Ten years ago today, I woke up at 6 a.m. and I knew it was going to be a bad day. In fact, everyone in a 200-mile radius of me was also preparing for a really bad day. But just how bad it was going to get, few could imagine.
The weathercaster on the television was already announcing that Hurricane Katrina had made landfall in southeastern Louisiana as a Category 3 hurricane. It must have weakened slightly overnight as the last I had heard before leaving my work at the Hattiesburg, Miss., American the night before was that it was still a massive Category 4 storm.
Regardless, it was one of the most destructive natural disasters this country had ever endured.
Fortunately, the electric was still working at my house north of Hattiesburg, but that wouldn’t last through my morning shower.
By the time Examiner subscribers read this piece over their morning coffee today, the winds would already have been starting to howl 100 miles inland in the village where I lived with my significant other at the time, Jennifer.
It was certainly a difficult day as we lost one service after another — electricity and television followed by water service and eventually, both land and cellular telephone communication came to a halt.
The massive winds of the storm tore a hole in the roof of our house that allowed rain to pour into the eastern half of the home and we spent most of the day moving our furniture toward the center of the house as the waterfalls in the bedrooms grew in size.
Trees were uprooted in front of our eyes, along with the metal carport outside our home.
But eventually the storm subsided and the aftermath was all that remained to be reckoned with.
I remember assisting and photographing a chainsaw crew making their way north on nearby U.S. Route 11. But eventually the sound of the chainsaws died down as night set in.
With all the clouds carried away by the massive storm and all ambient light created by electricity temporarily ceased, I looked upon the clearest view of the heavens I may ever have pleasure of experiencing in the world we live in today.
I stood near the lone tree still standing in my yard — a magnolia, the proud symbol of the state I was calling home at the time.
The Milky Way stretched brilliantly overhead as every constellation visible on a summer night in the northern hemisphere shined in full glory.
I felt very small in the immensity of the universe that night.
But when I awoke the following day, the real world had returned. The trees the chainsaw crew I helped with were just the tip of the iceberg as far as blocked roadways go. Gasoline was a commodity as rare and valuable as in the Mad Max movies and few stores were open to buy food or basic necessities. Homes were damaged far worse than ours or demolished entirely.
And that was just the Pine Belt region around Hattiesburg, which is 50 to 100 miles inland.
Along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, whole neighborhoods were washed into the sea by the massive wall of water pushed in by Katrina. Sections of Interstate highway were massively damaged. In New Orleans — I learned a day later than the rest of the world — the levees had broken and entire sections of the city were underwater.
But the greatest toll I experienced was the human impact. In the days immediately following the storm, the Hattiesburg area, slightly less damaged than the areas along the coast, became a refuge for people who did not flee in advance of the storm. Red Cross shelters were bursting with people who had either lost everything or had not yet discovered how much they had lost. Their stories were heartbreaking.
Between the property damage and the influx of new people that came with the storm, I wrote about the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina nearly every day for the first year and it reared its head several days a week in the months and years that followed.
I remained in southern Mississippi and regularly visited New Orleans and Louisiana through 2010. I witnessed the signs of progress in both states. The landscape changed as I returned over the years but I knew, like that magnolia tree in my yard and all the others that endured the storm, the resilient people of the region I once called home would endure.
I have not been back in the past five years. But this week, as I read stories and recollections of others and the progress toward recovery on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I cannot help but let my own mind wander back to that fateful day.
Reuben Mees is an Examiner Staff Writer who previously spent five years living and working in Hattiesburg, Miss. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org