By Tom Saam with acknowledgements to Harris Corp, NOAA, Jamie Cox, and Scott Reitz
On Monday, Aug 29th, 2005, many lives along the Gulf Coast of the USA were lost or completely changed. Hurricane Katrina made landfall as a category 4 storm on the Louisiana and Mississippi State boarder in almost the same location as Hurricane Camille did in '69. The devastating "right front quadrant" of Katrina pushed an enormous surge into the Mississippi low lands. Five weeks after the storm, I was lucky enough to join-in with a crew from Harris Corporation to assist with disaster recovery efforts.
The pictures below (from NOAA) illustrate Katrina's splendor as an awesome, yet destructive, natural wonder. Visit Wikipeida for an animated satellite view of her approach. USGS offers some excellent fly-by photos of the post-storm damage
The image below illustrates Katrina's approach into the Gulf coast. Click the illustration for a link to satellite photos of the damage areas. Zoom in and have a close look.
"Google Earth" provides another aerial view of the damage area. Download the "Google Earth," viewer, then tour the damage areas by visiting earth.google.com/hurricane. Some of the detailed assessment photos are particularly revealing.
The Harris mission was to provide communications services to civil agencies, relief agencies, and victims. Harris teamed-up with the Florida State Emergency Response Team (SERT) in the days immediately following the disaster. SERT, FEMA and the Mississippi Emergency Management Association, MEMA all collaborated. Harris setup satellite terminals to provide telephone and internet services for Emergency Operations Centers, Mobile Medical Teams, Law Enforcement, Shelters, Libraries, and Municipalities. The client locations were continuously changing. During my 10-day stay, we served: visiting Sheriffs at Van Cleave and Waveland, Police at the Harrison County Jail, a MASH unit from North Carolina at Waveland, Libraries in Kiln and Bay St Louis, the Hancock Tax Collector's office, the Pass Christian City Hall, and the Pearlington Shelter. All of the sites were in the State of Mississippi. Below is a map of the locations; click on the map to download a "Google Earth" file to tour the locations.
As a Harris employee, the trip to Katrina's disaster area began with a stop at the Florida Emergency Operation Center (EOC) in Tallahassee. The EOC provided badges and credentials to identify us as SERT workers from Florida. The State of Florida made the largest State-to-State assistance in history, with over 6000 responders and $138M in goods and services. My visit was more than a month after Katrina hit, so Florida was withdrawing from the Katriana region to be ready for other events that might unfold at home. That meant much of the mobile command equipment was already relocated back in Tallahassee by the time I arrived.
After receiving a badge, the next stop was Gulf Port, MS. Approaching from the East, I crossed an I-10 bridge near Pensacola. The bridge was still being rebuilt as a result of Hurricane Ivan from the previous year. Continuing West, the signs of Katrina's impact became more and more evident. Many of the I-10 signs were down, and portions of I-10 had clearly been underwater. Below are some "signs of arrival." Notice the water line marked by debris along the I-10 exit ramp bridge at Highway 43 (click image to enlarge). This bridge is about 3 miles from the nearest inlet to the Gulf of Mexico and the water line was about 14ft high!
My first destination was the Harrison County Jail in Gulf Port. I wasn't in any trouble, it was just the "camp ground" for the Harris crew. During the early days, most of the crew slept in tents. A few lucky campers slept in the Harris RV. Eventually, the Sheriff kindly offered the Harris crew access to a dry warehouse that was blessed with power, and A/C. Coincidently, the Sheriff's department was also one of our satellite terminal clients. In addition to the Sheriff's terminal, we setup our RV with wireless Internet. Anyone with a nearby laptop could "surf." A nice amenity, but somewhat out of place given the conditions.
My next stop was the Regional Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) EOC at the Stennis High School in Hancock County. Among other things, the Stennis EOC provided badges for emergency workers, and "fuel stars" for access to FEMA supplied gasoline. The High School is collocated with a regional airport. It was a busy place, with numerous helicopters, law enforcement, and volunteers in action. Below is an aerial view of the EOC with the nearby airport.
Six weeks after the storm, the EOC was still quite busy coordinating all manner of recovery details. Power was restored at the school, but the Harris satellite terminal was still the most reliable communications link for telephones and internet. Harris also setup a temporary FM antenna for local station, WQRZ. WQRZ was the only remaining FM station in Hancock County. The Tampa branch of the Society of Broadcast Engineers helped WQRZ back on their feet. FEMA distributed FM radios to the public to keep channels open. The Stennis EOC was under pressure to relocate because it was long past due to reopen schools, and this school building was one of few that could be easily re-opened. Harris helped move the communications equipment to a new regional EOC location near Kiln, MS.
During the first days of my stay, we relocated our camp from the Harrison County Jail to the Kiln Arena. FEMA setup a large facility at the arena with 3 huge sleeping tents, shower trailers, a food tent, medical tent, etc. Hotel rooms were generally not available, so the camp was the only alternative for relief workers. Several thousand people were calling the place "home." Tenants included FEMA, MEMA, out-of-town law enforcement, volunteers from church groups, trailer truck drivers, debris haulers, camp workers, and many more. Adolescent volunteers were by far the most frequent visitors to the medical tent. They were also the most likely to wreak havoc after dark, despite their good intentions.
The aerial view above shows the Kiln Arena, located about 8 miles NW of the Gulf. The photo to the right is a view of the bustling camp shot from our camp site near the race track, looking South. Below are photos of our camp looking North, with the horse track just behind our camp site. We were co-located with the Mississippi Homeland Security van. Homeland Security teams were typically fire departments on rotating shifts. They had the grim duty of shifting through remains looking for bodies. We shared dinner on several occasions with the team from Grenada, MS. They were definitely "Sons of the Confederacy," who enjoyed relaxing at a BBQ after a stressful day of sorting through rubble. They rescued a number of Confederate flags from the debris, and collected signatures as mementos. I pledged my allegiance to the "stars and stripes," then signed anyway.
A fine dust fell on everything in the camp. Dust contaminated food and fouled equipment. Some joked that it was like being in Iraq. There had been very little rain since Katrina and vegetation was dying as a result of the salt water surge. The tinder-box situation offered an unwelcome complication that kept local fire departments busy.
Wind caused most of the damage in the area near the Kiln Arena, but Katrina's savage surge also left some finger prints after the fact. There were thousands of vagrant, waterlogged cars being "recovered" by roving wreckers and stock piled at our camp site. The camp was also a staging area for "FEMA trailers" destined to victims of the surge. Hundreds of trailers arrived and departed each day. I heard there were over 1000 trailers at the arena, most allocated, but waiting on utilities prior to installation. Meanwhile, victims lived in tents on their washed-out property.
On my first full day of service with the Harris team, I had the opportunity to join the team leader on a visit to all of the Harris client sites. Each site included an antenna ("dish") and a transit case with a rack of satellite communications equipment. The equipment linked back to telecommunications services at a "master station" at Harris headquarters. Services included "plain-old telephones" (POTS), voice over IP (VoIP), Ethernet IP, and wireless internet. Wireless internet attracted users with laptops to "hot spots." Users included victims, responders, and volunteers. Demand for services was fairly strong. Victims frequently employed internet to care for bank records, email insurance companies, and chat with family. Municipalities also employed the services. For example, citizens mobbed the Kiln Tax Office, one of the few remaining in Hancock County, to process official paperwork.
In most locations, Harris provided telephones, LAN wiring, and even laptops. The photos below show some of the uses.
Harris wasn't alone in providing disaster communications services. By six weeks after the storm, some cell services were restored, although unreliability congested. The storm damaged the wired Bell System beyond imagination, although some services were slowly becoming available. Where possible, Bell South setup temporary kiosks for public access.
The Harris network typically performed without flaw, although problems did occur. In the picture below, a strategically placed porta-potty faded the satellite link.
Although Katrina's winds were strong, the savage cruelty of storm surge caused the worst damage. We met numerous people with horrifying stories of escape, or stories of fiends who drown. Surge exceeded 20ft in many areas, and followed waterways many miles inland. Houses were ripped to shreds while boats and cars floated like ice cubes on massive waves. When the surge receded, debris found random resting places. Chaos prevailed. Below are a few pictures showing houses, cars, boats, all categorized as surge debris. These pictures demonstrate why "hide from the wind, but run from the surge" embodies so much wisdom.
Some of the most dramatic illustrations of "surge power" are illustrated below. Below left is a picture of the Hwy-90 bridge from Bay St Louis. To the right is an aerial view of the same location. Notice how the bridge decking completely washed away.
Below is an aerial view of the Pass Christian Marina prior to the storm. Next, is a ground level view completely lacking of boats and docks. Notice the lack of vegetation and sand dunes along the road. The road had to be "plowed" to make it passable after the storm. To the far right is an aerial view after the storm that compares with the far left. Boats and buildings were swept away.
It's difficult to imagine being a victim of the surge. A bank vault is all that stands of a bank in Pass Christian in the center picture below. The little sign on the bottom left offers a contact phone number for anyone with valuables in the vault.
When Katrina spared more than a bare foundation, responders inspected and marked the structure with a spray painted "X." Annotation included date of inspection, a status like "OH" (occupied home), and the body count. Responders generally came from out of town because the local police stations also needed inspection.
So much damage offered plenty of opportunity for charity. A world-wide response was impressive. There were volunteer workers from all over the country and goods from all over the world.
Harris, along with many other corporations also gave generously. Harris provided goods, services, and cash donations matched by employees. Harris also helped my daughter's local middle school ship supplies to victims relocated to schools in Huston. The President of the United States even recognized Harris' contributions!
Generosity literally "over flowed" at some locations. Clothes donations were difficult to manage. Some organizations setup makeshift clothes racks at damaged retail areas. Others stacked up boxes that eventually ended up in heaps. After seeing this disaster, it's pretty clear why cash, survival supplies and trained volunteers are the sharpest tools for recovery.
Pearlington, MS offered one of the most moving examples of suffering, charity and compassion. I'm told the there were 900 houses in Pearlington, and only 3 are left standing. Because Pearlington connects to the outside via narrow roads in wooded areas, it took 5 days for responders to cut their way back to the survivors. Many surviving residents of Pearlington lived in tents longer than it took Columbus to cross the Atlantic. Seven weeks after the storm, power was just becoming available at the local shelter and roads were still being cleared. Utilities were required for a the delivery of a FEMA trailer, so hopes were slim for local housing.
The Charles Murphy Elementary School and Library, built without drywall and little or no carpet, offered an ideal location for a "shelter." The Red Cross, church groups, and FEMA setup the school as a coordination point and shelter. Tons of supplies were distributed daily. A shipment of generators rated a police escort, but without incident. Volunteer doctors set up a clinic. FEMA provided shower trailers and a large generator to power the school. Harris provided a satellite link for communications.
Pearlington also received National attention: National Public Radio reported on Pearlington in several on-the-air stories. The stories reported on "PearlMart, " operated from the school gym. Volunteers operated the PearlMart "SuperDuper Center," and stocked the shelves with donations as they arrived daily. Unlike the piles of unsorted donations at other sites, the PearlMart had everything a victim or volunteer could want, neatly organized and completely free of charge. It also provided a centralized location to distribute relief information. The biggest problem was "getting there." Some of the local residents used repaired lawn tractors for transport (their cars floated away). While I was helping, a group of Native American Indians from Arizona were operating PearlMart with amazing grace and precision. Church groups were supplying, among other things, the best food around. I could not have been more impressed by the serenity, compassion, and effectiveness of the operation.
Engaging Katrina's wrath will remain vivid in my mind for the rest of my life. "God's awesome power" is a thing to love & respect!
Special thanks to Andy Cisar, Harris HQ lead, and Tom Fleming, Harris field lead for making this report possible.
Click Here to Return Home