Live from Hurricane Katrina: A Security Recap

SIW Editor Geoff Kohl returns with an eyewitness account from the Mississippi Gulf Coast

What does security mean to you?

I've been thinking a lot about that question in the last few days as I responded to Hurricane Katrina.

When I had last spoken with my parents, they were staying in their home on the beach in Pass Christian, Miss., a town between Gulfport and New Orleans. That was Sunday afternoon, before Katrina reached land.

On Tuesday morning, after working all night to put together finishing touches on security industry stories that you see on our site, I loaded up my truck with emergency response and survival equipment from my garage and set off for the Mississippi Gulf Coast, leaving Atlanta. I had still not heard from my parents, and the early reports I saw painted a grim, grim picture.

Eleven hours and countless detours later, I had been redirected away from quickly established military checkpoints and police roadblocks. Having grown up on the Coast, I was able to take the backroads that hadn't been closed by police and where the local farmers had taken out their chainsaws and cleared a somewhat usable path down rural roads. I reached the house after getting lost on roads I grew up on. With the signs gone and many landmarks destroyed, I felt at times that I was in a land I'd never seen before.

Ten miles from the coast, I stopped in at the West Harrison County Volunteer Fire Station. Even with my GPS unit I was still lost. The roads that were passable weren't the ones the mapping program knew. Inside the station, which had been partly ripped apart from the winds, I found a young family holed away. The father, a firefighter at the station, clued me in to which road I was on -- it was one I had driven hundreds of times on my way to our family farm, and I didn't recognize it. When I told him where I would be looking for my parents, he was silenced and looked like he was holding back. "It's real bad," was all he could say.

A half-hour and many more detours later, it was 10 p.m., and I was driving down roads, dodging powerlines and downed trees. I had the radio off and my window down and except for the occasional site of a police officer in his cruiser, the area was eerily quiet. I eased my way through deep water covering roads, rolled tentatively across low bridges that were structurally marginal even before the storm. Gazing out of my window at the damage, I was muted by the destruction of everything I saw.

In the quiet of this dismal night, I passed the noise of a generator at the Pass Christian Fire Department Station and drove two more blocks to the gravel driveway that led forward to my parents house. I pulled on my boots and grabbed a heavy-duty Mag Lite and started trudging through the mud toward the house. The smell of decay and free flowing natural gas from ruptured lines overwhelmed my senses. As I climbed out of a pile of downed trees, I started to see my parents' belongings.

When I saw major parts of their house under my feet, my heart dropped. I walked forward, stepping over the stuff of their memories and following the light provided by my flashlight, coming upon a random car left under a tree in my family's backyard. My family's own cars were half-pushed through walls of the garage and had come to rest up against beams. Fifty feet further and I was nearing the house, which was tilted, cracked and had gaping chunks missing from it.

I said an instant prayer that I would not be finding my mother or father's bodies and then I pushed toward the uprooted, scrambled structure of a home that had survived since just after the Civil War. I stepped up into what was left of home's side entrance over a pile of rubble and stood there in the most amazing sight -- my father had written on the wall: "Steve and Helen Kohl are OK - 8/29/05". I shouted their names but heard no response and moved around to the front of the house where a hundred year old magnolia tree had crashed down. I stood where the porch had been and looked inside the shell of the house, now 15 feet from its former foundations. With no word from my shouts, I knew they were not inside. It was then that I turned around and looked out at the Gulf of Mexico, which lapped in a deceptively peaceful manner against the beach in front of the house.

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