Vastness where it doesn’t belong
September 16, 2005
VAIL – On Friday night at 9:15, I stepped off the United Express flight in Eagle into a beautiful crisp Colorado evening. It was almost like I stepped out of a time machine, since exactly 12 hours earlier I drove out of Biloxi, Mississippi. The Labor Day weekend trip to our home in Vail had been planned and anticipated for several weeks, but the pre-courser stop in Biloxi was not part of my plans … or anyone’s plans, for that matter.To start at the beginning of this short story, I am a native Floridian, having grown up in the panhandle of Florida, which is also known as “Lower Alabama,” or LA. My family is spread out on the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Pensacola and are no strangers to hurricanes. I have lived in the Orlando area for 21 years, but watched with the rest of the nation in horror as Hurricane Katrina made clear her intentions to devastate the Gulf Coast.After the hurricane made landfall, I anxiously tried to contact family in Pensacola, Mobile, Grand Bay, Biloxi and New Orleans. I was relieved to find that everyone had either evacuated or dodged the bullet and all were fine. My concern turned next to a client, Biloxi Regional Medical Center, literally in the shadow of the Beau Rivage Casino, a mere hundred yards from the Gulf.I have worked as a commercial interior designer, predominately in the health-care field, for the last 25 years. Biloxi Regional Medical Center is owned by Health Management Associates, who own and manage over 55 hospitals, primarily in the southeastern United States. I have had the privilege of working with Health Management Associates for over 10 years and knew that they would mobilize immediately to protect and assist this facility. We routinely work with the same team of architects, engineers and contractors, and I knew that they would be the first in, but that I would be called in as soon as it was safe.Borrowing a shotgun
My call came on Thursday morning. I was told to get there that day to digitally document the damage to all of the interiors, prior to everything being torn out. I was advised to bring with me whatever I needed to eat or drink for two days, not stop on the road along the way and to come armed. Now remember, I am a country girl from the panhandle and grew up hunting with my uncles for deer, ducks, dove and quail, so the advice to bear arms seemed reasonable, especially considering what was going on down the road in New Orleans.The next flight to Mobile was in two hours and I was on it. I called my Uncle Jimmy, who lives in Mobile, and asked if I could borrow a shotgun and after hearing where I was heading, he readily agreed. The drive from Mobile to Biloxi is only 45 minutes on Interstate 10, but I did not know what to expect, since rumors ran rampant about road closures and detours around damaged bridges and debris.As I crossed the Mississippi state line, I began to notice the damaged trees and road signs along I-10. In Pascagoula, while crossing a long divided four lane bridge over the marshes and river by Ingalls Shipyard, I saw eight to 10 shrimp boats that had been blown three miles inland and crashed into the southern spans. There were three crane barges also blown into the bridge and the eastbound lanes were closed for miles. It is reasonable to assume that boats will be blown across marshy open spaces, but in the next 15 miles to Biloxi, it was very bizarre to see shrimp and sailboats lying in the middle of the woods along the Interstate, no where near any water.As I neared the Interstate 110 exit that takes you from I-10 south right into Biloxi, I braced myself for what I knew would be a disastrous sight. I also began to relive a childhood memory of a trip to Biloxi some 36 years ago, after Hurricane Camille to retrieve my older step-sister, Kay and her new-born. I remembered the bridge sections being out of alignment and uneven from the storm surge, the trees being twisted and broken, foundations where homes used to be, and debris everywhere. As a young child, I also remembered being so afraid that I might look into the ditch and see someone who had drowned. Now, 47 years old, that memory was no less frightening. Ironically enough, Kay still lived in Biloxi and actually stayed for this hurricane, as well. My parents had heard that she was OK and I was going to try to check on her and offer her a ride out, if she wanted. My other step-sister, Tricia, who lived in New Orleans had evacuated to my parents home in Pensacola on Sunday.A small city of RVs
As soon as I exited onto I-110 for the three-mile trip down to the gulf, the scenery changed dramatically. The obvious effects of a storm surge, water and wind were everywhere. Trees, those that were standing, were bare of any leaves and had trash and debris waving from their branches. Homes that were standing had no roofs, and where homes used to stand, were piles of broken wood and debris, or just bare foundations. Power poles were snapped and power lines draped everywhere. Boats were wrecked high and dry in parking lots and I can promise you that they were not just parked there. Blackhawk helicopters and C130 supply planes buzzed the skies and it seemed like a normal course of events. The bridge crossed Biloxi Bay and in the distance stood the high-rise casinos, and at first I thought they looked unscathed. That thought passed quickly. As I-110 ended at the beach, the devastation was total. If you have ever seen the Grand Canyon or one of the gorgeous Gore Range mountain views here, you know how hard it is to take in such vastness, especially in pictures. I should end this story here, because no one and no words can describe the scene. An area that I have visited for work and play for years was unrecognizable. When Biloxi Regional Medical Center was acquired by Health Management Associates many years ago, our design team made some fun of it, since water often leaked in the windows during a normal summer storm. Major remedial work was done on the windows and the hospital was waterproofed over subsequent years and evidently, it was worth every penny. As I made my way to the few blocks to the hospital, I was amazed and thrilled to see that the hospital had sustained no major damage. The roof was pealed back in some areas, a few windows were broken and signs and awnings were damaged, but that was nothing considering the surrounding buildings were flattened.I met up with the corporate engineer, Randy Holly, and the whole Disaster Relief Team for Health Management Associates, including mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers, structural engineers, roofing contractors, general contractors, restoration crews and facilities staff from other sister hospitals in the southeast. The immediate needs included not just cleaning up and drying out, but assessing damage to the infrastructure of the building, bringing in tankers of diesel fuel to run the huge generators that provide critical power to the hospital, and getting a new roof on the building.
A small city of RVs had been driven in and circled like wagons behind the hospital’s medical office building to house this army of experts. This group knew what to do and how to do it, and that “know how” came from first hand experience. This same scene was played out one year ago when Hurricane Charlie blew into the quaint, sleepy little town of Punta Gorda on Florida’s southwest coast. Health Management Associates owns Charlotte Regional Medical Center, which sits right on the river in Punta Gorda and it took a direct hit from Hurricane Charlie. The emergency generator, while it had fuel, was older and managed to hang in there long enough for the hospital staff to med-evac out the last remaining patients after the hurricane. The roof was completely blown off, all windows blown in on the west side, water blew in and soaked the entire hospital, but this same team worked to get the emergency department was back up and running in 162 hours after the hurricane. Within weeks the entire hospital was functioning again and receiving patients.Biloxi Regional Medical Center was lucky, if that is possible. They went into an emergency lockdown, but its generators kicked on as soon as it lost power. If a window blew in, instead of leaving it and hoping for the best, the facilities staff when into the breached room like a SWAT team with pre-cut plywood, screw gun and man-power, boarded the window and sealed the door. Their planning for such a catastrophic event saved lives and made it possible for them to re-open their emergency department in the hours after the storm passed. The support of their parent corporation and the resources that they provided, made it possible to serve the community of Biloxi immediately, which is quite possibly one of the only bright stories of the entire disaster.Little old ladyI immediately got started with cameras documenting all evidence of damage from water and wind, starting with the three-story medical office building, and then moved on to the hospital. From the roof, I took pictures of the area at sunset, and it would have been beautiful, if it had not been so incredibly destroyed. I photographed five floors of the six-story building, before heading back over to the RV camp to check in. I assumed I would eat what I brought and sleep in the truck I drove from Mobile. I was quite surprised to find that the general contractor had brought down a gas grill from their main office in Birmingham and there was actually hot food for the team. Stories began to unfold about the days before I arrived and how the elderly little lady behind the RV camp, whose home miraculously survived, had been adopted by the team and they were sharing food and water with her.
Some of the guys had actually gone over and cleaned out her yard for her and patched a hole in her roof. She was alone and apparently was the only person in the neighborhood to stay, so who knows when she would have gotten any help.Arrangements had also been made for me to actually sleep in the hospital in a vacant patient room. There was no running water or plumbing, but there were lights and air-conditioning, thanks to the generator, so it was like the Ritz-Carlton as far as I as concerned. During the night there was some looting and gas siphoning in the neighborhood, so I was glad the hospital had National Guard troops at the entrance. The firearm turned out to be not necessary, but if I had had to sleep in the truck, it would have been under my pillow.After a few hours of sleep, I woke up, and made a mental note to avoid hospital beds in the future. I used bottled water to brush my teeth and do a quick wipe down, put on clean clothes and headed out to finish up the photography. I finished in about a couple of hours and was urged to leave. The sooner I was gone, the sooner I would be out of potential harm’s way and that would be one less thing for those guys to worry about. I really didn’t argue. There were two of us heading to the Pensacola Airport and we were driven by Danny Holly, Randy’s son.Signs of recoveryOn the way out of Biloxi, I again shook my head in disbelief of what I was seeing. But as we crossed the bay bridge going north, I saw one of the first signs of immediate relief – an armada of power company trucks and high-reach baskets fully extended to the skies, with workmen carefully orchestrating the crossing of a major power line over the bridge. I saw and photographed about six, but as we drove underneath, noticed another two or three on each side of the road. As we made our way to the east, we detoured from I-10 down to Highway 90, due to the damaged eastbound bridges over Pascagoula Bay.The detour took us another hour of traveling and gave us a much more detailed view of the inland damage. We saw mile after mile of destroyed retail stores, homes and businesses along this major route. Happily, we also saw food-and-water distribution points, one open pharmacy and two open bank branches. As we neared the end of the detour back on I-10, we also saw numerous gas lines, miles long, and were so thankful for the full tank that Hertz had for me at the Mobile airport the day before.
Back on I-10, near Mobile, the landscape changed to the more normal scenery, and our ride became a calm recollection of this experience as well as the aftermath of Hurricane Charlie in Punta Gorda. We stopped in at my mother’s home in Pensacola to drop off the firearm to be returned to Uncle Jimmy and re-assure my mom that I was fine, no worse the wear. She cried … mothers do that. Danny dropped us off at the airport, and we made our way back to reality. I boarded a flight to Orlando for the one-hour flight. Back in the Orlando airport, I changed the contents of my suitcase and met my husband for the previously arranged flight to Eagle. This morning, I was having coffee and breakfast at the Highway 6 Cafe in Eagle-Vail, where they encourage patrons to have breakfast and get gas. The Vail Daily requested stories from locals about the hurricane and their connection to it. I am sure that they expected and wanted a three paragraph journalistic account of someone’s experience, but frankly, it’s not possible. So, I offer this, somewhat long, but very real firsthand story of my experience. Vail, Colorado