For two ex-Chicoans living in Mississippi, the nightmare of Katrina continues
When Julie Williams and Bob Mello met 23 years ago, they had no idea that their spring of bliss would disintegrate into the summer from hell. Nor did Williams ever dream that her strategic retreat from crime-riddled New Orleans would lead her straight to ground zero of the largest weather disaster in American history.
For much of the summer things went promisingly for the transplanted Chicoans. A June wedding in San Jose—their hometown and the place they’d met—the honeymoon in Mexico, followed by a six-day road trip via New Orleans, on their way to enjoy the good life on the Gulf Coast.
Then came Katrina.
Along with millions of others from Louisiana to Florida, what transpired the morning of Aug. 29 tossed their lives into mind-boggling chaos.
With the aid of William’s real-time diary, what follows is a glimpse at what Bob Mello, who enrolled in Chico State University in 1971 and graduated 18 years later, and Williams, a Chico State art student in the early ‘90s and one-time waitress at Panama’s Bar and Grill, experienced in those frantic days following Hurricane Katrina.
Bay St. Louis, Miss. is one of a half-dozen tranquil beach communities on the Gulf Coast, about an hour’s drive from New Orleans. Like many living in the Big Easy, Williams and Mello sought the best of both worlds; accessibility to the big city without the downside of urban existence. Earlier this year they decided to make the move. They looked at homes in Waveland and Pass Christian before settling on a modest, comfortable little house in the Old Town district of Bay St. Louis.
The couple was quickly seduced by the unpretentious beach town. It reminded them of the Northstate with its huge oak trees, the crime-free small-town environment, and most importantly, it was an artisans’ enclave.
“It was like Chico,” explained Williams. “Chico with a beach.”
And unlike the most of the rest of Mississippi, the Gulf Towns, settled by the French and Spanish, weren’t immersed in religious fundamentalism.
“People leave you alone here. They’re ambivalent to alternative living.”
Once settled, Mello set his sights on buying and transforming an old stage theater into a nonprofit art theater. He took a job teaching English at the St. Stanislaus College for Boys. Julie painted. Occasionally, they’d stroll down to the beach for a cocktail at one of the half-dozen taverns by the sea. Just an hour up the coast, they were a world away from the Bourbon Street madness and the demoralizing maladies of the Big Easy.
At 4:30 a.m., the morning of Aug. 29 with the storm eminent, Mello talked a reluctant Williams into making a run for it. A New Orleans resident since leaving Chico 14 years earlier, Williams would later say she suffered from “hurricane fatigue,” a condition resulting from dozens of hurricane warnings for tempests that never arrived or else dissolved into tropical storms.
“If not for Bob, I probably would have stayed. I got tired of running.”
Within hours of their departure, America’s most devastating storm would touch down in the neighboring community of Waveland, Katrina’s official ground zero, and wipe it off the map. Bay St. Louis, on the other side of the railroad tracks from Waveland, didn’t fare much better. It would be an agonizing week before Williams and Mello would learn the extent of the damage to their new home.
In the wee hours, they packed necessities, moved their valuables to the attic and secured William’s paintings as best they could. At 5 a.m., unlike most evacuees, who drove north or west, they headed due east fearing they might get caught in traffic at this late hour. The roads were clear, the air cool and as the sun rose leisurely over the gulf, they stopped for coffee and bagels in Pensacola, Fla. The news from the television was not good; the storms had strengthened; the freeways were packed.
They realized it was time to head north. After a litany of inquiries, the best they could do was a room in the Holiday Inn in Monroeville, Ala., Truman Capote’s boyhood town and the setting for To Kill a Mockingbird, some 180 miles away. By the time they arrived, the hurricane was creating a mess, even this far inland.
The former Chicoans would spend the next couple of days in this hotel room monitoring the storm. And as Williams’ early entries into her Katrina diary suggest, it was just the beginning of an excruciating week of waiting, like millions of other evacuees, for word on what was happening to their communities.
I’m hearing on the radio that the second landfall, the eye of Katrina hit my town, but no information is available. I can’t get through to anyone in Bay St. Louis or New Orleans—my cell phone is useless. I even tried calling my husband up in the hotel room. “I’m sorry the number you dialed is not a working number.” I’m hearing on the radio that the Ninth Ward is under water. There are people on their rooftops, bodies are floating. I have friends who live there, hundreds of people I knew, bars I’ve partied in. I wonder if they got out.
Slowly but surely the bad news trickled in. For Williams, Hurricane Katrina was a double emotional whammy. New Orleans, the city that has been the only home she’s known in her adult life, was drowning. Unfortunately, Katrina’s jog ever-so-slightly up the coast put her newly adopted town, Bay St. Louis, directly in the hurricane’s path.
Back in the room the cable’s out. I listen to the radio. People are calling in wondering about areas not reported. I have no way to get through to friends and relatives. I hear Gulfport is 12 feet under water. Gulfport is about 25 minutes from where we live. I can’t stand the tension in the hotel room. I go back to the car. The cornfield across the street is moving and swaying like a fan on a shag rug. The clouds overhead are moving so fast—like fast-speed movies; great billows of grey clouds. I’m feeling a little crazy wondering if I still have a house and how much damage and if our second car has been crushed by trees or floated into the neighbor’s house.
Back in the room, the cable was restored and Williams and Mello watched in disbelief as things began to completely unravel. The scenario was hyper-surreal; stranded refugees, no sign of outside help, slow-motion madness and the escalating looting.
I can’t count the times sitting in a bar in N.O. that we speculated about what would happen if the big one hit. I can’t believe it is really happening. The reports get worse and worse. I can’t sleep, my mind going through every scenario. I can’t watch anymore TV but I can’t stop watching. I’m in a hellish limbo.
After two agonizing days in communications limbo, they arranged to stay at a friend’s parents’ place in Fairhope, Ala. In contrast to the cramped hotel room, their new residence was a semi-mansion overlooking the gulf. While there, they pulled up a satellite photo of the Gulf Coast. As they zoomed in they could see that unlike 90 percent of the region, their house still stood. After a week of relentless uncertainty they hit the back roads and inched homeward.
We’re driving into Gulfport trying to reach the 10. There’s a funky smell in the air, gas lines a mile long. Starting to see destruction, debris, signs and power lines down. I’m having a panic attack. I feel like throwing up.
If there is one profundity that summed up what happened that brutal August day, it was the mayor of St. Bernard’s Parrish stating simply, “We went from the Jetsons to the Flintstones in the course of three hours.” Those sage words ruminated with Williams and Mello when they finally reached Bay St. Louis. It was a mess. Brick buildings downtown were mangled. The Demontluzin House, a classic bed and breakfast, gone. The six taverns on the beach, obliterated. The bridges across Bay St. Louis connecting to Pass Christian, disappeared. Now it was time to go home.
Driving up the street I saw the wet debris on the side of the road, piles and piles in front of houses. Bob is driving too slow. I said let me out and I ran to the house and opened the door. Oh my God was all I kept repeating—Oh my God!
As trashed as it was, they were blessed. Things could have been worse.
“Our house is less than a mile from the Waveland city line,” said Mello. “The only reason the house survived is that it is the second-highest property in town,”
That’s a whopping 22 feet above sea level, according to their landlord. When the French landed centuries ago, they wisely built downtown above a 15-foot bluff, the highest ground available. The storm surge rushed up and into Bay, destroying everything behind them.
“If not for the cliff and the brick wall of buildings downtown this house would have been crushed.” said Williams. Even so, their house was inundated by three feet of water, the roof partially removed by the Katrina’s powerful winds. Most of what was left inside would soon take residence in the front-yard dump site. Lucky to have at least four walls, they’re surrounded by neighbors left with nothing.
“I feel guilty,” Williams said. “My friends at the beginning of our street don’t have a house.”
For the next two weeks they toiled relentlessly on the house. Information on insurance payments was sketchy. While they did make contact with an agent, he didn’t call back. They were stuck in some hellish insurance limbo. The state launched an investigation into unscrupulous insurance companies offering a measly $3,000 to anyone who agreed not to file.
Seeking help to patch a hole in the roof, they recruited a local handyman who wanted $250 for a $50 repair. They settled on $80. And the second car they left behind was totaled by Katrina. Inside, they cleaned the muck from the floors, ripped out the carpet, removed wet drywall and spent days stripping mold.
“It was gross and it stunk,” said Williams. “Even though we had masks, we got sick.” And it was dangerous. While there were obvious hazards—downed power lines and gas leaks—it was the little things that plagued the couple.
“Four times roof tacks penetrated my boots, but never drew blood. They’re everywhere,” said Mello.
They took a break from the frantic scramble and secured tetanus shots provided by nurses at the local elementary school.
After two weeks without hot water, sleeping under the stars and MREs—meals-ready-to-eat—("best eaten in the dark so as not to ruin the illusion") provided by National Guard, they decided to rent a room hoping to salvage what sanity they had left. The best they could do was a room in Tuscaloosa, Ala., six hours up the road.
When former Chicoan Miles Thompson heard Williams was holed up just down the road in Tuskaloosa he offered her and Mello respite at his country home in the rolling hills just out of Birmingham. Within hours, they were reunited, a mere 14 years and a couple of thousand miles since they had sat and drank in Duffy’s Tavern.
Before even the obligatory hugs, Thompson began chanting his mantra: “You can stay as long as you like, you can stay as long as you like …”
Thompson, a paraplegic, left Chico in 1993 to become the recreation director at an Easter Seals camp in southern Alabama. In 1995 he parlayed his experience and was hired as athletic director at the Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, the preeminent rehabilitation facility in the country and the official training site for the paraolympics.
As they sat reminiscing, Williams couldn’t keep her eyes off the television, which droned nonstop about the horrifying specter of Hurricane Rita, coming right on the heels of Katrina.
Though Thompson lives a couple of hundred miles inland, Katrina did not spare Birmingham. Thompson described the storm as “hectic.” Winds reached 80 miles per hour. The town was without power for two-and-a-half days.
“You see all those piles in my front yard?”, Thompson asked. Those are my pear trees. And it screwed with the tennis center. Knocked down the fences and I couldn’t teach for two days.”
When Mello asked if he applied for help from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), Thompson rolled his eyes. “Why do I need FEMA when I have a Billy Goat blower? My problems aren’t shit.”
After a couple of days of warm water, electricity and general calm, Williams and Mello began the long slog back to Bay St. Louis as Hurricane Rita approached.
Last week, reached at her home in Bay St. Louis, Williams sounded amazingly upbeat, considering all she had been through. She and Mello are struggling to put their house and their lives back together.
“We’ve been back off and on for about a month now,” she said. “When we want to take off and go take a shower it takes a couple hours to drive to a hotel that has a room available.”
She said there is only one working electrical outlet in the house, which is draped in tarps. She said it’s “kind of like camping.”
“We don’t have a grocery store near us open yet. We have to drive about 25 minutes to get to one. They did open a gas station so we can get gas, which is no more expensive than there in California.”
Most of the neighbors along her block are back. Some of them, she said, have lived there 50 years.
She said anger at FEMA is a common emotion among the people trying to dig their way out of the mess.
“People are railing against them because there is so much red tape. You can’t get through on the phones at all. When you find out where they are set up, you stand in line for hours so they can tell you they don’t know anything.”
She said initially FEMA gave them $2,000 to live on followed by $2,300 for further accommodations.
“For a lot of people down here that is more money than they’ve ever seen. We saw people at the Wal-Mart buying stereos. We’ve been calling the money FEMA-bling.”
The insurance company has finally responded, only to say that it will not cover water damage.
“Everybody here thought they were covered for hurricanes, but really it’s only for wind damage. The insurance adjuster came out to determine the damage and declared most of it was caused by flooding. I lost a car, just a 10-year old Buick, but the insurance won’t cover that. All of our appliances were ruined by the flooding. No coverage.
“We cleaned up as soon as we got back. Some people left the mud in their living rooms so it would look as bad as possible when the insurance adjustor came. The guy who came to our house said, ‘Oh this doesn’t look so bad.’ The only help we can get is FEMA, but where are they?
“We went to New Orleans and FEMA was set up way to the north in the city. There were 10 people in this little tent trying to handle all the problems. People in the south of the city without a car had no way to get there.”
She said back at Bay St. Louis the Red Cross has run out of basic supplies. What’s needed now are things like rubber gloves, bleach, dust masks, Neosporin, Band-Aids and cleaning supplies.
“It’s hard to plan. There is no town here. My husband was teaching school with all the damage to the school he’s laid off. I’d just gotten a job, service work for the elderly, but it required a car. It’s gone.
“We’re going to fix our house, get a new car and decide what to do. Maybe rent this place out.”
Williams said among her losses were her childhood photographs. “They just kind of dissolved, probably because of all the salt water.”
“Everybody is saying the same thing. They can’t plan, they are waiting on insurance. It’s not over for us; it’s still a very present, daily thing. Nobody outside seems to understand.
“They aren’t picking up the garbage and it smells. We have to cook outside. There are mosquitoes and the heat. It’s 90 degrees. We have some air-conditioning. It’s like things work for a little while and then they go out.
“The salt water is working on everything, eating it away.”
If they get enough insurance money they’ll repair their house and if Mello can get his job back, try to make it in Bay St. Louis. If not, they’d like to rent the property—there’s not much competition in the housing market these days on the coast—then maybe head west where they can find work and save some money with the hope of returning to Mississippi in a year or so, when things begin to spring back to life. Where will they most likely end up?
“That’s easy,” Williams said. “Most likely Chico.”