Hurricane Katrina, My Story; Just One of Many

How many blogs and articles written today are going to start with something like, “Three years ago today, Hurricane Katrina roared ashore”, or “devastated the gulf coast”, or “washed away”, or any number of creative verbs trying to describe the affect that the storm had on so many lives?  Mine won’t – I’d prefer it start with, “On this day in history, Hurricane Katrina changed the lives of a whole lot of people.”  My life, and the lives of my family, and the lives of my employees were just some of thoses lives.

We used to be Emerald Coast Software.  If you’re a native of the Gulf Coast, or if you’ve just visited, you’ll recognize the name.  The beautiful stretch of beach from Panama City to Pensacola, Florida is known as the Emerald Coast.  Up to summer, 2005, we lived and worked in Gulfport, Mississippi, and while that end of the gulf beach is not known as the “Emerald Coast”, I’ve spent a bunch of time on the real Emerald Coast and that’s where the name came from.

In June of 2005, just two months before the storm, I accepted a contract to work with a customer in Bellevue, Washington (the customer, InfoSpace, remains today one of my all time favorite clients – they were a great company to work with, and I absolutely love them).  On the day Katrina hit, I was watching from a couple of thousand miles away from the comfort of my highrise office; my family was back home in Gulfport.  We had been through storms before, and while Katrina had alarmingly made it to category 5 status out in the gulf a couple of days before, it was coming ashore as a category 3.  Nothing to be overly alarmed about, despite it’s bullseye landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  We’d been through Georges, Elena, Frederick, Camille (now that was a hurricane), Betsy – Katrina was just another moderate storm.

I was actually talking to my wife, cell-to-cell, as the peak of the storm was hitting back home; I was checking in every 30 minutes or so.  All was okay, and she had things under control.  The winds were pretty bad, but not much worse than Hurricane Georges a few years before, and the kid’s playground set had been blown over and rolled into the lake; that was okay, they’re teenagers now and hadn’t played on it in years.  The back wall of the house was vibrating, so I told my wife not to stand next to it.  I told her I loved her and we hung up.  When I tried to call back 30 minutes later, I couldn’t get through.

The rest of the day passed pretty normally for me in Bellevue.  The plan was that I would fly home on Thursday, spend a few days cleaning up, raking up the leaves and branches in the yard, making arrangements for any roof repairs that might be necessary, that kind of thing.  I worked, glancing at the news every now and then, and didn’t think much about it.  Until late that afternoon when the reports starting flowing out of the area, that is.  It was becoming obvious that Katrina was no typical category 3 storm.

Tuesday the news was even worse.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  Both bridges gone, casino barges washed ashore, antebellum homes that had survived 150 years and dozens of storms wiped away.  Home was devasted and all I could do was watch the news.  And then the levees in New Orleans failed and the media and national attention turned to the man-made tragedy that was New Orleans.

While it’s true that Katrina’s landfall was actually in Mississippi, and that practically all of the natural part of the disaster occurred between Pass Christian, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama, I get aggravated when I hear people gripe that, “New Orleans got all the attention”.  They did get the attention, but that’s because the man-made disaster aspect of the Katrina story is more dynamic of a news story than what happened in Mississippi, which was: bad natural disaster hit, destroyed a lot of stuff, killed a couple of hundred people, the Mississippi state government reacts with good crisis management, survivors pick up their lives, people rebuild and move on.  What’s worth reporting on tends to end at the body count.  In New Orleans, there was so much more to report: decades old levees breaking, inept state and city government with no plan and no communication and no idea what crisis management is, movie stars like Sean Penn (what a piece of work) making a show of – well, something, not really sure what – complete with his boat and camera crew, a parish sherrif blocading refugees fleeing on foot on a bridge.  There always has been, and I suppose there always will be, lots of folly in New Orleans to report on.  I’ll leave the Munchhausen-ish “we had it worse” to others who think that really matters.

I managed to make it home Thursday after the storm, having had to fly to Memphis and riding with my parents.  You can imagine my relief when I saw that my house was intact, that my family was fine.  For the next week we cleaned up and we survived.  I tracked down employees and customers, and contended with having no electricity, and no hot water, and no air conditioning, and having to wait in line for hours to get rationed gasoline, and no stores – food, pharmacy, anything – being open.  We made plans, and the night before I was to go to Mobile and make my way back to Bellevue, the power came back on.  A week or so later, my family came to Bellevue to spend a couple of weeks with me.  The engagement we had with InfoSpace was originally planned to go to November; we extended it until February.  Life moved on.

Between both ends of the disaster’s spectrum – natural to man-made – a couple of thousand people lost their lives that day and the days following.  I pray for them and their families.  Millions more were affected.  While I was fortunate that my house suffered only minor damage (if you want to call $20k worth “minor”), it never flooded and we never had to leave it, and while our office suffered not a spec of damage, the writing was on the wall regarding the viability of building our software company there.  We survived as a company in part because we had the geographic diversity of working in Bellevue, and now – 3 years later – we are Emerald Software Group and we’re based in, and thriving in, Alpharetta, Georgia.  But as another storm (Gustav) brews in the Caribean today, I still look south to Gulfport and think of it as “home”.

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