I wrote this story for my newspaper, "The Tooele Transcript Bulletin"
I just thought those of you who know me would like to see what I've been doing all week.
“It’s gone, there is nothing left. The town is gone” said Christiana Champagne, survivor of hurricane Katrina in a telephone interview with “The Transcript Bulletin Wednesday.
“It is terrible; there is no Bay St. Lewis, Mississippi. There is no city. The whole town is gone. Waveland is gone. The bridge is gone. The bridge for the train is gone. The beach is gone,” she said.
Champagne, sister of Tooele resident Stacie Norman, weathered the storm hunkered down in a wooden triplex less than a mile from the shore of Mississippi Sound. Speaking from her “MaMa’s” home in Alexander, Louisiana, Champagne told of a natural disaster beyond the scope of human imagination.
“It is devastating to see that city,” said Norman, who watched the television helplessly as her mother, sister and aunt were battered by the wind and water of Katrina. “Our roots run deep down there.”
Champagne’s Bay St. Louis coastal town is just a few miles from Gulfport, Mississippi and 45 minutes from New Orleans, Louisiana. She had sent her three children to Ohio to visit their father less than a week before the Katrina disaster.
Champagne and her fiancé, Steve, stayed in their home, which had survived hurricane Camille, “because we had no money to leave. It was the only thing we could do,” she said.
Her mother lives in a brick house some 10 miles from the coast in Diamond Head, Mississippi, but the house was surrounded by pine trees and Champagne did not want to hole up with her mother because she was afraid the trees would fall and crush the house.
Miraculously, her mother’s house was spared. Although trees crashed down all around the building, some missing it by as little as three inches, none damaged the home.
Without enough cash to board the windows, Champagne and her fiancé stocked up on food and watched from their home as the storm lashed the coast. By some miracle the windows did not break, but she watched as the wind bent 50 foot high trees to touch the ground before whipping back the other direction to touch down again.
“We never realized we were in big trouble, until we were flooded,” she said. She is one of the fortunate few whose house is still standing, although it was swamped with about a foot of water.
After the storm, Champagne began to understand the scope of the disaster. “We were very fortunate,” she said. “There were bodies floating, bodies hanging from trees.”
Champagne said her neighbor, the coroner for Hancock County, estimated the death toll in the county will be over 600.
“There are so many people that have lost their lives,” she said.
This isn’t the first hurricane Champagne has witnessed, “I have been in them before, but never like this,” she said. “There were a lot of people who couldn’t leave.”
Although she was in something of a communications black-out, Champagne did hear a lot of rumors, including stories of the local hospital collapsing, killing everyone inside of it.
Champagne and her fiancé spent the first day after Katrina in a rescue effort. “You don’t even understand what its like,” she said. “We seen people on top of buildings, people with six week old babies without diapers or formula. People crying and screaming.”
With the use of their truck, Champagne and her fiancé were able to help people. But the truck was little protection against the heat and the mosquitoes.
Rather than spending the night in her hot, swampy house, Champagne chose to sleep in the truck, but she didn’t do a lot of sleeping because of the blood hungry mosquitoes.
“I haven’t slept for so long, I’m not sure I can sleep again,” she says
Tuesday, as stores of water and food began to dwindle, “it was total chaos,” she said. People began looting and the police, who had lost all of their cars and much of their equipment in the storm, were unable to control the unruly population.
Shelters, damaged by the storm and unable to continue providing food and water for the refugees, sent people back out into the street, she said. No outside assistance was seen until Wednesday morning, when Champagne said she saw the National Guard bringing in supplies.
“There are so many people in so much need,” she said.
“We need ice, we need drinking water. The water here is not good, we have been told not to drink it,” she said. “I assume people need clothing, I lost all of my clothes.”
Champagne, her fiancé, mother and aunt drove to Alabama Wednesday where they plan to rest for a few days before returning to what is left of their home.
As far as plans for the future, “as crazy as this sounds, I haven’t even thought about it,” she said.
“We know what we’ve left. We know what we’ll be going back to,” she said. They have left a place where “we have no power, we have no water, we have no food, we have no clue.” But, she said. They plan to “go back home and deal with it.”
“It is nothing I would want anyone to go through,” she adds.
Through it all, Champagne says she is grateful. “We’re all alive, that’s all I can say,” she says. “Thank God. We were not even a mile from the beach.”
Champagne said she has faired better than many because she has a house and some help. “There are so many homeless people, they done even have a slab, (where their house once stood),” she said.
“Any support would be so greatly appreciated, you don’t even know. There are so many people who have nothing.” She said. “We need a lot of prayers and a lot of help.”