16 September 2005

First-hand account of outrunning Katrina

CNN is asking people who were in the field during Katrina, and during its aftermath, to write first-hand accounts of their experiences.

Aaron Cooper, a co-worker and friend of mine, who has been working as a Production Assistant with the CNN Science Unit, wrote an AMAZING account of riding with "Hurricane One," the specially-equipped Humvee (the rugged military kind, not the stupid consumer kind!) that CNN sends out to hurricanes. I've reprinted the entire account after the "read complete post" link... wow!

Contributed by Aaron Cooper

I made it back from Katrina in one piece. (We got back Saturday -Sept. 3rd). It was quite the experience. My main task was to drive the chase vehicle behind "Hurricane One." (That's what CNN calls the Suburban we outfitted with a big satellite telephone antenna and various other gear so we can do video phone live shots while driving around during the storm.) We used a similar set up on a Humvee during the first weeks of the war in Iraq.

Here is a blow by blow account of some of the more notable experiences.

Sunday, August 28th - Before the Storm

Sunday, Tristan Smith (a Southeast bureau producer) and I left Atlanta (by Suburban) and headed towards the gulf coast. We stopped on the way in Montgomery and bought a weeks worth of food. (Granola, trail mix, canned food that could be eaten cold, water, etc). We also filled up four(4) 5 gallon gas cans which we tied to the roof. They became quite valuable after the storm (one woman tried to steal them from us while I was in the car, another man offered us $500 for them.) After several hours of driving we ended up in Gulfport, Mississippi at the Holiday Inn. The hotel was about 5 miles inland, had survived Camille, looked sturdy, and was one of the few staying open in the town. Shortly after we arrived, the local "Marine Life Oceanairm" dropped off a trio of dolphins. Yes the aquatic mammals. The aquarium was right on the beach, and the owner feared that the storm could wipe out the park so he made arrangements to have 3 of the animals in our pool and 3 in the Best Western's pool. The pools weren't huge, but the animals seemed happy enough. Some of the birds and sea lions that were on display at the park were also sent away to safer areas, but a number of animals were left behind. We did a couple of live video phone hits Sunday from the hotel talking about the dolphins, then piled in the Suburban and headed down to the beach to do some live shots for Newsnight. Eventually that live shot got canceled, so we headed back to the Holiday Inn for a few hours of sleep before getting up early to greet Katrina.

Monday, August 29th - In the eye of the Hurricane

Our first hit Monday morning was about 5am Eastern from US 90 (the highway that runs near the beach along most of the gulf coast) and Hwy 49 (the main drag through Gulfport). As we did the hits the water was already starting to rise over the US 90. The Oceanairm, much of the port, the casino parking lots, and the beach were already flooded. As we watched a number of large sailboats were blown in. Most were heavily damaged as they hit the highway, light poles, or other obstructions. After a few live hits we decided it was best to head further inland to get away from the rising water.

We drove around, dodging some of the early debris, looking for an area with some protection to do more live shots. We tried a side street and stopped in front of a store front. That building was beginning to fall apart, and a sheet of plywood slammed into the front of "Hurricane One" and gave us all a pretty good start. We quickly decided to move to another area, protected by a sturdy bank building and do some hits near a railroad track. While we were waiting we watched as awnings, roofs, and other more vulnerable parts of buildings were torn apart.

At about 8 or 9 am (ET) we decided the storm (which was still hours away from it's worst) was getting too dangerous. We headed back to the hotel parking lot to try to get further inland away from the worst of the wind. We parked in an arrowhead fashion in part of the parking lot that was somewhat protected. We talked about going inside, but since it appeared we were in a relatively safe area, and we couldn't do live hits from anywhere else we decided to stay in the Suburban for the time being. After spending a couple of hours in the parking lot the debris started getting worse. We watched the signs from the hotel and neighboring businesses, parts of the hotel next door, random pieces of siding, metal roofs, plywood and just about everything else you can imagine fly past. Some of it struck the vehicles, but we were mostly protected and seemed to be safe... that was until a chunk of something, I don't know what, took out the back rear cargo bay window of "Hurricane One."

We did a live hit on the damage and decided we should move the vehicles to a safer area. We parked next to each other, facing different directions with the damaged window in between us. Our "safe area" wasn't safe. Minutes after moving the vehicles a large chunk of wooden privacy fencing from the Verizon parking lot next door broke away and flew straight at our vehicles. I was facing it, so I saw it coming. It spun through the air, caught the corner on the hotel overhang, and slammed into back of "Hurricane One" and into the front of the Suburban I was driving. The 4 people in Hurricane One didn't have a clue what hit them. (They later told me they thought the hotel overhang collapsed.) We knew we had to get out of there, and quick.

We drove to the other side of the hotel and parked. There was no real significant damage to the vehicle I was driving (though there were lots of random pieces of wood sticking out of the bumper and grill) but Hurricane One was heavily damaged. A total of 4 windows were now totally broken out, glass was everywhere, and the rear tailgate was mashed in about 12 inches. It looked like an 18 wheeler slammed into it. Most importantly, no one was hurt.

We quickly transferred all of the important TV gear into my Suburban and an Expedition we had rented, and then got inside the hotel. Tristan called Atlanta and told them not to expect anything from us anytime soon. There was no power to the hotel, so we basically waited out the worst of the storm in the rear part of the lobby watching the dolphins swim around the pool outside, totally unfazed by the storm. We later determined we were the CNN crew closest to the eye of the storm.

After the storm died down enough we felt it was safe to go outside and work, we rearranged the gear, and hooked up the video phone equipment in the Expedition. It had a broken rear vent window, but a little gaffers tape, and some broken pieces of the signs that ended up in the parking lot helped fix that. While the engineer Kadoni and I worked on the Expedition, Tristan, the reporter Gary, and the photog Steve went out and shot some VO of damage and high water in Gulfport.

Once everything was good to go we decided to head to Biloxi (where we knew there was a sat truck) so we could feed the tape that had been shot, and do some live shots. We got on Interstate 10 and headed east. There was a tremendous amount of debris on the interstate - everything from wave-runners, and boats, to refrigerators and parts of homes. Evidently all of this came from a community that used to be just south of the highway. The debris eventually made the road impassable. We turned around and drove back to the last exit, got on the west bound lanes (heading East) and drove against the little traffic there was. We eventually made it to the Comfort Inn just north of the highway in Biloxi. The sat trucks were parked on a sheltered side of the hotel, but there was still a lot of debris piled on/next to them. The Comfort Inn had been covered with stucco, but the storm tore much of it, and many of the shingles off, as well as destroying the front overhang. We did live shots for several of the prime time shows before heading back to Gulfport to spend the night. When we returned to the Holiday Inn we found it still did not have power or running water. That situation would remain the same for the duration of our stay.

Tuesday, August 30th – The Aftermath in Bay St. Louis

Tuesday we headed West to the town of Bay St. Louis. We had to take I-10 and then come at the town from the North because the beach highway had been wiped out. (All along the Gulf Coast the worst damage was closer to the water.) Bay St. Louis had been an artsy community, but now was pretty much destroyed. We found the Hwy 90 bay bridge, which had been about a mile long, was gone. Only the bridge supports were still there.

We then met a woman who asked us to put her on TV so her family knew she was still alive. She had an interesting story, so we did. The live hit was, we believe, the first broadcast from Bay St. Louis since the storm. With the woman's direction we went to what was the area's "Old Town." The main street was full of debris, so we parked and walked in. We went a few blocks down to the former location of her bed an breakfast. She told us how she and several other people had been in the 100 year old building when the storm started, but when it broke apart she managed to get onto a tree in the back yard. Some of the others inside floated away an ended up on debris further down stream. An older woman who was with them had a few broken ribs, but all in all they were lucky to have survived. The building itself was destroyed. Searching through they debris they did find a plate that was intact, as well as a bottle of liquor. The survivors had salvaged a BBQ grill and were having hot dogs at a friends home further inland that suffered less damage.

After shooting elements to build a story for the prime-time shows we headed back to Gulfport, where the Atlanta 5 path, and a rented double path was located, to feed tape. The is was the first time I had been to the Gulfport harbor/beach area since we saw the water starting to overtake the highway. There were shipping containers piled all over, tons of huge rolls of brown paper (where they came from, I don't know), destroyed vehicles, boats, pieces of all sorts of buildings, and casino barges piled all over the parking lots and what had been highway 90. Anderson Cooper was doing his show in Gulfport, so Gary was able to be on camera with him for the show, then later we set up another location for Gary to do Paula Zahn's, Larry King's and Aaron Brown's shows. Afterwards, we headed back to the Holiday Inn. The Dolphins had been removed earlier in the day. An aquarium in Florida had agreed to take them. Their home down on the beach in Gulfport had been totally wiped out. Since there was still no running water, and since we had been sweltering in the heat, and covered with muck for 3 days without a shower, we waited until after dark, and then took our shampoo and soap to the pool. We rationalized the dolphin poop wasn't so bad, since they poop in the sea, and we swim in the sea (though this rationalization was hard to explain to the doctor CNN had hired to do medical checks on people returning from the area). Someone from the hotel had also poured a couple of gallons of bleach in the pool so we didn't worry too much about getting some dread dolphin disease. Regardless of what was in the pool it felt great to get the mud grime and sweat off of our bodies.

Wednesday, August 31st – Destruction in Waveland

Wednesday we decided to go to Waveland, which was just west of Bay St. Louis, and had received even worse damage. The storm had literally leveled the community. We couldn't get anywhere near the beach because of debris covering the road and mud (which caused the Expedition to get stuck at one point. We had to get it pulled out by some locals with a 4x4 Jeep). We parked and walked around a bit and found a woman and her granddaughter who were surveying the damage. The granddaughter took us back to what had been her house. The streets were totally gone. It was all just one big pile of debris. To get to their home we climbed over dozens of roofs of collapsed houses. The granddaughter said the people who lived there planned to stay... and she wasn't sure if they made it or not. When we got to her house, Gary climbed through a picture window and was able to find a few of her dolls, which Tristan carried back for her.

We then tried to find the truck. It took us a while. This was one of many times communication problems caused headaches for us. We were lucky, we had a satellite phone, but it still was hard to call. Everyone in the area was trying to use their sat phones, so the circuits were often busy. We eventually wound up at the sat truck in Bay St. Louis. Gary did several shows that night then we went back to the hotel. Tonight Tristan and Gary convinced me that the pool at the Best Value Inn (which had been closed since before the storm, and was next door) was a better bathing option. It didn't have dolphin excrement in it, but did have random pieces of wooden fencing (yes that fence) as well as some shingles. The water was cleaner, but not much. It still felt really good. Wednesday night the desk told us to think about going to New Orleans the next day. None of us were excited about that option, but we would go if we were sent.

Thursday, September 1st - Riding out the storm on a Shrimp Boat

Thursday morning we found out that we wouldn't be going to New Orleans. Instead we went west of Waveland to the port of Bienville. The area was heavily damaged, but not anywhere near as bad as Waveland. The eye had passed over Bienville, so the area was better off (though "better off" might not be the right way to put it since we are talking in degrees of TOTAL devastation).

At a volunteer fire department we met up with a search and rescue team from Hoover, Arkansas who were going out to search some boats in the area. When we arrived at the port area we found dozens of large shrimp boats grounded, and a group of men sitting on one of the more upright ones. After talking to them we found out that they were shrimpers who had ridden out the storm on their boats. We found one and he gave us a tour of his boat, which was about 100 feet from the water, and laying on the side of its bottom. The search and rescue team didn't find any bodies, so we shifted focus to the shrimpers. They had stayed with their boats because they were safer than their homes (which had been wiped out) and they needed the boats to make a living after the storm. They had no idea what was going to happen to their lives since they didn't know how they were going to get these huge boats back in the water. We headed back to Waveland (where the sat truck was this evening) fed in our video and did several hits. Our nightly call into the desk in Atlanta revealed that we would be released to go home after Friday night's pkg.

Friday, September 2nd - The Hospital

Friday we checked out of the sturdy, but still dark and dry (in the taps that is, the carpets in the room were still damp from the storm) Holiday Inn. We headed down to "Memorial Hospital at Gulfport" which was only 13 blocks from the sea; an area that - generally - was heavily battered, if not destroyed. The hospital had a lot of damage, but was open. After working out clearances to come inside we went in. All in all the building looked remarkably like any typical hospital. The power (generators) was on, as well as the water and air conditioning. We talked to a mother that was in labor during the immediate aftermath of the storm and didn't know where she would deliver after her intended hospital closed. She said the hospital welcomed her, but warned many of the usual "comforts" provided would not be possible because all of the doctors and anesthesiologists were in the ER working traumas. Everything worked out; however the family's home had been heavily damaged. The lower floors were gone, but some items in the upper floors were okay.

We talked to another family who had left their child in the NICU during the storm, and was relieved he was okay when they came back. While leaving the hospital we were approached by several people who were trying to get into the hospital, but were turned away by the guards at the front door. The hospital was overflowing (it was more than 100 beds over its original capacity, and some rooms were uninhabitable) so they were not accepting any non-critical patients. Sadly, we couldn't do anything to help the people outside, so we headed on our way. We fronted the DNT on the hospital from the Biloxi truck, then (after being goodnight by ATL) headed for Pensacola Beach, and a hotel room with power and water. We stopped on the way in Mobile for Mexican. It was one of the first real meals we had eaten in a week. After spending the night in Pensacola we headed home.

All in all it was an interesting week. I learned a lot. I can't say I had a "good" time, but the trip was worth it. I saw a lot of devastation that was heartbreaking, that I hope the people there will be able to rebuild and get their live back on track as soon as possible.


Blogger Mark Horvath said...

Amazing. Just amazing. Thanks for posting that Lee, I'm going to link to it in my blog.

6:38 PM, September 16, 2005  
Blogger CatsFive said...

Absolutely, thanks for sharing. I love media... Descriptions they use (doing a 'hit' at the hotel room?) mean different things to insiders than they do to us folks. Awesome.

7:10 PM, September 16, 2005  
Blogger Rev. Syung Myung Me said...

I've got to agree... sorry I don't have anything more substantial to say, but that piece pretty much says it all!

7:12 PM, September 16, 2005  
Blogger CatsFive said...

Back on the Hurricane topic, I found this interesting article from some more survivors. Enjoy.

12:54 PM, September 19, 2005  

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