As Hurricane Ida moved over the Mississippi Gulf Coast on the 16th anniversary of a storm named Katrina, Edward Gonzales maneuvered his small bass boat through the swamped streets of Shoreline Park, an area of Hancock County inundated with flooding, looking for people to assist.
Gonzalez, his family, and five dogs had hunkered down and prepared to ride out Hurricane Ida at his elevated waterfront home with intentions of boating people to safety in the height of the storm.
The Louisiana native, who served in the Navy, is no stranger to the aftermath of a major hurricane. He helped ferry others, and their pets, to safety through floodwaters the same exact day 16 years ago during Hurricane Katrina, a storm that completely devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast and, especially, Hancock County.
“The problem many run into,” Gonzalez explained, “is when these things get in the Gulf, if you don’t make plans as soon as you find out, you’re not going to get a hotel room anywhere.” And it can be even harder to find a place that takes pets.
Gonzalez had eventually relocated to New Jersey after Katrina where he lived for many years, but it never felt like home for a Cajun fisherman at heart who loves living on the water.
About four years ago, he came back to the South finding his forever home in Mississippi along the bayou. It was a choice, he said, that has made all the difference in his recovery from brain cancer.
“I’m happier here. I love living on the water, and the people here are friendly,” Gonzalez said.
‘The Water Has to Go Somewhere’
Hancock County, on the western side of the Gulf Coast up against Louisiana and about 50 miles from New Orleans, is one of the three Mississippi counties bordering the Gulf. It suffered the worst of storm damages throughout south Mississippi during Hurricane Ida and was devastated 16 years before to the day in Hurricane Katrina.
Hancock was luckier this time, but was still hit hard. Although coastal Mississippi dodged a direct hit from Hurricane Ida’s wrath, it remained situated on the east side of the storm where weather conditions were more intense. Federal, State of Mississippi and local emergency officials had urged residents in Ida’s path to prepare for an extraordinary storm expected to cause chaos.
The slightest wobble or untimely turn, especially just before landfall, could dramatically reshape weather impacts across multiple states. It was no surprise that the majority of residents weren’t taking any chances with Ida and heeded the warnings. Most of them have 16-year-long memories there, after all.
Residents who stayed took a powerful beating as Hurricane Ida, fueled by warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, produced heavy winds, life-threatening storm surge, and fierce flooding in already over-saturated and low-lying areas.
Determined to stay behind and help where needed, Gonzalez prepared the best he could and hunkered down for a wild and windy ride.
“I didn’t put myself or my family in harm’s way,” Gonzalez explained. “My structure was safe; we had an adequate stock of food, water and other necessary “hurricane” supplies. We also had a back-up plan in place if the worst were to happen.”
Pointing to his Navy Seal t-shirt, Gonzalez smiled and said, “We don’t wait until it stops. We go in!”
At a certain point, first responders must wait until the dangerous windy weather settles in order to continue their search-and-rescue efforts. “Staying to help is the least I can do,” he said.
Six feet of murky waters surrounded Gonzalez’s 8-foot, stilted high home. “The water has to go somewhere,” he said.
The water was reportedly even higher in some surrounding areas. “If the water would have come up a little more then I would have had to leave, ” Gonzalez said. “We lucked out, and the winds shifted just in time, pushing the bulk of the water out.”
Fortunately, Ida did not leave a huge number of people stranded in Hancock County. Gonzalez assisted one man, taking him to feed his dog and brought someone to check on their grandmother.
When the waters had receded enough, he took his son and his girlfriend to the foot of the highway where their vehicle was parked on higher ground. He said the two wanted to survey damages and retrieve their other vehicle.
‘Worry and Wait’
The darkest time for those living along the Gulf Coast during storm season in a major hurricane’s path is the worry and wait.
My hometown of Waveland was “ground zero” when Hurricane Katrina hammered the coastline causing epic damage, flattening or flooding most of the city’s infrastructure, leaving piles of rubble where beautiful homes used to sit. Believe or not, 16 years later the area and some of its people are still fighting to rebuild and revitalize parts of the charming small town back.
Everything was surreal as Hurricane Ida came charging in full throttle on Aug 29.
When you live here, it’s easy to start believing that the most monstrous storms have their eye set on you.
The entire Gulf Coast was looking down the barrel of yet another catastrophic storm charging toward the mouth of the Mississippi River. It was following a path in which residents on both sides would be hit hard, either way.
It’s hurricane-season calculus here. Would we suffer a direct hit, or would we get the “bad side” of the storm that can sometimes be worse? Will it still take that northeastern hook as it moves over land? Will it gain significant speed, or will it start to slow?
I didn’t evacuate. Instead, I did what I normally would do and stayed to cover whatever came next, staying outside as long as I could as Ida drew closer. The wind grew louder, and the car was slightly shaking but I told myself, “just one more quick picture.”
I jumped out of my car with my camera in hand and duck boots on my feet and began walking to the covered beachfront road. In the waist-high flood waters of Waveland, I set up for my next storm shot. (I’m only 5 feet tall.)
Suddenly, the street signs started flipping and flopping in howling winds. Everything became extremely dark as stabbing sheets of rain were beating on my skin. The sudden and extreme winds seemed to force me to stay put in all directions. I said to myself, is this a possible tornado? I had no way of knowing. My cell phone service was spotty, but suddenly I received a text from a friend who was trying to give me a head’s up of a tornado warning in my area.
Here I was all alone, surrounded by power lines whipping in the wind, standing in debris-filled water with floodwaters rising. There are no dry ditches or nearby standing structures, and my car was parked a good distance away. I’m thinking to myself, just how bad is this going to get?
Trapped in Rising Floodwaters
Rick Hillard awoke at his waterfront home in Shoreline Park the day after Ida made landfall thinking he had escaped any major flooding expected in the storm. Later that night, though, he found himself trapped in the rapidly rising floodwaters.
“I had no power,” Hilliard said, “so it was too dark to tell how deep the water really was.”
As the water kept rising, it soon became clear to Hilliard that things were just starting to get ugly. He knew he and his dogs had to get out as the water continued to rise.
The terrifying scene had Hilliard reaching for the phone to call Hancock County’s 9-1-1 Central Dispatch for help.
A federal search-and-rescue team was able to reach his location about an hour later.
A boat carted him and his pets to safety. “I would not have left without my animals,” Hilliard said.
He would have liked to stay at the shelter closer to his home, Hilliard said. However, his pets wouldn’t be allowed to stay inside the shelter. By policy, he said, they are required to stay in a separate building. His pets were already scared and shaking due to the severe weather. He didn’t want to add to their stress and anxiety by leaving them alone.
“They are my family! Would you leave your family alone and afraid of something like that?”
Hilliard was in a low-lying area under mandatory evacuation orders. But he said by the time he attempted to evacuate it was too late.
Local police stopped him when Hilliard tried to head north late Sunday evening. They insisted he turn around as the roads were unsafe and warned that if he tried to cross the Bayou LaCroix Bridge from Bay St. Louis heading to Kiln he would likely wash away or drown.
Hilliard said his initial plan to leave and seek nearby shelter was dampened when he discovered one of the county shelters was further north then he expected. He felt the other facility’s pet policies were too strict.
“One of the shelters was way up in north Hancock County near the Pearl River County line,” he said on Wednesday. “If you weren’t looking for it, you’d have never found it. It looks like an old-school military bunker. It’s built into the ground, so I’m sure that thing could withstand anything.”
After being rescued from the murky waters, Hilliard was soaking wet and freezing. He said he rode out the storm with his pets in his car at a store parking lot nearby.
“I tried to open the door to let my animals outside, but the winds were so strong they almost took my car door off. They were so scared that they were doing their business inside the crate,” Hilliard said.
Fortunately, Hilliard said, he found a pet-friendly hotel with room availability for the following night.
Reeling from Ida’s devastating flash floods, Hilliard revisited his neighborhood late the evening of Monday, Aug. 30, but flooding had not yet receded. He was unable to reach his home to survey the damages.
By Tuesday, Aug. 31, most street flooding had subsided within the city limits, allowing residents to return home. However some parts of the county were still left dealing with high waters. Residents who could return home began cleaning up.
At daybreak on Monday, officials and residents in Mississippi were able to gain a clearer picture on the damages Ida left behind.
‘I Lost Everything’
Late on that Monday, Floyd sat in silence at the foot of a flooded road in his red pick-up truck with his brother beside him. Although the two didn’t initially have much to say, a wave of emotions screamed in the piercing eyes and blank face of a man who did not want his last name used in print.
“I lost everything,” Floyd eventually said.
Floyd, who lives along the bayou, evacuated his ground-level home apartment when high tide first started to rise on Sunday, Aug. 29, the day Ida made landfall. He loaded up his truck with a few necessities and parked it on the side of the closest highway near his home.
“The ground is much higher there. It’s usually pretty safe from any major flooding,” Floyd explained Monday evening.
In the thick of the storm, Floyd said, state and federal rescue crews were dispatched to the area to aid a man who was trapped inside his home amid Ida’s floodwaters. The team, Floyd said, planned on navigating the flooded residential streets in the dark, blindly.
The man happened to be Floyd’s neighbor and friend. Floyd knew how to get to him, and assisted the team in their successful search-and-rescue mission.
“It was too late to leave after that, so I decided to ride out the weather in my truck,” Floyd said.
“What was that like?” this reporter, a lifelong Hancock Countian, asked.
Floyd took a look around and focused on where his truck had been parked as Ida tore straight through. It was almost as if his mind was replaying the terrifying events. He glanced back, then stared out the windshield of his truck at muddy street waters preventing him from getting back home.
“Oh, it was bad! Real bad,” he said while shaking his head. “The wind was rocking!”
Floyd’s apartment was completely submerged in Ida’s floodwater, and he was forced to wait to return home.
“The water is slowly moving out,” Floyd said that Monday evening. “I wish it would flow a little faster. I still have to get back there and try to figure out what I can save.”
Floyd left his cat, Girl, behind in the chaos of evacuating. She was later rescued.
By Tuesday, Aug. 31, water had receded from the area allowing Floyd to return home and rummage through what was left behind, but there wasn’t much. The only thing Floyd said he was able to salvage from his small apartment was a small microwave setting on a top shelf.
“I saved my truck this time,” Floyd said. “I saved the clothes that were in my truck. I also saved the tools that were in my truck.”
Floyd lost two other vehicles to flooding in recent storms. He lost one last October when Hurricane Zeta slammed the Gulf Coast causing over $4 billion in damages. The other, he said, was lost in a previous storm.
Living, Bonding on the Water
Floyd, Hillard, and Gonzalaz said they weren’t surprised the superstorm rocked the community with extreme winds and torrential downpours as rising waters swept through the streets.
In fact, with living on the water, they expected it.
Hurricane time can become the perfect storm for crime such as break-ins and theft with many homes and vehicles left empty or behind with evacuations.
Fortunately, authorities in Hancock County say, crime related to the storm was mostly not an issue in the area. The most significant situation was when the Hancock County deputies responded by boat to a murder scene in flooding from Hurricane Ida in the Pearlington community Monday morning.
Authorities said a stand-off with the murder suspect led to a shoot-out with deputies.
The man accused of the murder was killed in the shoot-out. No deputies were injured in the incident. The two men were said to be roommates. Police boated witnesses away from the scene. Bay St. Louis police received reports of people taking items that had floated off to the road including a refrigerator and multiple sets of tires.
Later, in the same tight-knit community, multiple people said they witnessed the same group of people stealing a small boat and several ice chests from underneath evacuated neighbors’ homes, but police said the allegations were not reported.
Millions of people lost power due to the storm, including hundreds of thousands across south Mississippi. Gonzalez was surprised his power had not been knocked out. He did not use a single drop of gas to turn on his generator, he said.
Gonzalez credited city and county leaders, as well as utility service providers, for helping to spare his family a power outage in record-breaking heat.
“I commend the township for being better prepared,” Gonzalez said. “What they do is they ride through the neighborhoods beforehand and cut back tree limbs, securing things.”
But even in trying times, Gonzalez says, the good times that come with living on the water outweighs the bad. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. To be honest, I am down here for life. I’m never moving. The only way I’m moving would be in a box.”
Hilliard couldn’t agree with Gonzelez more.
Cleaning the Muddy Mess Together
On Tuesday, Hillard had helped his hero neighbor Floyd clean the muddy mess Ida’s floodwaters left behind. The pair now are planning to tackle yard work together, too. Hilliard was overjoyed when Floyd mentioned building a fenced play area outside for his dogs.
“Boy, I am glad Floyd’s not leaving because of all this,” Hillard said with a sigh of relief.
Floyd is not only Hillard’s neighbor; he is also his tenant. Hillard said he is the best renter he has ever had. He pays his rent on time every month, he doesn’t cause any troubles, and he even helps with maintenance around Hillard’s house.
“He was talking about moving initially, but I’m glad he’s not going anywhere,” Hilliard said. “You can’t really find people like him anymore. He’s truly a lifesaver around here.”
Mississippi residents needing immediate resources or who have storm damage to report can contact your county Emergency Management Agency Director’s Office or call MEMA’s Hurricane Ida hotline Monday-Friday from 8a.m. to 7p.m. at 1-888-574-3583 for further assistance.
All Louisiana residents sheltering in Mississippi are asked to call FEMA for assistance at 1-800-621-3362 or for additional shelter and resource information call 1-800-755-5175.
A complete list of county EMA Directors contacts can be found at www.msema.org.
For anyone wanting to help with recovery efforts or make cash donations, FEMA suggests first visiting the National Voluntary Organizations Active in a Disaster Hurricane Ida page to team up with a reputable organization.