Candace Strahan – The Survivor

Candace Strahan PortraitCandace Strahan, 57, and her husband, Jim Strahan, 57, survived the storm in their Bay St. Louis, Mississippi home—a two-story house built 1500 feet from the beach. They remained on their second floor as the ocean surged through their first floor. The waves lapped ceilings that were 10 feet high. But unlike most of the neighboring houses, their house did not collapse. I met with Ms. Strahan on March 13th, 2006, in a Shoney’s restaurant in Picayune, MS, one of the few Picayune restaurants open six months after the storm.

“Katrina Day” was our 25th wedding anniversary. We were supposed to be in Scotland or Ireland. But a year ago Christmas, my husband was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. He had Hodgkin’s disease 30 years ago. I don’t know if this is a recurrence or something that happened because of the radiation, but anyway, he’s got this. It kind of put a crimp in our travel plans.

My husband works at Stennis Space Center. We could have gone there. But I had this frying pan or the fire mentality. The eye of the storm looked like it was going right over Stennis. I kept asking Jim: “What is the shelter out there?” He said: “I think we’re just gonna be in my office building.” I’ve never seen his office. I asked: “Are we any better off?” It’s closer to the Pearl River. When the United States government builds a government facility, they build it pretty strong. We probably would have been fine. But they don’t take pets. We would have had to leave our six cats behind.

By Sunday night there were phone calls from panicked family saying: “You’ve got to get out of there! You’ve got to get out of there!” We kept going: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ll go to Stennis.” I told my brother: “If it looks really bad, we will go to Stennis and leave the cats at home.” That’s how I got my brother off my back.

But I really didn’t intend to do that. We packed everything. We had the cat carriers all lined up. We had the water in the car. We had everything ready to go, but instead of putting it all in the car, at the last second we started throwing things up to the second story of the house. And I don’t know. We stayed in the house.

The Hurricane Experience

Sunday night we went to bed. Kind of. I mean, the lights and the TV were on. A couple of times the police came up the street. They flashed searchlights into windows, checking to see who was home. I can tell you this: nobody did a bullhorn to say “Get out, or you’re under any mandatory evacuation.” Nobody ever said that. But I do think they were checking to see who was still there.

The lights went out between 3:00am and 3:30am. We were in the bedroom. We were getting some gusts. We’d get up, walk around and check on things. On TV, we saw that the hurricane was hitting the southern part of Louisiana. It was coming ashore and losing some intensity.

They always talk about wind speed. They don’t talk about the storm surge.

The wind picked up. My husband got up and took a shower about 5:30am. He figured, there was still hot water in the hot water heater, I’m gonna get me a shower. Clean guy that he is. Lazy person that I am, I said I’m going to stay in bed a while longer.

The wind really blew. It was howling pretty good. It was becoming more of a continuous sound, not just the gusting-type winds. We’ve been through enough storms. We’ve been through some and you could tell there were little tornadoes—where the pine trees would snap off. Fifteen feet off the ground, you could hear them popping. Well, this one wasn’t that. This was more of a continuous blow. It grew stronger.

Full daylight came and we watched big, big pine trees blow completely down in our backyard. We’d never seen that before. They were starting to go slowly. Not just lie down–they were going more and more down. I would say: “Jim, the one in the back, it’s about to go.” We’d go to the back. We watched some major trees—trees that have been there since before Camille—big big pine trees slowly going all the way down. Never had we ever seen anything like this before. Those had to have been 100+ mph continuous winds. Not gusts. Continuous winds for at least three hours.

The sky was dark. It wasn’t that yellowish kind of look. It was dark and it was raining and the wind was making the rain go sideways. We knew we were in the midst of a hurricane, there was no doubt about that. There was debris blowing around. But I wasn’t seeing any big chunks of flying rooftops or any of that. I didn’t hear tornadoes. I’ve heard tornadoes before. Being a geologist, we had some chasing us in Oklahoma one time on a field trip. I’ve had that, “Oh, there’s a train coming behind us!” feeling. A tornado sounds like a train coming. I didn’t hear that.

But this was a very loud wind. Constant. There were sounds every now and then, like pine cones, or branches hitting the house. Something broke a window upstairs. From then on, Jim held a mattress to the window to keep the wind from tearing off the roof.

About 9:00am, we noticed water coming up the street. I said, “Jim, do you think that’s rainwater?” He starts looking at it. He says, “No, I don’t. I don’t think that’s rain water at all.” It was coming up the street pretty fast. It wasn’t just overflowing ditches and all: this was the storm surge coming up the street.

We started running things upstairs. Our suitcases. My laptop. As the water started coming up, I started grabbing my cats and throwing them up the stairs. A couple of them didn’t want to go. I got scratched up pretty good. We had put some bags with some nonperishable food—stuff you could just eat, you know. A big five gallon jug of water. I said, “Jim, take the water upstairs, take it all there. Everything you can grab, take upstairs.” Because we could see this water. “Do you think it’s gonna keep coming?” “I don’t know.”

It got all the way up to the porch. Now it’s two feet. Cars were floating outside.

The water was in the house. I looked down, and there’s one of my cats. It’s swimming. Jim starts coming through the hallway from the bedroom and the water’s up to his knees. He looks down, and there’s a cat swimming next to him. He grabs little Phoebe up, and he grabs her up under one arm, and he’s got something else under the other arm. I said: “Jim, I think we’ve gotta go up. We can’t stay down here anymore.” It was really coming up fast then. We both ran up the steps and we stayed up there. And it just kept coming up. We had ten foot ceilings downstairs and it got all the way up.

There was an upstairs balcony, overlooking the great room. Jim held the mattress against the broken window and I kept checking around the corner. We had an ax upstairs. There’s a walk-in closet in one of the bedrooms with a pull-down for the attic. I said: “Jim, get the attic stairs down.” I held the mattress for a while. “Get the attic stairs down because if it keeps coming up then we’re going to have to go all the way up.” Of course the cats had gone under the beds. I didn’t know if we would get them all up into the attic.

I kept thinking, what if I end up out in the water? I can’t have a purse. I gotta have some ID. I’ve gotta have some money. I had this zip lock bag. What am I going to do with a zip lock bag? I’m gonna need my hands and all. I stuck it down my jeans. I had my little CD with my pictures. I had my tax returns on CD for the last year. I said: “Well, I gained this weight this year, and my pants are so tight, even if I was in the water, nothing’s coming out of these pants.” So I stuffed them down my jeans.

We were in the upstairs bedroom. I’m standing there and my husband’s holding the mattress, and we both look down at the floor. The carpeting goes whhoompf—some big wave beneath us pushes the floor up. I said: “If it goes any higher, you know, the whole wall beneath us may collapse and this floor’s going to drop.”

From the window, I watched other peoples’ roofs. One had been floating up the street in front of the house. It kept going. I watched it go further up the street. It kind of stopped. I said: “Jim, that roof stopped moving.” Sure enough, it started, slowly, going back towards the beach.

God bless our contractor, and my brother who helped design the house and everybody that helped us, for we built this house with 2x6s instead of 2x4s, and all the hurricane straps and the extra wood. Instead of building the studs this close together we put them this close together. It saved us. Our house did not collapse.

Water was still leaving the house at 6:00pm. We probably could have gotten out of there that evening, right at dusk. It was still daylight enough to see. But we were pretty well fixed upstairs. It was amazing what all I had upstairs: screw drivers, and tools, and stuff. We had this other room which had a little bed in there, so we were fine: we could spend the night up there. The other closet upstairs had some old boots so we could at least put sturdier shoes on.

This is where the stupidity factor plays in. I didn’t think ahead that my husband’s medical condition really was tenuous. Even a scratch could have meant his life. And here he is holding a mattress against a broken window, glass all over the place. He’s on blood thinners. If he’d gotten cut, he could have bled to death. There was no one to help. As far as what kind of germs and stuff’s floating around in that water, you know, I was so afraid that even a scratch—I didn’t want to take any chances with him in the dark. I said: “Jim, let’s just stay up here until we can see what we’re dealing with.”

That night, it was just black down there. There was a little bit of moonlight. There were no walls left. It was kind of creepy because you could hear stuff settling down in the muck. I didn’t know if there was something down there. I wasn’t worried about snakes or alligators. I wondered if there were dogs. Or people. I was more worried about the two-legged kind of critters.

It was the hottest night. We just sat there sweating. I told Jim: “If we live through tonight, I can’t spend another night in here. I will die. Because we can’t breathe up here.” Not to mention the mosquitoes, the mud, and the stink.

Afterwards

Just to get out of the house we had to climb out over everything we’d ever owned. From eight feet down there was no sheet rock. Even the artwork on the walls—paintings, prints, everything was just in a pile. We had to carefully make a little path to the door. The front door was gone. The walls were gone. The cars had floated all over the place. We lost both cars. People came in the house later and said: “Oh, you gutted your house.” I said: “No, Katrina did that for us.”

The front porch was still there. But there were mountains of other peoples’ houses in the front yard and trees you had to climb. You had to pick your way over that. To get to the end of the street took us an hour and a half. We were so tired. It was hot. The air was so still. It’s like all the air got sucked out. Then there’s this hot, humid stuff that comes in from the Gulf.

We saw our neighbor Marilyn and her son Richard. Marilyn’s house was real bad. Richard had been exploring a little bit and unfortunately found a lady, one of our neighbors, from up on the beach. She was deceased. They were still looking for her husband. They found the husband a few days later, a good half mile from their house. They floated that far back. When I think about how close we came to being in that same position. I mean, they were older, but still, it didn’t matter how old you were. They thought they were in a hurricane proof home. A big mansion on the beach.

Nothing could stand up to what hit that beach. A 30, 35-foot wall of water that must have hit the beach right at our street. Our house at the slab was 18½ feet. And I saw at least another 10 feet myself in the house and there were waves on top of that.

When we got to the street corner, a Georgia power company was there trying to clear the road. Their cell phones worked. It was Southern Link—a walkie-talkie thing, and we got a message to my stepson. It was the only message we got out: “We’re alive! Come get us!”

We ran into some UPI photographers. The press is always there first. They had a vehicle. We got a ride with them to the command center—up by the public library. From there we walked to my cousin’s funeral home.

They had taken water, but they’d already swept it out. The generator was back up and running, too. Because his funeral home acts as the morgue for the county, he was considered a critical responder. He was given special treatment. I told him that we needed a place to stay until somebody could come get us. He said: “Stay here, no problem, I don’t know where. You might have to sleep on a sofa or an air mattress, or on a soggy floor.” I said: “I don’t care.”

He had lights on. He had a fan. A little TV that was working. A refrigerator. A coffee pot. I felt like I was in hog heaven. I mean, we had civilization at the funeral home. There was a gang of people there, which was good. Because…it was spooky. To be in the middle of a devastated area at night in the dark. It was like Fort Apache. At least at the funeral home there were people.

We got reports–now I didn’t see any of this–that there were incidents of people being robbed in broad daylight. Everybody was saying: “Don’t go anywhere alone.” Because I mean if you had a car, and you had some gasoline, there were people out there with guns who would just assume take it from you. They knew the Waveland police department had been flooded out. All of their cars but two were underwater. The bad guys know these things.

My cousin saved us by taking us in. We stayed two nights at the funeral home. I don’t think we could have stayed in that house and dealt with the heat.

We worked on a couple of ways to get out. We had a cousin up in Jackson, and Jim’s family in north Louisiana. If we could just get to someplace where we could buy a car or something. I knew you had to get out of this disaster area. You had to get way away from New Orleans, from all of south Mississippi, from all of south Alabama. You had to go all the way to Florida. You had to get way away from the whole thing and do it pretty quickly, because gasoline—you couldn’t find gas, and the situation was getting pretty tense. So the sooner we got out, the sooner we could establish something, the better.

Plus, I had those cats to worry about. I had to leave them upstairs. It was wide open. I had plenty of food for them up there, but they’re housecats—they’re not used to dealing with anything. They were so shocked, scared, they were hiding underneath stuff. I didn’t think they’d leave. But I was afraid other critters might get in there after them.

Jim’s son Rick came on the morning of Friday, about 6:00am. It was just about dawn. I was never so glad to see anybody in my life. Rick and his friend packed us up, and we went back to the house. We climbed through all that again. I got one cat because I had one cat carrier. I could only take one that day. I took the youngest. We went down to Crestview Florida where our daughter Janet and her family lives. Now Janet had said, come and bring the cats, and Janet really meant it. So we stayed with her.

The next weekend Janet brought us back to get the cats. They were all sitting up there. They were hiding. But they were all upstairs. They’d just about eaten all the food, but they were all waiting for us. I got everyone of them out of there.

We went back to Crestview. After the first week we moved to the Holiday Inn. I left the cats with Janet, at her house—it was just across the road. We were there about a week when we found out the Red Cross would pay for that room. It eventually became part of that FEMA program. The Red Cross paid for about 36 days. It was very nice. It helped us a lot. In the meantime, friends of ours got word that we needed a house. They had a rental property here in Picayune that they let us rent. That’s where we are now.

I was born and raised in this area. Every summer of my life we would go to the Gulf Coast, even if it was in a rented house in Pass Christian or something. When I was really little, my family still had a place in East Beach, in Biloxi. It was a little house. And I can remember being a little bitty baby and watching those white caps come in. My mother put me on the porch for a nap and I’d watch those white caps. I don’t want to ever say I’m not going back to the Gulf Coast, but I don’t think I’ll ever put everything I own in a house that’s right there that I can’t pick it up and take it out of harm’s way. That was too much to lose. I’m not going to lose that again. I can walk away from it this time, but I’m not going to be that foolish again.

I had my great grandmother’s piano in that front hall. My grandmother and mother entrusted it to me. Upright carved beautiful. It floated out the front door! That thing had to have weighed 800 pounds. I found it in the yard of my neighbor, four houses up the street. Smashed to bits.

I had my bedroom set that I’d had ever since I was in high school. Antique furniture. My parents got that for me down in Magazine Street, in an antique store when we moved back Uptown, in New Orleans. I had this big room in this big house and I needed a big bedroom set so I had a big armoire, walnut with the glass doors, beveled mirrors, and a big dresser and a little washstand with the marble tops and all. Big double bed and all. Of course my husband is six foot three. He’s been squeezing into this little double bed all these years—he probably doesn’t miss this bed that much. He’s been a good sport all these years because that was my antique bed. So anyway, all of that’s gone.

Let me tell you about the last things I found. Before the storm, I packed up all of my jewelry. My wedding rings, my good pearls, everything. I had them in a red, vinyl totebag with a cat on the front. It did not make it up the stairs. I had everybody on the street looking for my totebag. Couldn’t find it, couldn’t find it.

Three months after the storm, we finally got some help in the house. A couple of volunteers. They started moving some of the kitchen cabinets. Now the totebag had been in the study—in the other part of the house. My husband finds the totebag underneath all that gunk in the kitchen. We find most of my jewelry. But one little bag floated out. The one with my wedding rings.

Three weeks later, the Corps of Engineers is outside. Jim happened to be there that day. They’ve got this big Caterpillar, with the big claw in the front, and they’re pulling big trees and stuff away from the front of the house. Jim happens to see this little red thing drop down out of the claw—and I told him to be looking for this—he says: “Hold off, guys, wait a second.” He reaches down, and there is my little bag with my wedding rings and all in it. My great-aunt’s diamond earrings. I said: “Jim, some things I was meant to have.”

The last thing I found was on the last day we were there. We’d sold the house to these other people. They’d pulled the baseboards away from the walls. In all the crumpled up sheetrock down in-between the walls, something was shining. I had a little trowel. I dug through all this stuff. The little bit of sun coming through the walls shone on this thing. I picked it up, and this is what it was. [Showing] This is my rosary that my grandmother gave me on my confirmation day. You see my initials on it? And the date? Candace Ann Verlander. It’s Sterling Silver. It had been in a box, the original box. The Archbishop blessed it on the day that I made my confirmation. It was in a drawer, in a desk, in that study, and it ended up in the wall. It’s like my grandmother was reaching down and saying: “You better get your butt back to church, girl! I saved you.”

This is the last thing I found in the house. She wanted to make sure that it came back with me.

What’s the next phase? I don’t know. Right now, I’m going to get my husband through this, and you know, then we’ll do it together. We’re both kind of adventurous I’d guess you’d say. You just have to move on with it. There was nothing that was going to change that storm. I mean there was nothing we were going to do to stop it. When you live on the Gulf Coast, you’re going to have hurricanes. Everybody knows it. If you can’t deal with them, you shouldn’t live there.

I can remember Jim saying to me: “If you think you’re strong enough to do this, I’m with you.” When I think back on that, I wonder what he meant by “strong enough?” Did he mean physically strong enough or emotionally strong enough? Because emotionally strong enough, I knew that. But physically strong enough, I mean, to swim for it? Now that we look back on it, we had no business staying there. Not with his medical condition. What we ended up facing and what I know some people went through, physically, we were very, very weak. Some of our neighbors did not make it.

He’s 57, the same age as I am. He’s got to undergo a stem cell transplant. The stem cells will be harvested from Jim’s own body. What they do is harvest your cells, then hit you with a bunch of chemotherapy. When they’ve totally knocked out everything in your system, they put your cells back in you and reestablish your immune system. So he’s going to be a bubble-boy for a couple of weeks. That’s why we can’t face rehabbing the old house. He can’t be around the mold or the construction or any of that.

The fact that they’re finding him strong enough to undergo this is a good thing. He’s in good spirits. I’m not going to fight him on anything. As much as I’d like to be part of the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, you just have to keep your priorities straight. They’ll come a time. I mean, I’ve already been on-line looking at houseplans and this and that…

I planned that house. I designed every inch of it. I had every square inch of that house down—I measured every bit of my furniture, exactly where it was going to go before it was ever a nail driven. I loved that house. And right now, it’s very hard for me to even drive over there to see. We sold the house as is. Someone else is taking on rebuilding it. As far as we were concerned, if someone hadn’t bought it, we were gonna bulldoze it. We couldn’t leave it sitting empty, as a hazard. I was very thrilled that somebody wanted to take it on. But I realized that they’re not going to do it the way I would do it. It’s their project now. I have to turn loose that and move on to something else. You see my whole life has been—I went from being an artist, to being a geologist. Then I had a screenprinting business, so I was back being an artist again, then what did I do? I had my little shop for a while. Then I worked for a doctor for a while. I mean, you just roll with it.

My husband—I don’t think he’s ever really going to be strong enough to work in the yard and all like he used to do. I just want him around for a while more. I want to get over to England and Ireland like we planned, you know? I’ll tell you this: we did not survive that damn storm to lose him now. He’s gonna do fine with all this other stuff. But I worry sometimes, that he stayed in that storm for me. I think he really would have wanted to go to the shelter. He won’t say that. You know. He will never put that on me. But I worry that he did.


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