Step Forty Eight

Step Forty Seven
August 21, 2015
Step Forty Nine
September 3, 2015

I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast (not to mention huge chunks of inland Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi). When I think about Katrina – and the weeks immediately after – I don’t imagine it as a decade-old highlights reel.

No, that storm is fresh in my mind. I think it always will be.

We lived in Columbia, Mississippi, back then. About an hour’s drive north of New Orleans. When the eye wall passed us, the storm was a Category 3 – winds in the 120 mph range. But that was a couple hours after hurricane-force winds began battering the area. I know – I was out in it.

During the early hours of the storm, a friend and I drove around town in my minivan, taking photos and taking stock – who was ready, who was not, where the real damage was likely to be. I was the local paper’s publisher and had “permission” to be out despite the curfew. I also had a police band radio tuned to the spotters who had set themselves up south of us, calling in wind gusts and keeping folks in town apprised of the storm’s progress.

Early on, the occasional gust would rock the van, making our travels “interesting.” Then, around 9 or 9:30, the winds went from the 40 mph range to hurricane-force. Caught the spotters by surprise, so it caught us totally unprepared.

Scattered debris went from bouncing along the sidewalks to airborne projectiles – my van went from being a relatively safe haven in the storm to being at best a moving target. Streets passable moments earlier were, in the span of minutes, blocked by massive pine trunks snapped like kindling by the wind. Within five minutes, my windshield was spiderwebbed with cracks from the flying debris and falling branches. Within 10 minutes, it was clear there was no way I was getting back to my family (safely tucked away, volunteering at the town’s only storm shelter).

I committed to getting my friend to his house and his family, but that effort was cut short when falling trees literally stockaded us on three sides. We were about four blocks from his house, so we decided to abandon the relative (and rapidly diminishing) safety of the van and make a run for it. That was a wild run!

I spent the next couple of hours at my friend’s house, tucked away in a shallow draw with hills on three sides. We actually stood in his covered breezeway and watched as storm-spawned tornadoes dropped trees on his neighbor’s houses. Damage all around us was catastrophic. Miraculously, nobody in the area was seriously injured. At least not yet.

By the time the eye of the storm passed over town, I’d been out of contact with my wife and 7-year-old daughter for about four hours. The shelter was located about a mile from where I was, so I decided to use the storm’s respite to make a run for it. That was a serious miscalculation.

I hadn’t gone more than a few blocks. Barely halfway to my destination. It was arduous work retracing my steps back to the van, climbing over, under and around massive tree trunks, piles of wind-shrewn debris, and live power lines. And water. Water up to my waist, pouring out of drainage creeks and storm drains. (Columbia is in a low-lying bowl nestled against the Pearl River, and when the river rises, storm water has nowhere to go but the streets. While our town didn’t suffer a 30-foot wall of wind-propelled water, we had our own “storm surge” to deal with.

This is the part of the story where I’d rather tell you a romanticized tale of neighbor helping neighbor, of struggle over adversity, of anything at all really. But what happened is simply this: I was watching for dangling wires and “widow maker” branches, not where I was stepping. In the end, it took a rather large pine cone to bring me down.

So here I am, halfway between my friend’s house and my destination, sitting in muddy, rising water, having to decide whether to go on or go back, knowing I’d just suffered a broken foot. Knowing the eye of the storm was moving on. It didn’t matter which direction I chose – I was not going to reach shelter before Hurricane Katrina returned for Round 2.

Now, I’d been in hurricanes before. Several, in fact. (Once, I delivered pizzas during a hurricane. Talk about good tips!) It’s just wind and rain – not even lightning to worry about. The hard part is not getting hit by flying branches or Volkswagens. So, figuring I had a solid 20 minutes to reach shelter, and some experience against the elements, I pressed onward.

If the going was arduous before, it was grueling now. The wind and rain (and accompanying debris) returned in force way ahead of schedule. And now I was walking (if you could call it that) at a snail’s pace. Complicating things was the matter of what used to be a small drainage ditch now imitating Class 5 rapids blocking my path.

Even without the broken foot, I would not have attempted a crossing. I needed to reach higher ground. You know, where the tornado had added extra spice to an already bad day.

By this point, climbing over downed trees wasn’t physically possible. I made my way, mostly crawling through the mud, opting to cross through people’s yards rather than risk downed power cables that lined the town’s streets. I was soaked through, filthy, and in considerable pain. If giving up would have meant even a modicum of relief, I’d have taken that option.

Actually, I did take that option. I just happened to run out of steam in the back yard of some nice folks I knew from church. I didn’t know precisely where I was at the time. I just knew I was done, and possibly done for.

By late that afternoon, Katrina’s more intense rain bands were fewer and further between, offering people brief opportunities to step outside and survey the damage for themselves. I learned this when I heard a familiar voice calling my name. I believe her exact words were “Jeffrey Peyton! What in Heaven’s name are you doing out here in my rose bushes?” (I’m not positive she said rose bushes, but it would help explain the scratches.) She went on to inform me that it’s a good thing she recognized me, as she had dispatched her husband back to the house to find a weapon!

Her discovery of me was most fortuitous, as her son, a medical student / refugee from Tulane, noticed immediately that there was more to my story than being wet and filthy. His pseudo-professional opinion (confirmed a week later by x-ray and a licensed physician) was in fact a broken foot.

We spent the next intense rain band sitting on this family’s large antebellum porch, sipping warm tea (no electricity = no ice) and taking stock of the situation. My “doc” managed to cobble together an ace bandage and chemical ice pack for my ankle (nothing to be done for my foot itself). When the rain started to slack a little, I climbed to my feet and restarted my trek.

“You can’t go out there,” they told me. “It’s pouring rain!”

“That’s OK,” was my reply. “I promise you, I can’t get any wetter.”

“But what about your foot?” they asked.

“I promise,” I replied, “it can’t hurt any worse.”

I thanked them for their generous hospitality and set out, again, to find my family.

Not much more to tell, really. I managed to get myself home – where my other car sat unscathed from the storm. (Ironically, two huge trees were toppled, but they fell into each other instead of my house or car, and formed a perfect shelter. From there, I drove to the storm shelter, only six blocks away. I had a pleasant meal, prepared for me personally by my 2nd-grader daughter, and spent the rest of the evening explaining to my wife how, exactly, a 15-minute pass around town turned into an all-day adventure.

We didn’t talk about the minivan.

Jeff Peyton
Jeff Peyton
Don’t be fooled by Jeff Peyton's accomplishments in communications, crisis and business management. He also wing-walked on an airplane at 700 feet, co-piloted the Goodyear Blimp and swam with sharks - and still managed to obtain paperwork officially declaring him “legally sane.” Really.

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