Dr. Jay Segarra – The Rooftop Survivor

Dr. Jay Segarra PortraitDr. Jay Segarra, 51, is the Chief of Pulmonary Medicine at the Keesler Air Force Base hospital in Biloxi, MS, as well as a private practitioner in Ocean Springs, MS. Two years after Katrina, he and his wife Lisa continue to live in Ocean Springs. I met with Dr. Segarra twice: on April 24th, 2006, in Vienna, VA, and then at his newly refurbished Ocean Springs home on July 27, 2007.

My name is Jay Segarra. I reside in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, on the Gulf Coast. Ninety miles east of New Orleans. Fifty miles west of Mobile. I live in what used to be a house on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s set about two hundred yards back from the Mississippi Sound.

Ocean Springs is an artistic community, so to speak, of maybe 15,000 people. The nearest big city is Biloxi. Then Gulfport, just to the west of Biloxi. On the other side of Ocean Springs there’s the Pascagoula shipyard, which was heavily damaged in the hurricane. Then the Alabama border, Mobile, and then after about 60 or 70 miles you come to Pensacola, and the Florida Panhandle.

We live in a house that is set back from the ocean and elevated. It was built in sort of the German Bauhaus style. It has a flat roof, 4000 square feet, but it’s all one floor, shaped like a U. I have it on good authority that during Hurricane Camille, the [old] benchmark of how bad it could possibly get, the ocean only came halfway up our driveway. Our house had never flooded.

I always wanted to live on the beach. Lisa’s always lived on the ocean her whole life. Even in Boston she did. We have a second house in Maine and that’s also on the ocean. We love kayaking and beach things. We had a pier that was partially destroyed by the storm. She could leave her kayaks on the pier, and take them out when she wanted to. She liked that. She’s an ocean person. She likes the ambiance of the sea.

Personal History

I was born in Boston. My father was from Barcelona. He had come to the United States on a medical scholarship to study neurology at Mass General Hospital in Cambridge. There he met my mother, who was working as an EEG technician. I was born two years later. My parents had six children more or less right in a row. I was born in 1956.

My mother was local. She was actually born in Paraguay to European parents, then adopted by a Boston-Edison electrical engineer and his wife who are my adoptive grandparents. With my father being a neurology resident, and researcher, with six kids, we never had very much money growing up. In fact, my father made all of our furniture. I still have some of his homemade furniture that he made from back then. I leave it in our house in Maine.

I went to college in Cambridge and medical school in Boston. Before medical school my father called me one day. He said, I have to talk to you about something. I said, OK. He said, I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer. I’m going to have to stop working and I can’t pay for your medical school. You’ve got to get a scholarship or take out loans. Which was of course entirely reasonable on his part. Which I did.

I applied for a scholarship to the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, and the Public Health Service. The first one that came in I was going to take. The Air Force showed up first, so I took their scholarship. They paid my way through medical school. I owed them time afterwards. My wife and I were married right after my first year of medical school.

After medical school I went to Mississippi for a year to do my internship. Then we were stationed overseas. For three years, I was a general practitioner on a NATO base near Aachen. My father became terminally ill. We came back early. He died while I was stationed in upstate New York near the Canadian border. But I would come home to see him on weekends. After that year, I did an internal medicine residency in a pulmonary and critical care fellowship in San Antonio Texas. I moved to Biloxi with the Air Force as the Chief of Pulmonary Medicine at the hospital. I was a pulmonologist. I’ve been there ever since. I left active duty in 95 or 96. Beginning of 96. I’m still in the Reserves. I’ve been in the Reserves until this day.

I also do a lot of medical legal consulting. I do consulting in occupational medicine in different parts of the country. I testify in trials. I have a small pro bono practice as well where I see some shut-ins who can’t go to the doctor because they’re on home ventilators. I began seeing them when I was in the Air Force. I just continue to see them, even now.

Lisa and I have two children. My daughter, Kate, is 25 now. At the time of the storm, she was in graduate school. She had been an environmental chemistry major, and was in graduate school for that at Tulane. When the hurricane hit, Tulane shut down for the rest of the year. Lost all its students. The researcher she was working with was a graduate student who left and went back to New York. Eventually, Kate transferred to the University of Georgia, at Athens. She’s there now. Ben’s in law school at University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.

The Hurricane Experience

I had been in Houston till the day before the hurricane. When I flew back into Gulfport, the first thing I had to do was drive into New Orleans. My daughter was doing research on the Monterrey Peninsula in California. She had two cats in an apartment. She called me up frantic about the oncoming hurricane and begged me to go to New Orleans and get her cats. I dutifully drove into New Orleans. I packed her cats up in a cage and took them with me to Ocean Springs.

I came home and looked on the official hurricane center [site]. It seemed like the path of the hurricane was [headed] directly into New Orleans, or over Grand Isle.

My house has never been flooded. Not even during Hurricane Camille, which was 160mph winds and ocean liners carried across Highway 90. I figured I was perfectly safe.

We had three cars at the time. I thought that I needed to position at least one of them away from the house in case the narrow road between the house and the beach and the ocean would be perhaps impassible after the storm. I took one of the cars and left it at my office, which is a mile further inland. The other two I left at the house.

My wife and I did our usual preparations. I had a generator, and all the things that I need to survive without power for a longtime.

That night we went to our friends’ house. We watched some movies. They suggested that we stay with them. I said no, and I explained all the things I just explained to you now, that it would be much better if I’m there. I can protect the house better. I have no reason to fear for my bodily safety. I’ve got four cats there now. So we’re going to go back. We’ll be fine.

We went to bed around midnight. The wind was brisk, but nothing special. The water was not even up over the road. The road was entirely passable about 12:00am or 1:00am when we went back. Just to be on the safe side, I took a very tall step-ladder and I positioned it in back of the house, on a low part of the roof. I put two jugs of water up there. I got the cat cages, etc., in the garage. I got the generator out, and cranked it up to make sure it started. Then I went to bed.

I got up at 4:00am. I looked at the latest update on the hurricane center. I could see the hurricane taking a retrograde turn towards the east. I knew this was not good. Looked like it was going to come in just east of New Orleans. I was thinking it was going to be worse, but we’d still be OK.

I went out. The wind was kicking up. The water was now across the road, but not even coming to the driveway. You could see in the distance, but you couldn’t really focus too well because it was very dark, and the wind was blowing spray off the ocean. It was sort of this amorphous, black gray mass. You couldn’t see exactly. We have a Hobie Cat. It’s a very small catamaran sailboat. I untied it and dragged it further up to a tree that was closer to the house. I did the same with our kayaks. Then I actually went back to bed.

I got up again at 6:30am. I made some coffee. We still had power. I went back on the internet and looked at the hurricane path. This time it did come further east— still further east. I thought, this is going to be maybe as bad as Camille.

At 7:00am, the water was maybe a quarter of the way up the driveway. I got dressed. I thought the worse thing that could possibly happen was that we might get a bit of water in the house. Enough to wet the floor. So I picked things up off the floor. I put some photos and documents into a plastic bag. I put my wallet in that [bag]. I put that next to the pillow.

My wife got dressed. She was dressed in a waterproof sailor’s suit. I was in this capilene t-shirt, a bathing suit, and some water shoes. She had kept life jackets at the end of our bed as we slept that night. We got those up on the roof as well.

At 7:30am, the water was maybe halfway up the driveway. I thought, oh, well, this is as bad as it’s going to get. The hurricane was supposed to make landfall at 7:00am. I figured it would pass behind us. Then, as it passes behind us, the wind would push the water back out to sea. That this was about as bad as it was going to get.

That was a tremendous miscalculation on my part. Over the next 45 minutes, the water began to rise rapidly. Just fast. I mean, you’re not in a tidal wave; it wasn’t chasing you. But you could incrementally see with each series of waves, you could see it getting slowly higher and higher and higher. I looked at my wife Lisa. I said, you know what? It’s time to get on the roof.

Once Lisa got on the roof, I passed the cats up to her. My own two cats I could get up easily. I found them and I put two of them in the cat carriers and I handed those up to Lisa. I went back to get the other two cats. By the time I came down the ladder, the water had reached the front of the house. It was amazingly fast. It must have risen ten feet within ten minutes. There was this one sort of crash that came through the front door—still just ankle deep in the house—but it came through the front door. We didn’t have much time.

Unfortunately, Kate’s cats don’t know me. They wouldn’t come to me. One I found pretty easily, so that went into the cage. But the fourth one had bitten me the night before when I went looking for it. I was fumbling around in her closet, looking for it. Well, I couldn’t find it. The water was getting deeper, knee deep. I finally just tore apart her closet. The cat was at the bottom of her closet, already soaking wet. It looked at me. It didn’t like what was happening. I agreed with it, but I just grabbed it, and threw it in the cage.

I waded through this black water. Lisa would have to hold the ladder for me. I climbed up the ladder, got up on the roof. We pulled the ladder up with us so we could get back down again. The water began to come through the house. At that point, things became surreal. We were not afraid, as much as we were—there was a sense of depersonalization. I did not feel connected to the scene.

We watched as the two houses to the right of us, and the two to the left of us were completely destroyed within a span of about two hours. The wind picked up. The rain was going sideways. It was carrying particulate matter with it, so it really stung. We had wedged ourselves down behind a skylight that was sloped towards the back of the house. The skylight acted as a windbreak. There was another skylight nearby, and the four cats were wedged there.

The house to the right of us was a house that had been designed by Louis Sullivan, who’s a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s kind of a famous house. It looked like it heaved outward, and then it heaved inward. Then the whole thing just collapsed. Into splinters. The house to the left of us was a palatial house, with a pool house and a garage. The entire second story of that house fell down through the first story, because the underpinnings of the second story were lost. The first story was washed away.

All the houses on the beach were destroyed, many of them down to the foundation. The rest of them were sort of floated from the outside, from the wave action, and from the inside, from the push, because of the wind.

My own house was built of steel-reinforced concrete. It’s like a lighthouse. I knew this going in. In fact, if I didn’t have any doors and windows, I never would have had any damage, because the water couldn’t knock the house down. But it sure could crash through the windows and doors. It carried all of our possessions out the windows and doors. We sat on the roof and watched them go by. You couldn’t really look out the direction the wind was coming because it was painful to your eyes. But when you did look out, you saw this big black gray mass. It was three-dimensional.

The sea was this black, pitch-black dark, gray color. The water was not clear water. It was black. Mississippi water on the sound is a little muddy anyway. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is an estuary; it’s a nursery for shrimp and fish. The bottom is muddy. It’s not sand; it’s not clear sand like in the Panhandle of Florida. But that muddy color was multiplied a hundredfold by the fact that when the sea came up over the land it just sucked up all the dirt and the sand that went with it. It was pitch black by the time it got to the house.

We watched as all our kitchen appliances flew out the door. The hot tub was going past. It seemed like the Wizard of Oz, or Alice in Wonderland. I remember our wine refrigerator floating past. We watched where that was going, because we could see the bottles inside and they weren’t broken. We wanted to make sure we didn’t lose them.

Then I did something really silly. My father died twenty years ago. He had played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He had this cello that was made in Paris a long time ago. Three years ago, I’d found this cello in the basement of my house, when my mother lived in Boston. I’d picked it out of the basement. It was a mess. I’d had it refurbished, at quite a bit of cost, in Cambridge. To bring it back down to Mississippi, I actually had to buy a plane ticket for it and it sat next to me on the plane seat. My wife Lisa and I were taking cello lessons, on this cello and another one. This cello floated past in its case and that was just too much for me: without thinking I actually jumped into the water. Fortunately, I had a life jacket on. I swam to where it was and I grabbed it. Lisa put the ladder back down for me, and was trying to hold it against the wave action. I swam to the ladder. I dragged the cello back up with me.

I realized that I had left that plastic bag that had all of my family photos, documents, my passport and my wallet. I panicked. I had to have these things. I jumped into the water again. As I did that, the metronome where I learned music when I was a kid floated by, and Lisa’s cosmetics case. I grabbed those. I came back up the ladder. I handed those to Lisa. I explained to her I was going to go back to the house but pull the ladder up because you can’t hold it, I might be in there a while. She said, don’t go into the house, don’t go into the house. I said, no, no, I’ve got to find my wallet. I can’t. I won’t be a person. I can’t travel, I can’t do anything. I travel a lot on business.

I swam back into the house. I went through one of the windows that’d been smashed. This was the most surreal part. The house felt like a washing machine on the wash cycle. All this black water was churning around. All the furniture was floating in this water, about two/thirds of the way up towards the ceiling. I swam towards our bedroom. When I got to the bedroom, the water was higher there. Almost up to the ceiling. Maybe a foot from the ceiling. The waves were actually breaking in that bedroom.

You could actually see them: six foot waves breaking in the bedroom. I swam to where I left the bag, which is at the door of my study. I couldn’t find it. It was utter chaos. There was just furniture and debris everywhere. Also, the water was so pitch black, you couldn’t really see under it. You couldn’t look under it at all. It was opaque. Also, the hallway that I was trying to swim through was clogged with furniture. The piano and my grandfather’s walnut desk were floating in the hallway.

I had a moment of fear. When one of the waves broke, it forced this large desk against me. On the other side was this mahogany wardrobe. I was sort of trapped between the desk and the wardrobe. I was having a hard time getting my head above the water, even though I had a life jacket on, even though I could swim. I had to actually fight my way to the top of it. By this time the water level was rising. There was only a foot left between me and the ceiling. At first I was afraid, then I got angry at myself. I thought, this is a really stupid way to die. I gave up at that point. I swam out.

To get out was kind of a problem. The water, being a foot from the ceiling, was already over all of the doors and windows. I had to see where the door was and blindly swim under the water and through the door. It wasn’t difficult. But it did require just a little bit of mental effort, to actually think about what I was going to do, then actually do it. You know, it wasn’t a difficult thing to do. But you might think it was difficult if you were actually in that situation. You had to stop all the panic. You actually had to just do it.

Then I was outside. I went back up the ladder, defeated, because I didn’t find what I had gone there for. The metronome that I had saved had already fallen apart. The cello was horribly damaged and is still damaged to this day; I haven’t rebuilt it yet. At that point, I was still feeling sort of surreal at watching the washers and the dryers float by. All of Lisa’s clothes. So I just sat. I accepted a bit of water from Lisa, and we sat with our backs against the skylight.

The sea was getting higher. The wind was getting worse. We really couldn’t stand up anymore. We were sitting against the skylight. It was between 9:00am and 9:30am. We could see in back of the house. There was water in the garage. It had gotten under the door. Lisa had a little red Mercedes. It was banging up against the garage door. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! So finally, it just took the garage door off the hinge. Her little red 560 SL 1986 Mercedes floated out of the garage, down the drive. Almost under its own power. It just floated out through the backyard, all the way to the end of the backyard. Like 100 yards away. It was lodged there.

We watched this for a while. Then, I did something that I would not have thought possible. I fell asleep. There’s only so much of one sort of stimulus that you can take. Plus, I’d been up for most of the night looking at the hurricane center. I fell asleep. I must have slept for about 45 minutes. I woke up because a tree had fallen on the roof. Fortunately, about 10 feet away from us. The crash woke me up.

I was covered in spiders. I was literally covered in spiders. I didn’t realize this, but apparently most insects, in a flood, just die. Spiders will actually seek higher ground in order to save themselves. That’s what they did. I mean, it must have been every spider in my yard, or in my house, was covering me. I was literally covered in spiders. And not a single one bit me. Not one bit me. They were in the same position as I was. They were trying to hang on, too.

My wife had crawled off to look at the devastation from the roof. She came back to me. I had brushed all the spiders off, carefully. I know it sounds odd, but I felt sort of a kinship to them. I know it’s a strange feeling. I brushed them off gently, if you can imagine such at thing. The cats were screaming in their cages. Even they shut up after a while, realizing that it’s not going to do them any good. At least they’re alive, you know. They could sort of sense that big events were sort of unfolding.

The storm was getting worse at this point. Trees were being uprooted everywhere. I mean the whole yard to the side of us, every tree was down. The houses were gone. The black sea was in the backyard as far as we could see. There was only about 5 feet between us and the water level.

Lisa turned to me and said: Jay, are we going to die? I felt this depersonalization. I could answer that question in a very matter-of-fact, objective way. I thought about it. I looked at our position. I looked around at the trees that were near us, that looked like they were doing OK. I looked at the direction of the wind. I was looking at the axis of the wind and I was looking where the ocean was now and I said, you know, it’s always possible, but I really don’t think so. [Laughing]

That turned out to be what happened. After about 4 more hours of this—about 2:30pm or so—the water had receded enough so that we could get down on the roof. In fact, we needed to because the wind hadn’t stopped at all. Having shifted axis, the skylight was no longer protecting us from the wind. It was now coming almost due, from the west. It was painful. We got down off the roof in order to escape the wind.

The wind was sharp and painful and yet powerful at the same time. It felt like you were being pushed at needlepoint by a million man army of tiny pygmy warriors all wielding a spear. It smelled like sewerage. It smelled like something dead. It was almost like the whole sea was something dead. It smelled like parts of the bayou in deep summer that dry out. When the bayou dries out, there’s several feet of muddy silt that contains organic matter from decomposing fish and vegetable matter, and so on. It has a very distinctive smell. It seemed like our entire landscape had that smell.

We eventually came down off the roof. We were only knee-deep in water by this time. It was no longer over our heads. We left the cats on the roof for the timebeing because we had no place to put them.

We began to root around in the water for our lost possessions. It was pathetic. We would pick up a waterlogged book and put it on the ruined windowsill. The windows had metal frames that were twisted into these odd shapes, but some of the frames were twisted in such a way that you could lay things on top of them. It felt like we were at the scene of a plane crash. Just picking up the debris.

Soon we could actually see the ground. The wind began to subside. It looked like the entire landscape had been covered in black death. All the trees—the ones that still remained—all their foliage had been stripped. They were completely brown. All the grass was gone. It was just sand, silt, and debris.

The colors were all brown, black, and gray. Before, the entire area had been green and blooming. There had been a garden that Lisa had tended for years that had hundreds of different species of flowers and flowering plants. All gone. All turned into this brown smoke. Almost like incineration by water. But by muddy saltwater. All of this occurred in just a few hours. Our belongings, and the belongings of our neighbors, were strewn hundreds and hundreds of feet in back of the house. I mean, as far as the eye could see. It was just debris everywhere.

Right after we got off the roof, we walked into the ruined kitchen. There was this horrible hiss coming from the kitchen because the commercial gas stove had been pulled out of the wall into the backyard somewhere. There was this huge gas line just pouring forth gas. Yeah, it was really dangerous. Later, [Our friend] Kevin showed up. Unexpectedly. I don’t know how he got there. His house was completely destroyed. It was pushed into the bayou. The entire house pushed into the bayou. But, I am forever indebted to him, if for nothing else, than for this one thing. He went back to his house—crawled into his house—found a big pipe wrench, and came back and turned off our gas valve. It was just such a great thing for him to have done. I mean, it’s an important thing.

Our other two cars had been in front of the house in a parking spot. One of them was a white Suburban. The white Suburban had been carried by the waves through the living room windows. It had been acting as a battering ram, slamming into the doorframes, and the foundation of the house. We had an F-150 pick-up truck. The same thing. The truck had been picked up by the waves and had been used as a battering ram.

Here’s how well this house was constructed: as I told you, this is poured steel-reinforced concrete. The doorframe of the front door was this vertical structure with a steel rod, with concrete around it. The F-150 pick-up truck was bent in two around the doorframe by the actions of the waves. That’s how powerful the ocean is, and that’s how well the house was built. When we came down off the roof and walked to the front of the house, it was the Suburban sort of head-in to the china closet, through the living room sliding glass doors. The F-150 was wrapped around the doorframe like a pretzel.

We looked at each other. Lisa said to me, well, I would have rather have been with you up there than anybody else I can think of. I thought was kind of a nice thing to say at the time. [Laugh] Then we agreed that it was just stuff, and that we were OK. We hadn’t even lost the cats.

This may sound artificial to you, but it’s really is the truth: although I felt that disaster had just occurred, at the same time I felt a sense of liberation. All of our possessions had been destroyed. It was going to be a long time before I could even clean up the debris here. I could see that this was going to be years of work. All having been created within the span of some hours. There was a sense of loss, but there was a sense of liberation. I no longer felt that I was a slave to my possessions. I just had on this wet capilene t-shirt, a bathing suit, no shoes even, except these water shoes, and yet I felt this certain paradoxical sense of exhilaration. Which doesn’t make any sense, I know.

That is when I hear this shout. As far as I knew, we were the only people who stayed on the beach. The shout’s from next door. We walk next door, where the house had been destroyed. Not directly next door, but on the other side. The wind is still pretty intense, but we were able to do it. It was hard to do; but it was like two steps forward and one step backwards. We walked next door, where the house had been destroyed.

To our shock, there were four teenage boys up in a tree. Apparently, the boys had stayed in their house. Their parents had been out of town. They stayed in their house against most peoples’ advice. Unbeknownst to anyone. Their house had completely collapsed. It was gone down to the last brick on the foundation. As it was collapsing, they climbed into an oak tree which had survived the storm and they spent the worst part of the storm clinging to the branches of this tree. That’s a better story than mine, even. Only one of them lived there. Three of them were from overseas. They were exchange students. One from Australia, one from New Zealand. One from Singapore, I think.

We were a strange procession. There were these four boys, who were sort of laughing, as boys will in situations like that. We were carrying our cats. Lisa in her crazy sailor suit and her helmet. She was this one piece, foul-weather sort of Goretex, bright red jumpsuit thing. She had red Wellington boots on, and a bicycle helmet. She looked the part. She looked like almost like a Japanese anime character from some cartoon, you know? [laugh] I was the one who was poorly equipped.

We took our cats and we began to walk. We didn’t know which direction to walk. The roads were impossible. We could walk from one yard to the other because the houses were gone. I mean, they were literally gone. There was just rubble. Sometimes, not even very much rubble. We could sort of go cross country so to speak. Not on the roads.

Looking at this devastation, it was just surreal to see it. We finally came to a street that was more or less passable. You had to go over a mound of debris, but coming down on the other side, there was a street that you could sort of pick your way on, around, and that’s what we did. We walked about three blocks.

The cats were getting heavy, and our water supply—we had that with us—that was getting heavy, too. The boys stopped at a friend’s house that was damaged but still standing. So they were safe. It goes without saying there was no electricity, no phones, no nothing. No way of contacting the outside world.

The Ocean Springs Police were already out. Not on the beach, but maybe a ½ mile away. Not only were they there, but they were changing a flat tire because all the debris from all these houses had left nails all over the road. All the police cars had flat tires already. Just from five minutes of driving. They were changing a flat tire, and another car came by. I heard one of the officers say to another one, oh, go and get him and get him out of here. He’s a looter. Because apparently, such a small town, the police know the sort of repeat offenders so to speak who are known to be looters. He recognized the car and the person as someone who loots after storms. They went after him to get rid of him. Can you imagine?

We walked another ¾ of a mile. We got to our office, which is on one of the main streets of downtown Ocean Springs. All the trees were down around the office, but the office itself was almost completely undamaged. We were able to get in. We were able to put the cats there. We could dry off. There were towels there. No fresh clothes.

We were sort of sitting in the office trying to decide what to do. The woman who does transcription and word processing for me, showed up at the office. She’d come in to check to see if the computers were ruined. We’re friendly with her anyway, and we’re friends with her neighbor. They lived within walking distance. So basically, our friends—my co-worker’s neighbor, Gretchen—took us in, and put us up for a month, during the immediate recovery phase from the storm, which is another story unto itself.

We Were Archeologists

We were staying in Gretchen’s house. She’s a single woman about our age. Also staying with her were other refugees who had the same experience. Gretchen’s house had maybe six rooms. There were about eight people staying there. Lisa and I were in the lap of luxury. We had a room to ourselves. We even had a fan hooked up to the generator. It was very hot still. This is Mississippi in August. Still really, really hot.

Every day was spent gathering things needed for survival. Enough gasoline to run the generator. Enough fresh water. Food for lunch and dinner. The only clothes I had was this bathing suit, and this capoline thing that I would wash every night when I would go to bed and then put it back on the next day. I had gone back inside the house and found a plastic bag that had cash in it. Still hadn’t found my wallet. I ended up finding that four days later. But I had some cash with me, and that was a great thing. I had the car at the office. It had a flat tire which I had to change, but it ran.

Taking the car out on the road was a surreal experience. None of the traffic lights worked. Debris was everywhere. Gas stations knocked down and so on.

A man was airing out the boot store. It had been slightly flooded. All the doors were open so I walked in. I asked the man who if I could buy a pair of boots. I didn’t have anything to wear on my feet [but water shoes]. My feet were being like torn up by the debris. I was stepping on and nails and things like that. He sold me a pair and a pair of socks.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as I was in my entire life as I was putting on these boots. I mean, to put these boots and socks on was the most joyous feeling. Better than anything. Better than any accolade. Better than anything was the feeling of these brand new boots. I could walk around with no fear of nails going through my feet. I had stepped on several of them already up to that point.

We would walk back to our house. We’d drive part of the way, but you couldn’t drive all the way, only part of the way, so we’d walk the rest. We’d spend the day sifting through our debris. The house was literally in ruins. It was all of our furniture, which had been smashed to pieces. It was all inside, piled up in these huge pieces. Most of the books had come out of the bookcase and were strewn everywhere.

We were archeologists. That’s what we called ourselves. We would dig through debris. Sift through it, looking for jewelry. I was looking for my wallet, which I found four days later. We would do this literally all day until the sun went down.

My wife is much more in tune with her emotions than I am. She would excavate furiously then she would cry. She would excavate some more, and cry. She would alternate between one and the other. At the end of the day, she was exhausted.

We would go back filthy. We would take a shower that was just a wonderful thing. A cold shower, but it still was great.

You know something? Furniture and books, they die, just like human beings die. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a corpse outside, unexpectedly. I have, only because I used to work in emergency rooms and I’ve ridden ambulances before and seen things like that. But furniture and books have a lifecycle, just like animals and humans do. When a big piece of wooden furniture, like a desk, dies, dies by being immersed in salt water, it can even look okay. But then over the next several days, it swells, and around the mouths of the drawers it swells so that you can’t get the drawers open. You have to use a hatchet to smash them open, to get what’s inside them. I mean, you can see it decompose in front of your eyes. Just like a body would.

We have built-in bookcases. They’ll be a row of books land superficially they’ll look OK. But if you take the shelf out, the books will stay up. They don’t require the shelf anymore because they’re swollen up against the sides of the bookshelf. They’re all holding each other up. It takes a huge amount of strength to yank them out of the bookshelf. They just turn to mush in your hands. It was tragic. I lost a first edition of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, I lost T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I lost a lot of things that were dear to me. But as I told you before, it’s just stuff. It was OK. I mean, I say that now. I still feel that way. Once in a while, I’ll go to get something and then I’ll think, no, no I don’t have it anymore.

By that time, my daughter had arrived. How did I first get word to our family that we were OK? That’s just it. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Until about four days later. Then I did. She was able to fly into Houston and drive from Houston. My daughter brought the greatest gift with her. She brought fresh underwear and clothes. I mean, just simple things, like shorts and t-shirts, but oh, to have clean clothes was just a godsent. It was just fabulous. She stayed with us, and helped us excavate, basically.

We wanted to salvage what we could. We learned very quickly what is salvageable and what is not. Books and wooden furniture do not like salt water, at all. Most clothes don’t, either. But you know what does very well with salt water? CDs and DVDs. They were all in the backyard. And 75% of them, after you wash them off and dried them, they work. That strange? We lost 80% of our books. Or 85% of them, or whatever. We had a lot of books. Books were our main thing. Lisa had lost all of her jewelry. But I would find little pieces of it in the house. Then one day, we got a metal detector. I was digging under one of the rosebushes, and I found the motherlode. I found a jewelry case that had half of her jewelry was in it. Intact. Undamaged. She was really happy about that.

We found our wine refrigerator. We put all the wine bottles into a little red wagon that we found in back of the house. We wheeled the wagon all the way back to Gretchen’s house, sometimes portaging it over stumps and things. We would open up one of those bottles every night. That was our reward for having labored under the hot sun all day long at the house.

It was hard work, too. The sun was relentless. It was so hot. The landscape looked like death, everywhere. It seemed so futile. We just did it little by little. I was trying to stay focused. I was trying to say, OK, you need a lot of self-discipline right now. Just keep doing this, and you need a timeline, too, because eventually I had to go back to work. I said alright, I’m going to give myself a month of this. And I did. I went back to work on the first of October at my practice. Keesler Air Force Base, where the hospital was, where I worked, took twenty-five feet of water. In fact [today], only the clinics are open. The hospital itself is not going to open until November [2006].

The people on base where I worked they thought I was dead for some reason. I don’t know. There was some rumor that I was dead. Lisa and I had stayed on the beach and we had died. Oh, we had stayed on the beach, but the death part was a little exaggerated.

As soon as phones began to work, I got on the phone to a trailer company in Alabama. I actually bought a trailer. It was delivered a month after the storm. I feel a tiny bit ridiculous for telling this to you because lots of people who went through the storm, who lost all their houses, they don’t have the resources that Lisa and I had. I mean, they can’t buy trailers. Cars. I mean, we bought ourselves—not a new pick-up truck, but we bought ourselves the only used pick-up truck available in Ocean Springs after the storm that was in-tact. We had lost our cars. But there are tons of people who don’t have that luxury at all, who were basically in Red Cross shelters for months afterwards.

Oddly enough, when I went up to Ocean Springs Hospital to volunteer I was expecting there to be a lot of sickness. There was not that much, really. There were a lot of lacerations. And skin infections. There was not an epidemic of diarrheal illness and so on as was expected. The hospital was handling it quite well.

The grocery chains weren’t open yet. A few days after the storm, a local grocer opened his small grocery store. He would sell us what he had. We didn’t know what we were going to eat until we would actually get there. Some days it would be canned Italian green beans and stewed tomatoes. Whatever he had.

Everything tasted so good because we were so shellshocked. We had never had any appetite in the morning. We didn’t eat during the day either. I’m a relatively big eater myself, but we didn’t realize we were hungry until we came home after our archeology session, took a shower and got into clean clothes. All of a sudden we were ravenous. Hadn’t eaten anything literally all day. Everything tasted really good.

There were these community meals that were kind of fun actually. Everyone sat around and talked. Shared rumors about what was happening in New Orleans, and so on. We had a little radio and we’d get radio news. We had that sort of that connection to the outside world. This was before the phones were up. Even when the phones came back, they would only work for like a couple of hours a day and then they’d stop working. Usually the circuits were busy.

Did the plumbing work fine? Yes, in the house we were staying the plumbing worked fine. In our ruined house, they had shut off the water, actually the night before the storm hit. They knew it was going to be bad. They turned it back on about ten days after the storm. There was water pouring from all those leaky pipes in the house. We had to run around and cap them all off. We loved having the water. Water’s essential when you’re trying to clean up. We tried to scramble around and cap them off.

The neighbors that lived in the Lewis Sullivan house, they left during the storm. Ellen had played viola in the Gulf Coast orchestra. She was retired, and her husband Edsel was retired as well. On summer nights we would visit them, and they would make us this horrible drink that they liked called rum & soda. We didn’t like it, but since they enjoyed the visits so much, we just drank it anyway. They were very nice—an old-world kind of couple. She suffered a massive stroke right after the storm and died. And he, who was chronically ill, was in much worse shape than she was, up front, he’s moved away with his relatives elsewhere.

My neighbor on my other side, Charlie, he and his wife had left for the storm. But he came back, and we bought trailers together. He bought the same trailer I did. He also bought one for his father-in-law. So, there were these three trailers sort of separated by several hundred yards, but more or less lined up. We wanted a presence on this ruined beach.

Interview Two, July 27, 2007, in Ocean Springs, MS

A few days after the storm, my neighbor thought, well, we need to put a trailer here. We can’t wait for FEMA. We’re gonna have to buy one. I said yeah, I agree. We should buy one. Plus the ones we buy will be bigger than the ones that FEMA would donate. We thought FEMA trailers would come with strings attached. We called up this place in Alabama and they had them in stock. No one had bought them yet. We bought them right on the spot. We held them with our credit cards. Then we thought, oh, this is great, perfect. They delivered them a little over a month after the storm we had a trailer. We made a lot of jokes about living in the trailer.

If you look out there, the ocean is maybe 100 yards from here. The trailer was much closer. It’s half the distance between here and the ocean. So literally, you were right on top of the ocean. When the wind would howl and you’d see the waves frothing up, it wasn’t frightening, but it was interesting—it got your attention for sure. Especially in a trailer.

It was a temporary situation. We knew that. But still, it was an interesting situation. It was sort of cozy. I’d never lived in that close quarters. As you can see, this house in shaped in a U, with the open part of the U facing towards the ocean. The one wing of the U is the kitchen. The flat part—the middle part of the U the living rooms, and all the bedrooms are in the other part of the U. If you’re in one part of the U and another person is in the other part of the U, the beauty of that is that you can’t hear them. You can’t hear her or he and she or he can’t hear you. Which allows you just tremendous peace, so to speak. Being the trailer, you’re sort of accessible at all times. But it was nice. It was different. It was nice at the same time.

Now, you see a lot of human activity here on the beach. Cars passing. You see people working on things that look to be houses, or partially-rebuilt houses. While we lived in the trailer, there wasn’t any of that. There was very little traffic on the beach, except for Red Cross relief trucks. And FEMA inspectors. Or insurance adjusters, and so on. And at night, it was completely deserted. That was a little bit eerie.

On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the storm created a great deal of social disruption. [The storm] separated family members—some who did not return to their ruined houses. It left adolescents or adult children living in tenuous living situations; they did not follow their parents or other family members to permanent residence in other states. As a result, the number of people who don’t have any permanent residence has increased greatly. This was especially prevalent the year after the storm. So, living in a trailer out here on the beach all by yourself at night, occasionally at 2:00am or 3:00am there would be a knock on the door: someone with slurred speech wanting a ride to some remote place, and so on. It’s not a big deal, but those sorts of things which you would never have to deal with normally, that was part of what living in a trailer was. But it was still fun.

We moved out of the trailer shortly after I talked to you. We bought a two-bedroom house in the center of town, which we owned for about six to nine months. Then we resold it.

Was it easy to buy a house? No. A fortuitous circumstance made it easy. My administrative assistant wanted to move out of her undamaged house and move out to the country. She had bought land to build a house. She decided to put her house in town up for sale. It just was a coincidence that that house went up for sale right at the right time. It was a form of insider trading if you will. We ended up buying that house. We ended up selling it as well.

We are sitting now in the house that has been refurbished. I don’t say rebuilt, because the house didn’t need rebuilding per se, at least in terms of foundation walls and roofs. The house itself is made of poured concrete. The house can withstand high winds. It can also withstand the ocean. Unfortunately they don’t make doors and windows and furniture and belongings that can withstand the ocean. Or photographs. Or books. Or china. Things like that. But the basic structure of the house was so strong, there was an F150 wrapped around the doorjam like a pretzel. It had to be pulled apart with a crane. That’s how strong the house was built.

We put in new doors and windows. In some cases, new floors. Other cases, just the old ceramic floors were polished up and cleaned. All the furniture is new. A lot of the books are new. Some of the plumbing and electricity in the kitchen is new. Some of the light fixtures and all of the fans are new as well.

We lived in the trailer for almost six months. We lived in a house in town for over six months. We were not in a great rush to buy things quickly, so we were able to pick and choose a little bit. My wife Lisa put most of the time and energy into picking things. I was working more. I was traveling quite a bit.

I have to confess, I had a certain detachment from the particulars of refurbishing, at least in terms of objects. I completely deny feeling any sort of anger or fear or something you might construe of as post-traumatic stress disorder in regards to the storm experience. The one thing that is prevalent though was a sort of uncoupling from being attached to things, objects, furniture. Bric brac and so on. I’ve lost my desire to acquire things.

It began with the death of my mother, six months before the storm. My father had died twenty years ago. I watched all of their belongings, or at least most of them, end up in a big dumpster, or sold at a garage sale. This is despite of all the things that my four sisters, my brother and I decided to keep. This is outside of all that. Watching all of that go into a big dumpster, I thought to myself, you know, everything you have is going to someday end up in somebody’s garage sale. That was the first lesson.

I’m not an extremely religious person. But for wont of a better word, I would say that God had decided that I hadn’t learned that lesson quite well enough. He decided: a good hurricane ought to set you straight, in terms of your attachment to the material world, so here. Try this one, too. I think I’ve learned that lesson now. I’ve lost my zeal for shopping and acquiring. In fact, I tend to give things away rather than trying to acquire them. Not through any great sense of altruism, necessarily, or through any sense of obligation to the human world. I’d like to be able to claim that, but that would be false. I have to say it’s more due to a sort of like zen-like detachment from wanting to own things. I attribute that in part to the storm. Maybe it’s just a part of turning 50, too. I don’t know.

Weathering the Costs

The houses along the Mississippi Gulf Coast were pulverized by waves and the ocean in a very violent manner. Since the brunt was taken by the houses right on the ocean, or right close to it, by and large those are expensive properties. Not always, but generally speaking they are expensive properties; fairly wealthy people that were directly affected by this. That is one of the big sociologic differences between what happened in New Orleans and what happened on the coast. That’s part of the reason why recovery has been slower in New Orleans than it has been on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Many of the people who own houses on the coast have resources or alternatives available.

Lisa and I had little over a $100,000 in savings that we were able to throw into the battle. We were able to purchase a trailer, out right, and to rebuild the house. Now, we sold the trailer and built the house, but still, all of that takes money. For initial outlay of expense and loan fees and so on. We had the resources to do that. Many people do not. We were very lucky in that regard. We had our own savings.

What we did not have was insurance. Where we sit now [in the living room], you look at the ocean and think, you would have to be crazy not to have flood insurance. Well, I agree with you now. However, prior to August of 2005, nobody here felt that way. The highest the water level ever got, in Hurricane Camille in 1969—you can see that oak tree right down there, just about as far as that oak tree. Nothing further. According to flood records which only go back 150 years, this part of the house, where the house stands, has never been flooded. Ever. At least not in 150 years. I didn’t think flood insurance was necessary. When we first got our mortgage on this house, no flood insurance was required. We don’t have it. We paid off the mortgage a few years ago. But still, never found the need for flood insurance.

So the insurance adjuster came, looked at the house and said, oh, no flood insurance. Well, this was all flood damage and we’ll give you some money for the roof and this and that. Ended up they gave us about $40,000. Our actual losses were more like half a million. But as I said, I had a $100,000 of our own money to spend.

The State of Mississippi stepped up to the plate. People who suffered bad property losses—and this was one of the worst you could have—they would pay up to $150,000. A little more than a year after the storm, we got a $150,000 from the State of Mississippi. I thought it was done pretty well.

It took a long time. But at least you knew generally where you stood in the middle of the process. That was a $150,000 right there. We were out of savings by the time that money came through. So that was a great thing. We were able to continue building our house. We were able to not get too far into debt.

There is something called a Disaster and Casualty Loss Amendment that you can file with your previous tax returns. If you’re in a natural disaster, and you’ve lost property of considerable value, the entire dollar value in loss can be taken as a tax deduction. So whatever gross adjusted income you had in a particular year, you weigh that against your disaster loss. If that exceeds your income for that year, then you go on to the next year, and then you go on to the next year, and then to the next year, until the loss has been spread out over enough number of years. Fortunately, our case was about two and a half years. Although this disaster and casualty loss required lots of documentation, and an auditor came and poured over our records and figures and wanted to see photographs and so, if you were to invest the time to do that, the federal government and the state of Mississippi gave us back every penny we paid in taxes in 2004 and 2005, and part of 2006.

That was just a huge amount of money for us. We’re high wage earners. We pay a lot of taxes. We got so much money back in taxes that it was as if we were fully insured for everything we lost. That essentially has made us whole.

This is another example where the tax code favors the wealthy. Lower and middle-income people do not have that advantage. That is not right. It’s not fair. But nevertheless, that’s the way it is. If you hadn’t paid that much money in taxes, then you wouldn’t have this available to you.

[The inequity] is even worse when you think of it from a situational perspective. If you don’t have a high income, and you have a mortgage, the mortgage still needs to be paid, regardless of whether your house is ruined or not. If you don’t have the resources to rebuild your house because you didn’t have flood insurance because it wasn’t required, and now you can’t pay your mortgage and you can’t sell the house, there’s very little alternative to financial ruin or bankruptcy. We were able to avoid that in large part because of the generosity of the tax code. I’m grateful for it, but I don’t think it’s really right.

So, this is why unlike just about everybody else we know, we did not sue our insurance company. Even though I think our insurance company failed us in many ways. We didn’t have flood insurance, that’s true, but they ascribed all of our damage essentially to flood damage, and none to wind. There’s the other aspect that which the insurance companies routinely include in the concept of flood: when a category five hurricane picks up the ocean and deposits it on top of your house. They call that flood damage, rather than hurricane damage. That is a semantic interpretation which benefits only the insurance company. It certainly doesn’t benefit anyone who’s insured by them.

Most people think of flood as when the creek rises too high. They don’t think of flood as basically the wind picking up the ocean and sending it through the house. Normally, they think of that as wind slash hurricane damage. The insurance companies feel otherwise. They’re the ones that frequently prevail. This has created an unusual kind of charade in the legal sense. There’s all these desperate people who live on the coast who are suing their insurance company for the reasons I just told you, they’re really stuck. What the homeowners are asserting is that the damage to the house was mostly wind-driven and not flood-driven. The insurance companies conspire to conceal that fact and deny them economic redress. They wouldn’t pay their claims, claiming that it was all flood. Of course, the homeowners for the most part are wrong. By the definition of wind and flood, the insurance companies are of course correct. Now the insurance companies are losing these cases in the local courts. One after the other. Wrongly. Technically, they should be winning these cases, because the argument for the homeowners’ doesn’t really hold any water. [Laugh] Excuse the term.

Do I feel bad for the insurance companies? No! They have breached the confidence of their policy holders in a fundamental way by not taking care of them after this storm. There’s a sort of rough, imperfect justice that’s being done through these verdicts which are technically unfairly weighted against the insurance companies. The arguments for the homeowners are just false. Just plain false. But in a larger sense, justice is prevailing, and I personally, privately, am glad to see it.

But the reason that it would be of no advantage to sue my own insurance company is because whatever I would recover in the suit, I would have to give back to the federal government and the state government. Through the disaster and casualty laws, they insured me, so to speak. It would be tilting at windmills to sue my insurance company, to spend all that time and money; whatever I would recover, if anything, I would have to turn around and repay the federal government. That’s the reason I haven’t done it.

I don’t like insurance companies. I say this without any glee, but I’m kind of glad they’re getting screwed on these homeowner cases. Of course, the homeowners are getting away with murder because you’ve got local juries that are going to sympathize with the homeowner and not with the insurance company.

On the Future

Right now, we are afraid that the meteorologic conditions that generated this storm have not gone away. We’re in the midst of a warming cycle. The engine that drives hurricanes here, that makes them so big and dangerous, is that the Gulf of Mexico is very warm. Late in the summer, when it’s at its warmest point, a hurricane accelerates. It turns in strength and size when it gets over the warm waters of the Gulf. There’s nothing that’s changed about that. We fear that we’re in the beginning of a cycle where big storms like the one that we had are going to recur.

There are basically two views: the optimistic and Pollyanna view, in my opinion, is no, this was the storm of the century, that it’ll be another 100 years before there’s another storm like that again. I don’t see why that should be the case. It seems to me that the conditions exist where it could happen again. We live in a world of probabilities. I don’t see any reason why in the next ten years this couldn’t easily happen again.

We are in a debate. Do we want to stay here and tough it out, or do we wait until property values recover and then move? Property values were actually paradoxically high after the storm, because there were so many damaged properties. There was great competition for the properties that were undamaged. That’s changed now. We’re in the midst of a housing slump. Driven in part by the loss of population, there are more houses for sale than there are buyers. Part of it is that industry has disappeared and people can’t find high paying jobs here. The third thing is that even when you can find houses within your price range, unless you already have an insurance policy on it, it’s very difficult to get new hurricane insurance. The insurance companies, which have been badly burned by disaster to start with, still have hundreds if not thousands of lawsuits pending against them; they are understandably reluctant to write new insurance in this area. Most buyers need to have insurance because they have to get a mortgage to buy your house. It’s rare to find a buyer who is going to pay cash for your house and doesn’t care whether they’re going to get insurance or not. That’s especially true for higher-end houses. This is not a good time to sell a house like this.

If another big storm comes, will we evacuate? That’s a good question. If projected storm surge exceeds 20 feet, then yes, absolutely. I’ll evacuate. But only as far as my office, which is a mile and a half inland. I have no intention of evacuating out of town. That’s a fool’s errand. Unless you do it two weeks before the hurricane comes, you have your own set of problems if you try to evacuate a city right as the hurricane is approaching. The traffic, and the pitfalls that can go along with it are worse than just staying put. So yes, I am not afraid of wind damage here at all. This house is a bunker as I told you before. But yeah, if the storm surge is 20 feet or more, we would not stay in this house. We would go inland.

Do our children have an opinion about us staying here? The children are quite sober about that. This is not the house they grew up in. We moved into this house seven or eight years ago. The house they grew up in we don’t own anymore. We sold it. It’s about a mile inward. That’s the house that they would have been attached to more I think. They were in high school already when we moved in here. They would prefer that we keep it, but they would certainly understand if we left.

We’re thinking in a couple of years, when things recover, we may choose to leave this area. Either move further inland, or maybe even move into a different part of the country. We like New England. We’re from New England. Or the east coast of Florida. The DC area. We love the Denver, Boulder area of Colorado as well. We think that would be a healthy environment. At least an interesting place to spend a couple of years. We haven’t made any decisions, but those are the kinds of thing we’re thinking. Not in the next week, or few months, but long-term. We don’t trust that ocean. We’re not afraid of it, we just don’t trust it. [Laugh]

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