Ten years ago, on Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst
natural disasters in U.S. history, struck the Gulf Coast.
The storm resulted in 1,833 deaths and $151 billion worth of damages.
It sent people from the coast scattering to escape the destruction.
Some returned to their hometowns and neighborhoods to rebuild.
Others stayed where they landed. The Dispatch spoke with several
people who made Columbus their home following the storm.
These are their stories.
Colin Krieger and his wife, Desiree, thought they were putting down new roots about two months before the storm hit.
As it turned out, the New Orleans natives would only live in their new home in Ocean Springs a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina uprooted them and brought them to Columbus, where they still live.
Desiree said they did not want to evacuate before the storm, but fled to Meridian after Katrina was upgraded to a Category 5.
“They had so many storms that season already that nobody really took it as seriously as they should have,” she said. “We were tired of evacuating for nothing. We said the Saturday night before that if we woke up and it was a Category 5, we were leaving. I woke up at 6 (the next morning) and went to check the weather and it said it was a Category 5, so we proceeded to pack up and leave.”
Colin said they only expected to be away for a day or two, but he didn’t get to go back until Friday — four days after Katrina made landfall.
Colin said they were luckier than others — the storm tore off a significant portion of their home’s roof, and the building had a lot of water damage. But, Colin said, the home was livable again in about a month and a half, and a friend finished up repairs while staying there until the summer of 2006.
“Part of the reason (we left) was we had gone to Pensacola two weeks before Katrina and they were still cleaning up from Hurricane Ivan two years before,” he said. “Our thoughts were that if the fancy folks in Pensacola can’t get this place cleaned up, what do you think is going to happen to the Gulf Coast?
“We figured we’d come up here for a year or so, then slide on back, but we fell in love with the town,” Colin added.
The Kriegers wasted little time moving out. They took most of their belongings with them during the evacuation, so after returning home a few days after the storm to pack up the rest, they went north to take up a job offer with Papa John’s that Colin got a few days earlier.
“I serendipitously had been offered a job up in north Mississippi 10 days before Katrina,” he said. “When we heard about it, we didn’t have any idea where Columbus was. I was like, ‘There is no way I’m going up to rural Mississippi.’ We had just moved to the Gulf Coast.”
The year mark came, but Colin and Desiree did not want to leave. They’d just purchased their home about six months earlier and Desiree was pregnant at the time.
In the decade since, Colin and Desiree have come to call Columbus home. They’ve since had three children — Allison, Katie and Julie.
They sometimes miss the coast, but are happy in Columbus, which is just close enough to keep them from moving back.
“New Orleans never gets away from me,” he said. “Luckily, we have just enough of it here. We’ve started doing crawfish boils and having big parties — you can do a certain amount of that here. I think if we were further away, we probably would have gone back.”
Desiree said the couple is happy in Columbus, after having time to start anew.
“I don’t want to go through it again,” Desiree said. “I’m done moving. This is it — this is where I’m staying. Columbus is home now. We love it and our kids love it.”
In the years since, parents, siblings and other family members have moved to Columbus or nearby areas, which Colin said certainly helps.
“This is where we made landfall,” he said.
Five and a half weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Tom and Belinda Murphy arrived back in their New Orleans neighborhood for the first time since evacuating.
“It was so eerie,” Belinda recalled. “It was like you were on the moon. No people. No crickets, no birds, no sound. Just devastated houses and vehicles and nothing.”
Belinda and Tom took only their pets and some clothing when they left. They expected to only be gone a few days.
They also expected their house to make it.
They had lived only a few blocks from the industrial canal for 39 years, and the house had weathered hurricanes before. They expected the feral cats they and a neighbor always took care of to be evacuated, but the cats hid before the neighbor could rescue them. One cat in particular, which they called Cousin, had taken to following Tom around. Tom cried when he learned Cousin hadn’t been evacuated.
It took the Murphys two hours to clear the rubble to their door. The house had sustained the initial storm winds, but had filled to the ceiling with water when the levies were breached.
They wore hazmat suits, masks and gloves. With one hand they held flashlights. With the other they began picking up sticks, objects, lumps of mud and things that were no longer recognizable and piling them in the back yard.
“Lo and behold, about mid-morning, we heard a meow,” Tom said. “We couldn’t see anything. A little bit more, meow, meow, and then we saw it was Cousin.”
Tom found a can of cat food for Cousin, determined not to lose him again.
“I told him, ‘Cousin. You’re going to Columbus, Mississippi,'” Tom said.
The Murphys relocated to Columbus only a couple of weeks after Katrina hit. They first stayed with Belinda’s sister in Calhoun City before traveling to stay with their daughter in Oklahoma City. It was there that Mickey Dalrymple, then-minister of Fairview Baptist Church, called them and offered a house close to the church. At the time, the Murphys’ son was the music minister at Fairview. In the following months, hundreds of people in the church turned out to help not just the Murphys, but families all over the coast.
“I have never seen an outpouring of generosity and love in my life like that,” Tom said. “I never have. I don’t know that I ever will.”
At first the Murphys considered returning to New Orleans and rebuilding. Tom was a retired Baptist minister, and the church where he’d served for 33 years was only a few miles away from their home. The couple also used their house as a place to minister to international students. Belinda would make dinner for the students and they’d have their ministry in the living room, where they played the piano. New Orleans was home, they said.
Eventually, they decided to leave New Orleans behind and rebuild in Columbus. They found a house on Military Road, where they still live.
Of course, Cousin is still with them.
The story of surgical doctor Jan McClanahan’s 40 years living in New Orleans begins and ends with a hurricane.
When he moved to New Orleans in 1965, he and his brother arrived in the city about 12 hours before Hurricane Betsy did.
“We were the only people driving towards New Orleans because we were too dumb to know what a hurricane was,” McClanahan laughed.
By the time Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans four decades after he arrived, he had been working and living in the city for years.
He would have evacuated with his wife, but he was on call at the hospital.
The hospital had back up generators, so it wasn’t a big deal when the power went out during the storm. But the pumps and fuel for the generators were on the ground floor where the flood waters were starting to rise.
“The hurricane didn’t hurt us,” McClanahan said. “The flood killed us.”
Because of the flooding, the hospital had only partial generator power. It could not always be maintained. The intensive care unit got power, but the doctors could not service dialysis patients. McClanahan performed one surgery using headlights.
The hospital was surrounded by eight feet of water. All communication had been knocked out, not only for the hospital but for members of the Civil Service. Police were there, but they could only do so much because of flooding.
McClanahan’s unofficial job became to walk through the halls and calm down the patients and family members in the hospital.
He remembers that when the hospital got down to only 30 gallons of water, a couple of people swam to a nearby office building to get more bottled water. Another man “liberated” necessities from nearby grocery stores and brought them back to the hospital, McClanahan said.
After three days, helicopters began arriving and taking patients to safety. The doctors and other able-bodied people carried patients up four flights of stairs to where helicopters hovered in the air.
“I could not be prouder of a group of people with what we accomplished in taking care of our patients,” McClanahan said.
The real heroes of the storm were the hospital cooks and janitor, McClanahan said.
“If the janitor slept at all in those five days, I didn’t know about it,” he said.
The hospital hasn’t reopened in the years since the storm. Most of the members of McClanahan’s surgical team all parted ways.
McClanahan and his partner, though, found jobs at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle — a good job for McClanahan, who grew up in Columbus.
“For me it was easy,” he said. “I was just coming back home.”
He’s happy to be back in Columbus, but he still remembers the water suddenly filling up the ground floor of the hospital and those five days when he and his co-workers, their family members and patients were cut off from the outside world.
“You just realize that this was a life-changing day,” he said.
It is not something he will ever forget, he said. Nor will New Orleans forget it.
“I went to New Orleans in 1965 with two suitcases to go to medical school and I left 40 years to the day with the shirt on my back after the next hurricane came through that got me,” he said.
When she learned that Hurricane Katrina was barreling toward her home in Gulfport, Alice O’Neal evacuated.
She and her husband had already lost a home during Hurricane Camille back in 1969, so she knew how bad storms like the one heading for the Gulf Coast could be. She put her personal papers in a suitcase, packed some clothes and found friends to stay with out in the county.
“I looked like a gypsy,” she said.
The house where O’Neal stayed during the hurricane was not damaged, and even though there were some trees down in the area, no one lost power, she said.
That was not the case in Gulfport.
When she was able to get back to her home, O’Neal saw that the house was still standing, but most things inside were destroyed. The wind had blown the doors open and all the windows were gone. There was a tree inside the house. The pool was blackened with mud, full of “critters” and smelled awful.
O’Neal and her neighbors went through their houses and pulled out everything that was wet, ruined and mildewed and left it by the street.
“The whole coast was immobilized,” O’Neal said.
There was no electricity, no grocery stores, doctors offices or banks were open and cars lined the sides of roads because they had run out of gas.
“The main thing is the starkness of total darkness at night,” she said. “If you did not have your flashlight at night, you were lost…And the quietness of it.”
When the banks finally did open, the tellers had to use hand calculators. The lines were out the door and only one person could go in at a time. When the grocery stores opened, people had to use flashlights.
O’Neal had a 100-year-old glass china cabinet that she wasn’t able to get out of the storm. When she saw it again, the doors were open, and everything in it was gone. But the cabinet itself was still standing and it still had the original glass.
“I was just so lucky,” she said. “I could not believe it.”
The cabinet now sits in O’Neal’s living room in her Columbus home on Fifth Avenue South.
O’Neal had never been to Columbus before she visited a friend soon after Katrina hit.
“I drove into this town and it was so beautiful,” she said. “All the flowers were blooming. It was so peaceful and quiet. I just loved it.”
A few months later, O’Neal rented a house on Southside, close to downtown, without even looking at it. She lived there over three years before a neighbor sold her the house where she lives now. She still has paintings and some furniture that weathered the storm.
Plenty of her friends, both from Columbus and elsewhere, helped her move.
“It’s just amazing how God provides,” she said. “Everybody helped everybody. Nobody was ugly, nobody was mean. Everybody worked together. And that made it so important.”