Residents along Mississippi's Gulf Coast are resilient--used to storm warnings and unpredictable weather. In 2004, many left when forecasters said Hurricane Ivan was going to hit the coast. Instead, it veered towards Florida. Then, in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina formed into a major storm in the Gulf, officials warned residents to evacuate. Nikki Moon was skeptical--until Monday morning, August 29.
"The evening before a lot of people stopped by and they said don't you want to go with us and I said no, no, no. It's probably not coming here. And besides this house was built in 1899. It's gone through everything," said Moon
The house was a bed and breakfast on the beach, in Bay St. Louis. It sat 24 feet above sea level with 12 foot ceilings. Moon felt safe. Early the next day, some friends barricaded the inn and they hunkered down with her. They didn't know Bay St. Louis was at ground zero. By 9:00, the eye of Katrina was barreling towards them. This youtube video captured sounds of the hurricane when it made landfall. A tidal wave crashed through the front door of the inn. Everyone scrambled to survive.
One woman jumped into the rushing water and swam to a nearby house. She got in through a window and waited for help. Moon and the men climbed into a tree.
"And I had my sweet little Maddy, Scottie, under my stomach because I had my arms and my legs around the limb. And Kevin would go 'duck' and the wave would come across. I thought I was going to die for sure. Yeah," said Moon.
Moon estimates they stayed in the tree at least three hours before the water began to recede and they could get down. And the 4,000 square foot house?
"Everything was gone, there was nothing. I mean it was totally gone," said Moon.
According to the National Weather Service, the category 3 hurricane packed 130 mile per hour sustained winds with storm surges a high as 30 feet. Danny Pitalo lives in Ocean Springs and didn't believe the storm predictions either. He closed his Biloxi bar early the night before, boarded it up, along with his tackle shop and took care of his fuel dock, just in case.
"I figured it was going to be just another storm. The water's going to come up like it did in George and everything else. It's going to come up, get close to the house, and then it's going to go back down," said Pitalo.
Monday morning he was stunned. "I walked out there and my truck was going down the street, floating down the road. I'm like going 'oh my God,' you know, this is going to be bad," said Pitalo.
Pitalo, his wife and son began using lessons he learned from his grandfather during Hurricane Camille in 1969. They put their electronics and important items on mattresses to float along with the tide. But, they were losing precious time.
"I got a big glass front door and the water was one foot above my door handle. And we went to the back door and it was the same way. So, we couldn't get out the house. We went to the highest point of the house, kicked the bedroom window out and got out," said Pitalo.
They made it to a neighbor's house on higher ground. Their home was destroyed. Meanwhile in East Biloxi, Sarah Walker refused to get out. She was confident, her home, built in the early 1900's, would be fine. Then, the co-founder of a non-profit called Visions of Hope began to see water in her utility room.
"I'm in the back of the house trying to throw stuff to my daughter, so everything wouldn't get wet. And my grandson says 'Army men are at the door. They said do you want to be rescued?' And so, silly me, I said 'no.' I said 'tell them we're OK,' " said Walker.
It wasn't long before the National Guard stopped by one more time. "I said wait a minute. I said 'yes, yes, yes we want to get in!' " said Walker
The Walker's rode out the storm at a police station. Moon, her friends, the Pitalos and Walker families managed to find places to stay. They say everyone pulled together to help one another. Now, ten years later, they talk about surviving the deadly storm and rebuilding. They didn't leave when Katrina slammed the coast and they don't plan to leave now. Danny Pitalo.
"It's going to get better. I mean there's still a lot to do and there's a lot of things that have to be worked out. But, I think you know really, I think it's going to get better. It's all going to be good," said Pitalo.
According to MEMA more than 60,000 homes were destroyed. All 82 Mississippi counties were declared federal disaster areas.
The interviews in this story were collected by MPB Producer Katie Savage for the documentary, "Rising Above the Surge: the Post-Katrina Coast." That program airs tomorrow night at 7 on MPB TV.