One Survivor's Story

Our reporter describes fleeing Katrina – and returning home to find she'd lost everything

PEOPLE’s Sept. 19 issue ran an abridged version of reporter Alice Jackson’s tragic story: When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Mississippi coast on Aug. 29, she lost her Ocean Springs, Miss., home and nearly all her possessions. Here she describes the storm and its aftermath in greater detail.

I’ve lived on the Mississippi coast for 30 years. I’ve been through four or five hurricanes and countless tropical storms. Before Katrina came through, I thought, “If my house gets washed away, I’ll just stay at my mother’s house or my brother’s house” – never thinking all our homes would be destroyed. But they were, so everyone in my family is now a refugee.

On Friday night (Aug. 26), some of us boarded up our houses. Others in town were saying that they didn’t want to “overreact” to the hurricane forecasts. But I was running around like crazy, yelling, “This is a (category) four!”

Saturday, I evacuated to my friend’s house with my 81-year-old mother, my 28-year-old niece and my sister-in-law. We packed clothes, food and water – plus axes, an extension ladder and flares. That way we could cut our way out through the roof if necessary. As a reporter, I’d covered too many hurricanes where people drowned in their attics because they couldn’t escape the rising water.

On Sunday, the news showed the eye of the hurricane heading toward our exact location. That night, before the TV went out, a report said, “It’s looking better for New Orleans, and the very worst for the Gulfport area.” After hearing that, I said to everyone, “I want you to forgive me now, because I think I made a mistake. I’m afraid we’re all going to have to fight very hard not to die.”

But everyone was calm. They all went to bed, but I couldn’t sleep. At 1 a.m., wind started pummeling the house. I woke everyone up and we listened to the radio. We learned that all three of the emergency operation centers were washed away. That’s when I knew we were in big trouble. Then we lost the radio.

All night I’d been watching a giant pine tree in a neighbor’s yard. It had been bending mightily, but had stayed rooted. Suddenly I heard a deafening crack, and I yelled, “Run!” Seconds later the tree smashed through the house. We had escaped to the master bedroom closet in the center of the house. My sister-in-law hauled a mattress off the bed and leaned it on top of my mother and my niece. Then we noticed that the walls were heaving, so we raced around the house, opening windows to relieve the pressure build-up.

Looking outside, we watched in horror as the house behind us turned into what looked like a living, breathing monster. The roof would lift, the house would expand, and then the roof would fall. Finally, the house exploded.

The next day, we drove out to see what had happened. The wind was still strong enough to buffet my little Ford Escape. We drove through the center of town, where downed power lines were strewn about. When we turned toward my street, all I saw was a big lake where there once had been houses, trees and roads. So we tried to enter from the other end, but there were too many fallen trees. A man with a chainsaw helped us get through.

Finally, about three miles from my property, we were stopped by debris: the remains of what had once been beautiful homes, with tattered curtains blowing from shattered windows and overturned furniture covered in mud. We walked through the debris, which was sometimes head-high.

Some women were pointing toward an empty slab. They told us, “Last night, there was a house there, and a whole family was in it.” One woman screamed, “Where are the children?” We walked toward them, and I stepped on something. It was a little shoe, with a leg attached; it was a body, buried in mud. I told the women as calmly as I could, “Please don’t pull this out; let the rescue crews do it. You don’t have anywhere to put it, and you can’t just leave it out here.”

I arrived at the empty slab of my mother’s house first. It had been wiped clean – but miraculously, in the mud, I found her wedding band, as well as my dad’s paratrooper bracelet from WWII. His name is inscribed on one side and my mother’s is on the other. Those two items are all my mother has left.

My house it was completely gone. I knelt down on my slab and said out loud, “I am so grateful that the people I love have lived.” And I cried. I had 20 good years in that house, and I feel fortunate.

In the days since then, I ve gone out and dug in the mud for anything familiar. I found a little toy tractor that had belonged to my brother. He d won it in an art contest when he was eight or nine. It was only a toy, but you d think I d found a brick of gold. The strangest things were left completely intact – such as a porcelain antique lamp that is 125 years old.

All around me, people had died. I watched them pull the bodies of a whole family out of the mud near my house. Why hadn’t they evacuated? Did they not have enough money for gas? Even if they hadn’t, they could have gone to a shelter!

My street looks like a picture of Chernobyl after the nuclear blast. It’s all brown, clothes are hanging from trees and debris is everywhere. Brown, nasty water is seeping out of the ground.

The looters arrived early, crawling over the debris like rats. One day, my neighbor watched a man driving what must have been a $40,000 pickup grab her porch swing and throw it in the back of his truck. She chased him down the street yelling, “That’s my swing!” He threw it out and drove off. Another time, I saw a policeman walk into a store and take what he wanted – and it wasn’t stuff for survival, either. In the past, disasters in this part of the country have brought out the best in people. But not this time.

When I was digging in the mud around my house, I found one of my ex-husband’s old shotguns. It’s totally unusable, but I slung it over my shoulder and have carried it around ever since – and I’ve pointed it at more than one trespasser.

While my neighbors and I were digging in our yards, we d park our cars to block the entrance to our street, like we were circling the wagons. Threatening strangers with the business end of a shotgun may seem mean, but we feel like our bones are being picked.

But after I went to Sunday mass in my old church – which was still standing – I decided it was time to stop digging in the mud and start rebuilding my life. Whatever’s left of mine, the earth can have it back – I don’t need it.

I no longer want to live in Mississippi. I no longer want to go to sleep at night in a graveyard. You know you’ve seen it all when you’ve watched deputies taking ice chests from the local Winn-Dixie to store bodies. I will leave here and make a new life somewhere else. And although our region was devastated, I feel we’re fortunate compared to the people of New Orleans. We may be in purgatory right now, but those folks are in hell.

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