest to the path of the storm’s eye. It was totally submerged under a twenty-eight-foot storm surge, plus waves of six or eight feet on top.
The plan for the twenty-six members of the Waveland Police Department was to ride out the hurricane in their headquarters and, after it passed, to engage in search and rescue and reestablish security throughout the community. Of course, the storm surge went far over the top of the building, with the officers escaping out of the windows and doors into the deluge. Despite winds of more than one hundred miles per hour, several formed a “human chain” by holding on to a bush near the headquarters while others were washed completely beyond the city limits. Nevertheless, by eight o’clock that night, despite knowing their own homes were destroyed, all of Waveland’s police officers were back on duty. The valor of these sworn officers was just one of many such stories about those who engaged in the effort to save lives, protect property, and clean up from the utter obliteration. Remembering those heroes is another reason I wanted to write this book.