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Katrina: The Making & Breaking of News

My wife and I have seen enough news reports about the devastation in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to reach a conclusion: we have a story to tell and now it the time to tell it. I’ve spent the better part of a week now dealing with the effects (however slight compared to others who are far worse off than my family) of this hurricane and I believe that we now have the right to say a few things about this storm and how it has affected our fellow human beings.

Our story starts in Upstate New York, where my wife, Pam, and I were staying with my in-laws in preparation for celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary the day before Katrina roared ashore in the gulf. On the way up north, we were aware of a storm named Katrina that was threatening South Florida and were relieved after arriving in New York to learn that Miami and the other towns in Florida that were in the path of this storm were spared some of the worst possible damage, and though while bruised, most reports seemed to indicate that Floridians would once again bounce back after the storm. The only problem was that a day after the storm hit Florida, we realized that it was not fading away, the warm gulf breezes that grace our coastline were feeding Katrina on a diet of exactly the worst possible food: Warm, Moist Gulf Air. 

As Katrina consumed more and more of this lethal combination, she grew fatter and angrier and by the time of the celebration of my in-laws 50 years together, all of the talk among the some 100 guests at the party was how we were going to deal with a hurricane. Pam and I answered all their questions with a perceived level of confidence that was somewhat at odds with how we really felt. Although we didn’t say it, here we were 1,150 miles away from our home and by all reports, Katrina was headed straight for it. I reminded Pam that when Ivan came ashore, I was in California while she was at home by herself for the worst of that storm, and at least this time, we were both together. We reminded each other that we would face come what may together and we would deal with it. But we both knew we were lying. We were scared for our home, our dog Magee who was in an outdoor kennel, and our business. We kept up the charade for the guests and each other, but as soon as we got home, we turned on the Weather Channel like everyone else and hoped they wouldn’t mention Mississippi. 

I’ll let Pam take up the story from there: 

We were suppose to fly out Monday at 12:25 but that flight was cancelled. We were then scheduled for Tuesday at 12:25. When we left Elmira the flight from Detroit to Jackson was still on schedule. Some time between the time we left Elmira and landed in Detroit the flight was cancelled to Jackson. We met a young gentleman named Graham who was also suppose to be flying into Jackson. He was trying to get to Ocean Springs because he had two 80 year-old grandparents, his parents and a disabled sister there, couldn’t get a hold of them and didn’t even know if they had survived. We told him we were going to see if we could get a flight into Memphis and rent a car to drive to Jackson to get our truck and if he wanted to come with us he was welcome. So that’s what we did. 

We arrived in Memphis and drove to Jackson. On the way to Jackson, Graham got a phone call from a friend who went over to Gulfport from Pensacola and verified that Graham’s family was alive. By the time we reached Jackson, it was dark and we knew there was no way we could drive to Meridian because we had been told that we couldn’t get to our house because of trees down. Graham wanted to rent a vehicle in Jackson and drive to the coast. Unfortunately, due to the power outages, the car rental place was not open. We drove around until 3 am trying to find a place to sleep but there was nothing available in the state of Mississippi. So we pulled into a closed restaurant parking lot in Louisville, MS and we all slept in our truck till 6 am. Then we proceeded to Philadelphia, where we had some breakfast before continuing on to our house.

When we got into Meridian and to our house, I was blown away by the sight of our property. No trees had fallen on our house but the entire look of our front lawn was changed forever. We had 4 very, very large oak trees lining the front of our house and they were completely down. There was another oak on the far side of our driveway and that too was half gone and soon to be totally gone by the electrical/tree workers. There hasn’t been sunlight on the front of our house in many years and now it’s completely flooded with sunlight. We lost one pine tree from the back left side of our house that went across the road and a very large oak from the back right side of the property but that one didn’t cause any problems, just a big mess to clean up. So 7 trees in all and none on our house. We knew we were blessed.

After getting over the shock we proceeded to see what needed to be done with Graham. He contacted his friend in Pensacola again and arranged with him to meet in Hattiesburg, MS to pick him up and take him the rest of the way down to the coast. Graham took a cold shower (because we didn’t have any power) and I gave him a souvenir shirt that said Meridian, Mississippi on it. We went to Sam’s so Graham could buy supplies for his family, filled up the truck with gas and we headed to Hattiesburg.

Shortly after leaving Meridian, all cell phone service vanished. After arriving in Hattiesburg we waited 1 ½ hours and suddenly for no apparent reason, cell phone service was restored momentarily and Graham got a text message that his friend wasn’t able to get from Pensacola to Hattiesburg because I-10 was flooded. We decided that if he could get someone to meet us in Gulfport we’d try to drive him another hour to there. He was able through text messaging to get in touch with someone in Gulfport to meet us near I-10 so we loaded up again and headed further south. We made it to Gulfport, in some cases driving in between fallen trees and met the people that would take him to Ocean Springs and we turned around and came home.

By this time we were able to get into our driveway because of the crews working on the road. We still didn’t have power of course, but that was a small price to pay.

We went to office the next day because we had power there and we had to see what our clients needed. I also found out that my sister has a friend whose cousin lives here in Meridian (didn’t know this until then) and hadn’t been able to get a hold of her. I found out where she lived and tracked her down and was able to let Debbie know that she was fine and would contact her cousin. 

Our power came on Thursday afternoon. So all is now getting back to normal in Meridian. The gas shortage scare is over and we don’t have the long lines at the stations, most everyone has power except for Southern Pine area because they have to totally rebuild their system. Our secretary has that company and they say it may be a month before they get power. Our cable and internet at the house is still out but we can live with that.

We helped out at our church Saturday night distributing a hot meal to some of those that didn’t have power. On Sunday we set up a few computers in our front office free for people to get on the internet to get e-mail, contact FEMA, order prescriptions or whatever they need to do since a lot don’t have internet back up and operational. 

It’s not like we wished the hurricane would go elsewhere, but to be honest, we did wish it had not come toward us. Tragedies are often like that, we learned after the loss of our daughter, Alicia. Things happen that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, but you surely don’t want them happening to you either. But they do. 

So the media has used a huge amount of paper and air-time blaming the government or the President or whomever they could for the carnage. Listening to the talking heads who don’t live anywhere near Meridian, Hattiesburg, Gulfport, Biloxi or New Orleans tell us how bad things are and who screwed up, etc. But let me tell you some things that maybe you haven’t heard:

  • Did you hear the one about the Waveland Police Department? When the storm surge hit the coast, their offices were wiped out. There were about fifteen police officers who tried to swim for safety and failing that one office grabbed on to a shrub that the Police Chief had wanted chopped down the week before because it was an eyesore. Fourteen other officers made their way to the same scrub-shrub and held on for dear life to keep from being swept away. They all survived and as soon as the water receded went about policing their community, without a police department office, without police cars, and without most of the things policemen generally depend on. To Serve and Protect. Oh yeah, the Police Chief now wants to make that shrub a monument. 

  • Did you hear about the fourteen year old who was trying to out-run the flood in New Orleans and in desperation, hot-wired a city bus and began to collect survivors who all pooled their money, bought gas and drove to Houston and safety? He’d never driven a bus before and although it might be considered stealing, he took a risk and saved as many people as he could load on that bus. Even when the city government couldn’t or wouldn’t act, he did. 

  • Did you hear about all the people who had generators that loaned them to other people as soon as their power was restored. Or the folks who ran extension cords to the neighbor’s house who had power just so they could run a fan?

  • Did you hear about the TV station (WTOK) who ran on generators and kept broadcasting on the internet and local radio even when the power was out to keep everyone informed during the worst of the storm? They were angels to us trying to get information about Meridian while we were in New York!

  • Did you hear about the radio station (WOKK) who ran twenty-four hours a day providing information and directions on how to get ice, food, shelter and gas with no commercials for three days? 

  • Did you hear about all of the guys running around with chain saws cutting the trees out of people’s driveways so they were not trapped in their homes? Did you hear about the thousands of people who opened their homes to total strangers to provide safe haven for coastal residents?

  • Did you hear about the young 22-24 year old officer on a Chinook helicopter flying hundreds of missions in and out of areas that were completely inaccessible for days on end?

  • Did you hear about the thousands of churches that cooked hot meals for everyone no matter what their situation? Or the small bands men’s groups from churches who are making pilgrimages down to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild and recover? Or the tens of thousands of dollars raised in offering plates Sunday after Sunday?

  • Did you hear about the citizens who got out of their cars and began directing traffic at intersections where the loss of power meant there were no signal lights? Or those drivers who saw someone walking on the road after their cars ran out of gas? Or the convenience store workers who kept their cool when everyone around them was not?

Or any of the other thousand and one acts of kindness that took place every single day and continue taking place today even as life gets back to some form of normal for many people? Of course not, because unfortunately, it’s not considered news. It’s the weird and abnormal that makes news by definition: Dog bites Man: Not News; Man bites Dog: That’s News!

By definition, the kindness and wonderful nature of the human spirit to survive and overcome is not news. The things we needed to hear the most during our most difficult time, were in fact, not news to everyone else in the media. But during our darkest time, we needed to hear that heroes were all around us. We needed to hear that the good ole boys and girls the rest of the world laughs about were hunkering down to do what needed to be done.

In fact, we did hear about those things, but by word of mouth. Friend telling friend what someone did for them. And almost everyone we ran into during that time had a story to tell and it was uplifting and inspiring and emotionally heart felt. It made Pam and I and everyone else who heard them want to do something. It made us want to make a difference too.

Maybe the news media needs to think about their definition of news. The way you make the world better is by showcasing the heroes and in the course of doing so, inspire the rest of us to be heroes too. The best news during that time was that the power was off and most of us who didn’t need their brand of news weren’t listening anyway.

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