Hurricane worker shares diary

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 19, 2005

These are excerpts from the diary that Chris Parish kept during his two weeks in his Mississippi hometown, helping victims of Hurricane Katrina

Katrina: A Diary Of Madness

Monday: I lose contact with family as the eye passes over Hattiesburg, Ms where my elderly parents live. Dad has had a heart operation within the last 6 wks and I’m already worried.

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Tuesday: By late morning, cable news channels and radio stations are broadcasting the devastation. I work with NOAA and am packing to leave to Green Bay early Wed a.m. I am worried and waiting for word on parents. A couple of garbled calls get through by cell but nothing concrete except that they are alive and house is standing. By lunch, a childhood friend gets thru on a Nextel 2 way radio cell phone. Paul had to hike into neighborhood to get to home. Parents low on food, water and gas for generator. Need help as soon as possible. By 8 p.m. that night, after much help from wife and family here in Suffolk, the truck is loaded to the hilt in the cab and bed with 70 gals of fuel, generators, food, 30 gals of water, first aid supplies, chainsaw and rope to cut my way into the neighborhood, and other essential supplies. I haven’t eaten and am driving out of neighborhood to 58. Expect to drive through edge of hurricane remnants, find lack of power or fuel as I get close and may be stopped at checkpoints, don’t know how close I can get. 3 a.m. in the morning and the only real traffic south is big rigs, power company trucks from all over the east coast, along with other contractors. By 9 a.m., I finally cross the Ala. border, so I pull over to sleep for 1 hr. Trip has been long so far, as I’m driving under the speed limit worrying about blowing a tire the truck is so loaded down. In Tuscaloosa Ala, I fill truck up the rim at the cap. I don’t know it yet, but there is no power or fuel from here on.

Wednesday: 1 p.m., I finally get to parents home, no roadblocks north of Hattiesburg, Power company or contractors have cut a small path down 31st aver enabling me to get to their home. I’m exhausted, seeing my parents have re-energized me. Don’t know that I’ve ever seen them as tired or worried. You could cut the tension in the air with a butter knife. I spend the afternoon unpacking truck, distributing fuel, getting generators and extension cords set-up. Window ac unit for living room works great, with current levels of heat and humidity, this living room becomes the area of rest and sleep. All supplies brought are distributed into the home, damage to property assessed. By now it’s almost midnight; the curfew has been in effect since dark. I’m worried about widespread looting etc. Power, phone, cable are still down, Water is dribbling out of kitchen faucet, it’s contaminated. I’m exhausted again and need to sleep. I can’t remember when I ate last. My phone doesn’t work to call home to Virginia.

Thursday: I’m up at 6 a.m., breakfast is lots of coffee, and I’m tired and wired at the same time. Start to clean up house and yard from the madness of the past 48 hrs. Get one of the generators to Paul for his family and backfill gas to him for vehicle and generator. All services are still down, gas station on edge of county opens, runs out of gas before Paul can fuel up, goes across street to line of 100 vehicles to get the city limit of $20 or 6.6 gals. Almost all businesses are closed; fuel is not really available yet. Rumors are rampant as to where food, fuel, water, or ice is available. The convention center is the main distribution place for water and ice. Each vehicle gets two cases of water and about 20 lbs of ice, national guard guys are quick, but it can take quite awhile to get thru for your allotment. Fights are breaking out in the line. Someone in town is shot in the head arguing over a bag of ice. Starting to widen search area to check on other extended family and friends. Devastation is widespread, many neighborhoods can barely be driven thru and even then it’s down to one lane in the middle, with only inches to spare between cuts on 3 ft diameter trunk trees. Power lines on many streets are propped up with 2 x 4s with just enough room to drive under. Many streets blocked by trees or workers vehicles. Law enforcement at some intersections, but most intersections has drivers conducting an un-official courtesy stop at each intersection, taking turns. Many crossovers are blocked now, requiring u-turns etc to get around. Everyone around town I see are working non-stop in yards, streets etc to clean up damage and clear roads. I pick up a Nigerian exchange student walking home from store; he had money but couldn’t buy anything. He and a room mate got trapped in H’burg for hurricane, they had no access to more money, no food, little to drink and were scared. I give them enough to eat and drink, promise to check up on them. Wife is proud of all the people I’m helping, but is a little worried. Its almost 4 p.m. now, I’ve been all over town and made dozens of stops checking on people, handing out what I can and helping to chainsaw trees etc where I can. Paul and I inventory stock, fuel is almost 60% gone, vehicles on 1/4 tanks, decide current situation for fuel in H’burg bleak. Decide to start gathering all gas containers we can find and head back north to Tuscaloosa, Ala where I stopped 24 hrs prior. Finally eat a Pbj sandwich, and take an ice cold shower, water pressure up, still contaminated. We head out by 8 p.m. to start a 176 mile drive, on our way we stop at least six times to try to get fuel early, one place open but has limit, all others closed. 11 p.m., we finally find a gas station in Tuscaloosa, but the pressure is low, after waiting an hr in a short line, we begin to fuel up, takes 20 mins to gas up truck, not looking good for all the containers but the good news is there is no limit. Some people have trailers with a dozen 55 gallon drums for fuel. Fights almost breaking out from frustration of lines and people like us with containers. Finally finish, eat our first real full meat at the Waffle House right there, and drive opposite way to Wal-Mart to get all the produce and non-perishable goods we can carry. Don’t know when we will be able to re-supply. 3 a.m., we are worn out and returning to H’burg.

Friday: 6 a.m. we arrive back in H’burg finally, Paul has been asleep the last 2 hrs, I don’t have the heart to wake him up; I’m passing out behind the wheel about to wreck by the time we hit our exit. After unloading my fuel and food, Paul just takes truck with him; we’re too tired to switch vehicles out. Paul goes home to sleep. I collapse for 2 hrs, and get back up to start a new day, too much too do to sleep. Coffee, breakfast of champions, refuse food as it’s already hot and I’m backing up on work. I spend approx 2 hrs chain sawing up trees etc in the backyard and dragging to street. I know my parents will feel much better with cleaned up yard. Stop and break for lunch and head over to Nigerians to trade food, drinks etc for helping me to clear the front. We finish the front yard and mom cooks for everyone. I give them additional food and water for a few days and take them home. I spend a few hours stopping and checking up on friends and family, render assistance to those I can. Driving in a poor section of the city, see an older heavy set African American woman with toddler in her arms on porch, it’s so hot. She lives between 2 houses with wanna be gangsters hanging out. I stop to see if she needs anything. No one has stopped by, she hasn’t seen the childs mother since the hurricane hit, she’s been feeding the baby boiled water, no other baby food for child and little for herself. I go to vehicle and get approached by 3 men until they see a drop holster on my thigh and they decide they have better things to do. Load woman down with food, water, and a half frozen gallon of milk for child. Woman cries on my shoulder for almost 10 minutes, it’s heartbreaking and the first taste of how bad it is for everyone without help or resources to go for help. I take food and water to guys next door to make sure hers isn’t stolen. They are wary of me but thankful for the help. Move on to help others, gas availability still sporadic, Sam’s open up pumps but then ran out. Gas rationing at this point a necessity. A preacher whom sent his family out of state, heads to Lowes for building supplies and is found dead miles away, in his vehicle, shot thru the shoulder, left for dead, nothing stolen, no one knows what happened or why. Decide I should try to imbed into local enforcement agencies as they are overcome due to lack of personnel. Meet with chief of police, he needs any uniformed or ex-uniformed police not bad enough yet to authorize him to put badge on me, refers me to Sheriff, I promise to get tree chain sawed up and out of his yard, Chief lives in same neighborhood as parents but working 18 hr days and ignoring his own needs. Finally get the #2 in dept on phone, will take 10 days to process to be deputized with badge, will take too long and may be gone by then. Other senior personnel understand spirit of my trying to help, imply there won’t be any problem with deputies if I’m armed while providing aid, then again everyone is armed anyway up to this point and I find out here a weapon can be carried legally as long as it’s not concealed. Relief that I can still help people but stay safe doing it, still an air of lawlessness about and I have a family back home in Virginia. While driving around today, the news is major water and ice trucks going to two locations are lost, while at sheriffs dept, I found out that FEMA had held up or seized the trucks and were holding them at Camp Shelby, Sheriff had found out and went to get them, after refusing release, he had them commandeered and sent to original locations, deputies nervous that feds may show up to get the sheriff. Subsequent un-substantiated rumors had that he had actually taken into custody someone with FEMA, other govt people and Fbi showed up to pick up FEMA guy and pick up sheriff. FEMA guy was released and FBI told they didn’t have the resources to take the matter any further, take the FEMA guy and have a nice day. There was a subsequent interview concerning the matter upon which the Sheriff downplayed entire incident as a problem due to miss-communication. Sounded like FEMA and govt didn’t need any more bad press, the sheriff let the matter go and so the situation didn’t exist anymore. To date, I never was able to find out exactly what happened. Get home to find out power is back on, Leave cords in place in the event of grid failure, but lock up generators. Have to keep everything locked up, don’t know who has noticed what. Stay out until midnight continually checking on everyone, don’t care about the curfew anymore. Find out that Wal-Mart and Sam’s open during day will let up to 25 people in the store at a time. Still have enough supplies to not worry. Stopping to check on or have helped so many people out now, that its almost paralyzing. No known mobile services yet to help people out with food or water that can’t go get it.

Saturday: We finish up the yard finally; I even get a leaf blower. My parents are well on the way to a full recovery. I spend the day running all over the city and into the city of Petal checking on everyone I know and a lot of people I don’t know. Domino’s gives me pizza’s to hand out to people who need food. You’d be shocked over how excited people got over hot pizza. I walked up to one family’s front porch with a full box in my hand. There were at least 10 adults and children up front. The woman that walked up to me didn’t know what was going on. I just told her sorry the delivery order was late, but better late then never. When I told her it was free she started laughing. I spent 20 minutes with them and moved on. Wife is getting more and more scared, news is painting a very bleak picture of cops getting shot, diseases are rampant etc. More services are opening up in town, more stores are opening, more gas available. I still can’t believe the amount of people who cannot or have not gotten any help. Its endless misery. I finally hear that someone is offering free high-speed internet access. I jump on it and spend the next 3 hrs trying to clear up my e-mail, get messages out and try to find out how to get hold of someone with FEMA, maybe I can get on as a volunteer. I also put out a plea for help with my fellow employees to help me to buy supplies to hand out etc. By now I am helping everyone and giving out just about anything including fuel to broke down motorists on the hwy. Turns out that mom’s sweet tea is a major hit. I begin carrying a few gallons with lots of ice and cups. I pulled over to check on a motorcycle cop that looked broke down. When I walked up and asked if he would like a monster glass of sweet tea on ice, he said &uot;You’re kidding right?&uot; He wasted no time downing 16 oz’s and off he went, like others in law enforcement, and fire/rescue etc. He hadn’t been home in days and was logging hrs beyond what he would ever get re-imbursed for. By now, the amount of work being done by everyone was just beyond belief. All law enforcement and fire depts etc were putting in 18 hr days as I was. Somehow its 12 p.m. again and I’m so tired and wound up that I can’t sleep.