on September 1, 2007 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Katrina … two years later

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and portions of Alabama on Aug. 29, 2005, it marked the deadliest U.S. Hurricane since 1928 and the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history.

Within days, disaster relief and local assistance organizations in Oconee and Pickens counties felt the aftermath of the hurricane as evacuees flocked Upstate.

“Between the United Way and Red Cross, we had between 190 to 200 show up for assistance,” said David McCutcheon, executive director of the United Way of Oconee County. “Some came because of a connection with family or friends, but a larger number went as far as they could and ran out of money and food.

Compounding the problem, McCutcheon said, was the fact that local banks used by a number of the evacuees were underwater as a result of the hurricane — making accessibility to funds impossible for a long period of time.

“They were in need of short-term essentials — lodging, food and medication,” he said, adding that United Way provided gas vouchers from Wal-Mart to assist victims.

Overall, McCutcheon estimates United Way spent between $15,000 to $20,000 to assist evacuees — a task made more challenging by the fact that the disaster coincided with the loss of several of the agency’s major funding partners.

“We did the best we could,” McCutcheon said, adding that the United Way is closer to returning to its funding level prior to the closing of several manufacturing plants in the area and demand for Katrina assistance.

Sarah Dow, executive director for the Pickens County American Red Cross chapter, said her agency worked with evacuees through The Hurricane Recovery Program.

“Through that, we have worked nationally with 3,100 Red Cross clients — assisting in their long-term needs and in their hurdles of getting home, transportation to their jobs and mental health support,” Dow said.

Pass Christian, Miss., was among the Gulf Coast areas most severely impacted by Katrina. The city of 6,579, part of the Gulfport-Biloxi metropolitan area, saw all but 500 of its about 8,000 homes damaged or destroyed.

In addition, Katrina damaged more than 40 Mississippi libraries, including the total destruction of the Pass Christian Public Library. U.S. 90 along the beach was damaged and two major bridges — the Bay of St. Louis – Pass Christian bridge and the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge — were completely destroyed.

Sandy Reed, an eighth-grade earth science teacher at Seneca Middle School, taught in Pass Christian. She said the town’s entire infrastructure — along with an elementary school — was destroyed by the hurricane.

“It looked like a bomb hit the school,” Reed said.

Fortunately, Sandy and her husband Randy’s home in nearby Long Beach sustained less damage — the only significant casualties being their roof and several trees in the yard.

“We were extremely lucky,” she said. “We lived seven blocks from the beach and the first five blocks were totally destroyed. But the next three were spared.”

Following two-and-a-half months of debris cleanup and roof installations, 22 Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers were delivered to Pass Christian in order to establish a temporary middle and high school while the two elementary schools were combined. Reed taught in one of the trailers for the remainder of the school year.

Since the Reeds had transferred to Mississippi several years previously, the difficulty of leaving was not as great in comparison to longtime residents. After having already evacuated the Gulf Coast on three occasions prior to Katrina, the couple decided that enough was enough.

As a result, the Reeds put their home up for sale with almost immediate results.

“So many homes were destroyed, we sold our house in a week,” Reed said. “Luckily, we were able to move.”

The Reeds already had a niece attending Furman University and family members encouraged them to consider South Carolina as their next home. In addition, both are National Board Certified teachers and the board helped Katrina victims find new jobs. The South Carolina Department of Education also created a link related to job openings on its Web site.

“We came to Oconee County and they sort of embraced us,” Reed said, adding they especially enjoy the mountains. “This was a good move for both of us.”

But out of sight doesn’t necessarily mean out of mind. Though no longer having to physically face the devastation of Katrina, Reed said she often thinks about the friends and acquaintances left behind.

Two years later, Reed said people in Pass Christian are still struggling.

New rules and regulations on housing construction — including an increase in elevation from 13 to 18 feet — have proved frustrating, and residents and people who saw the interior of their homes destroyed still live in FEMA trailers because no contractors can be found.

“It is very difficult,” Reed said.

But Reed and her husband, a teacher at West-Oak Middle School, enjoy life in Oconee County.

“We’re glad we’re here,” she said.

Kathy Rogers-Watson, executive director of the Oconee County American Red Cross chapter, said things have settled down as far as Katrina assistance goes.

“Every now and then, we will hear from someone having a hard time making ends meet and we will provide them with canned goods and other items before referring them on to other agencies,” Rogers-Watson said.

The biggest challenge facing emergency agencies, Rogers-Watson added, is responding to numerous disasters that occur locally throughout the year.

“Someone who loses a house to a fire is just as devastated as Katrina,” she said. “It’s a struggle to receive funds to assist individuals who have been overwhelmed by house fires as well as recent drownings.

“Disasters never stop, whether it’s Katrina — and individuals that come here for assistance — or through local disasters.”

For example, Rogers-Watson said the Oconee County Red Cross has responded to five house fires since July 11, as well as a search and rescue operation and a drowning in Coneross Creek.

Dow said the Pickens County Red Cross has assisted in two single-home family fires and a bizarre case in which an individual rammed his excavator into two mobile homes occupied by his wife and children.

“There are not only natural disasters, but those that are man made,” Dow said. “It’s always difficult when you lose your home in a disaster, but when it occurs due to criminal intent — either by fire or someone purposely attempting to destroy your home — that creates different emotional needs. In addition to losing your home, you’re grappling with the fact that someone was intentionally seeking to cause harm.”

But all three agency heads say they frequently think of the Hurricane Katrina victims with whom they came in contact two years ago. McCutcheon said some have returned to the Gulf Coast while others have remained here.

“I’ve stayed in contact with three families,” McCutcheon said. “One family, in which a man was a chef, immediately went to work in Greenville and is still there. They miss New Orleans, but he said he and his family will be South Carolina residents for as long as they live.”

Rogers-Watson said her prayers remain with Katrina victims.

“We realize they still have a long way to go,” she said.