The events of the early-morning hours of Aug. 29, 2005, will long be remembered as the most destructive natural disaster that has ever struck the nation. Prior to the visit of Hurricane Katrina, the 1969 Hurricane Camille had been considered the worst-case scenario in the middle Gulf Coast region...
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The events of the early-morning hours of Aug. 29, 2005, will long be remembered as the most destructive natural disaster that has ever struck the nation. Prior to the visit of Hurricane Katrina, the 1969 Hurricane Camille had been considered the worst-case scenario in the middle Gulf Coast region. All of the old watermark levels and stories of property destruction pale in comparison to this storm.
The death toll has exceeded 1,000 victims in a six-state area. The economic loss is equally staggering, with preliminary estimates exceeding $200 billion. Many of the communities that have been torn apart are projecting a reconstruction period of two to five years to reach pre-Katrina status.
As the storm passed through the City of Biloxi, MS, the wind had a sustained rate of 150 mph, with gusts reaching 178 mph. Reports indicate that the eye of the hurricane passed just west of Biloxi, placing it on the northeast quadrant of the weather front, perhaps the worst place in terms of destruction.
Once a quiet shrimping village, the City of Biloxi now covers an area of roughly 56 square miles and houses 10 Las Vegas-style casinos, which greatly increases the visitor population. An 11th casino, "Hard Rock," had been scheduled to open on Labor Day, a few days after Katrina hit. Needless to say, the grand opening has been delayed indefinitely with estimates ranging from 12 to 18 months.
David Roberts, fire chief and director of the Biloxi Fire Department, is a 30-year veteran of the fire service. His direct, no-nonsense leadership style has served him well during this career campaign incident. Operating nine fire stations (two of which were flooded from the storm surge), Roberts is charged with protecting about 55,000 residents and over 150,000 weekly guests. Under the leadership of Roberts, the Biloxi Fire Department has once again excelled as a community response agency in its handling of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina.
The city operates with a strong-mayor-and-council form of government. Mayor A. J. Holloway is the presiding elected official of the city and is facing his greatest challenge, which is dealing with the results of this catastrophic category five storm. To his credit, the mayor set the overall strategic plan and conveys these goals to departmental heads through planning meetings conducted daily at 8 A.M. Holloway also helped to provide the needed tools and resources for Roberts to complete the tactical mission of returning the community back to as close to "normal" as possible. It has been amazing and a privilege to work alongside Roberts as he restores order to this devastated community.
The Call for Help
When the news reports indicated that the City of Biloxi had been nearly destroyed, I made several attempts to contact Roberts, a close friend and colleague. I wanted to check on his well-being as well as find out whether Atlanta Fire-Rescue could be of assistance to his community. I sent several e-mail messages and left four or five voicemail messages on the first day of the storm. The next day, I tried to make contact using the same methods, but once again to no avail. In the mid-afternoon of Friday, Sept. 2, I finally received a phone call from Roberts. His initial report was quite bleak and shocking, but the good news was that David and his family had survived.
The chief asked for a staffed engine company to supplement his operation and requested that I also respond to help with the command and control of this disaster. In preparation of this and other requests for responses, we identified roles that would be crucial to the mission. The Atlanta Fire-Rescue deployment coordinator, Battalion Chief Chris Wessels, had already developed a roster of interested members who were willing and able to respond to the stricken Gulf Coast. In addition, a detailed plan of supplies and materials was drafted to include the deployment of eight members, as well as Engine 27, to depart for Biloxi on Saturday, Sept. 3, at 7 A.M. I was able to depart somewhat sooner, around 6 o'clock on the night of the request.