» Wind, Rain, Sleet, or Snow
Wind, Rain, Sleet, or Snow
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
March 1, 1999
I am about to enter one of the only places on earth where blizzards, lightning, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and heat waves rage twenty-four hours a day. But what does one wear to a place like that? After a fair amount of pondering, I decide to blow off the goggles, waterproof GoreTex parka, and rubber boots and go with a brown jacket and khaki slacks.
The pilgrimage I am making is to a spot where torrential rains and gale-force winds are favored over sunny skies and calm seas any day. Of course, you have to be something of a weather nut to see this generic high-rise, in an office park on the northern fringes of Atlanta, as consecrated ground. But that’s what it looks like to me, knowing that beyond those glass doors is the headquarters of The Weather Channel, the cable TV empire built on the simple premise of broadcasting weather around the clock. And, over the course of a severe drought, a tropical storm, a flash flood, and all things El Ni–o, my favorite channel.
My great expectations admittedly lead to a letdown. The weather inside The Weather Channel is, of all things, climate-controlled. And its operations, spread out over six of the building’s eight floors, look pretty much like the offices of any other modern corporation. But my disappointment is short-lived, as I am soon escorted to the 8,500-square-foot studio and forecast center the proverbial eye of the storm. There, behind a huge brass globe, sits the very set I’ve viewed from the comfort of my armchair, and countless hotel rooms.
The stage strikes me as much smaller than it appears on TV, diminished by clusters of desks equipped with all sorts of computers. Which is only fitting, because it’s at those desks that the meteorologists compile and analyze data for the official TWC forecasts and prognostications. And therein lies The Weather Channel’s secret: Unlike other cable channels, it gets its programming from real scientists, with promos provided by Mother Nature herself, free of charge.
Two of TWC’s “programmers,” and part of its eighty-person staff of meteorologists, are Dave Houtz and Chris Samsury. Both belong to different teams that coordinate forecasts with the aid of a half-dozen computer models and various “products” from the National Weather Service, including balloon soundings, pressure readings, and satellite imagery. There are intangibles such as Tom Moore to factor in, too, explains Houtz, who predicts the amount of rain and snow due across the United States in the next twelve hours. “Tom grew up near Lake Erie, which gives him a real advantage in forecasting lake-effect storms,” says Houtz. “He knows the differences in water and air temperature that trigger major snow events, all the variables that computers aren’t always able to process.”
Samsury’s team focuses on quality control, monitoring the local forecasts carried by each of the 9,000 cable systems to ensure accuracy. It also provides immediate backup to those systems in case of lightning strikes, hurricanes, or other emergencies, which tend to occur wouldn’t you know it? during severe storms when updated weather is needed most. Tom Moore acts as liaison between the fifty-plus behind-the-scenes meteorologists and the twenty-six OCMs, or on-camera meteorologists, who participate in twice-daily weather briefings. The talent tends to improvise what they’re going to say, focusing on two or three basic themes and running down the necessary stats.
This same information is also utilized by the on-air voices of the radio version of The Weather Channel, which services more than 200 U.S. stations from a bank of booths around the corner, and by a separate staff in a studio down the hail, beneath a row of clocks marking la hora local in San Juan, Mexico City, S‹o Paulo, Lima, Santiago, and Buenos Aires. This is The Weather Channel Latin America, two years old and two million households strong, broadcasting in Spanish and Portuguese all the way to Tierra del Fuego. Upstairs, this vast data is being filtered onto www.weather.com, one of the ten most-visited Internet sites in the world.
Science, and the orderly process applied to an unorderly discipline, still doesn’t fully explain the quiet, workmanlike atmosphere and dearth of raised voices, ringing alarms, and flashing radars at TWC. But, then, it happens to be the weather equivalent of a slow news day: fair and unseasonably mild over most of the United States, with nothing much to report other than some showers in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s sort of benign,” shrugs Dave Houtz, an assessment reflected in the empty row of chairs on standby in case of severe storms and in the impassive faces of the technicians illuminated by a bank of monitors in Master Control. If violent weather was breaking out, the crew would be scrambling to roll out the live boxes, page turns, slab moves, and other video effects.
At least the pace never slacks for the afternoon OCMs, who work two ninety-minute on-camera shifts a day. While they don’t necessarily carry as much weight as the full-time meteorologists in calling a forecast, their task is no less complex, having to point at a blue screen, clicker in hand to call up the desired graphic, while watching themselves on a monitor, making sure they’re pointing to the right places, and glancing at the flashing lights counting down to the next station break.
It’s clear the folks at TWC love their work, because when they’re not actually doing the weather, they’re talking about it. Take Bill Keneely, a familiar face from the on-the-scene coverage of last year’s Hurricanes Bonnie, Hermine, Georges, and Earl. The occupational hazards of going on location are bad enough, he says, telling tales of killer debris and shocks from microphones (“You get pretty good amperage running through you”), but the small details can be a headache, too. Like local pronunciations. “As you go west, a lot of 0 sounds turn into I sounds,” he says. Seattle and Boston are particularly tricky, the former for its Native American names, the latter for its peculiar Yankee bent.
“Texas might be the toughest state,” says Keneely. “How do you say M-E-X-I-A?”
“Muh-hay-yuh,” I tell him.
Jill Brown wanders over to us during a break from her broadcast. Another of the more recognizable on-air faces, Brown achieved notoriety for doing forty-five minutes in the eye of Hurricane Fran back in 1996. “The best I ever did was the eye wall,” Keneely sighs.
Jim Cantore pops into Brown’s cubicle. Cantore’s the gonzo extremist, the cowboy 0CM always volunteering to cover the nastiest weather events. “The worst ones for me are the ones that don’t amount to much,” he says excitedly. Most haven’t disappointed. Some even surprise, like the second landfall of Hurricane Andrew on Baton Rouge in 1992. “We went to bed thinking it would wash through. I woke up when the air conditioner in my motel room blew in.”
Over in another cubicle, Mike Bono and Dennis Smith, two other OCMs, are talking with John Hope, TWC’s dean of hurricanes. Hope pauses to explain the appeal of his specialty. “Hurricanes are long-range phenomena that develop slowly,” he says, rating 1998 as an exceptional year. “We had thirteen hurricanes, and the average is nine. There were seven landfalling hurricanes. That’s the first time that’s happened this century.”
Hurricanes aren’t the only ratings booster. “Blizzards are just as popular,” says Hope, citing the big blast of 1996. “That was in the Northeast, where the largest concentrations of people are. It’s not the same when one blows through Utah.”
Ratings points during severe weather weren’t on the mind of John Coleman, the legendary Chicago weathercaster, when he thought up The Weather Channel almost twenty years ago. All he wanted was more than the one minute he was allotted to cover the entire country coast to coast during his daily appearances on ABC’s Good Morning America. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a station that focused on weather without those time constraints? Coleman’s idea synced neatly with the advent of cable television all those new channels begging for programming and he found a willing partner in Landmark Communications, a Virginia-based media company.
“I was turned on by how cable was going to revolutionize how consumers would receive information,” admits Michael J. Eckert, who began at TWC on Day One as a sales manager and is now its CEO. But it wasn’t what Eckert or Coleman or Landmark thought as much as what viewers thought.
“We’ve learned some fascinating things,” says Eckert. “That consumers utilize weather information in different ways depending on the time of the day, week, month, season, and year. That business travelers look for certain information Sunday through Thursday. That consumers were ready for information on demand, which they weren’t getting elsewhere. The icing on the cake was that all these different segments had a common need local weather.”
The key to TWC’s success was a new technology called Weather Star (short for Satellite Transponder Addressable Receiver), a device that pulls data from a satellite and sorts out the information specifically intended for that receiver. That reality makes possible forecasts custom-made for each particular cable system, an edge that continues to separate The Weather Channel from its competitors.
Still, when it debuted in May of 1982, The Weather Channel was hardly a sure thing. The typical reaction was that it was a shining example of cable’s overreach. (What’s next, The Time Channel?) But within three years, TWC was turning a profit, an amazing feat for in untried programming concept. Today, TWC reaches more than seventy million households.
“It’s not the most glamorous of subjects,” Eckert admits. “It’s not music, were not sports, were not news or movies. But we do have an audience that is passionate about it.” I nodded in agreement and ;hook his hand. “See you on the 8’s,” I told him, referring to the time segment when The Weather Channel airs local forecasts. He nodded back, knowing exactly what I was talking about.
[The Weather Channel] [American Way Magazine]
The Show Must Go On
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 15, 1999
Its stars may be senior citizens, but The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies rivals any spectacular in Vegas or on Broadway.
Mine was not an unusual male response to a bevy of showgirls strutting their stuff before my very eyes. But when those showgirls are between the ages of fifty-five and eighty-six, the reaction is, well, rather remarkable.
That’s the appeal, allure, and sheer wonder of The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, a full-tilt spectacular that pays homage to vaudeville, variety shows, and the vanishing specter of live performance. Playing to packed houses at the historic Plaza Theatre in downtown Palm Springs, California, it is no sentimental journey for the geriatric set, despite the preponderance of gray hair in the audience and a fifty-year-old mandatory minimum for the performers. It is a glitzy extravaganza rivaling contemporary stage productions in Vegas or on Broadway.
Observe the line of long-legged lovelies who kick, flip, and sashay to “Hooray for Hollywood” in lavishly plumed costumes inspired by Busby Berkeley, and the equally adept company of male dancers and singers. Marvel at the deft banjo-plinking and ribald antics of the Mercer Brothers, Jim and Bud, eighty-three and eighty-six respectively, and honest-to-goodness veterans of the vaudeville stage and of the motion picture classic Tin Pan Alley. Behold the gymnastic gyrations of the Rios Brothers, who somersault through the air with the greatest of ease. Savor tributes to celebrated composer Irving Berlin. Double over from the droll quips spilling from the lips of the debonair Riff Markowitz, whose sloe eyes, wavy hair, and full mustache are the embodiment of the matinee idol.
Part nostalgia trip, part history lesson, the two-and-a-half-hour spectacular is pure entertainment, no doubt about it. But injected throughout are subtle commentaries, throwaway lines, and blatant remarks in a running commentary addressing the far more universal theme of facing mortality. Which is exactly what Riff Markowitz was contemplating back in 1990.
An acclaimed television producer (HBO’s The Hitchhiker, Tales From the Darkside, and specials starring George Burns, Raquel Welch, and Dionne Warwick, among others), Markowitz retired to the Palm Springs area in 1988 with his then-wife Mary Jardin, the beneficiary of a handsome corporate buyout that meant Markowitz need never work again, even though he had just seen the dark side of fifty.
But retirement, he quickly determined, was the last thing he wanted to do. He wasn’t interested in chasing little white balls around any of the area’s eighty-plus golf courses. Markowitz preferred putting his cumulative skills to work, and he quickly discovered other stage and screen veterans who shared that same desire to be in the spotlight once again, no matter how old they were, no matter how youth-obsessed their chosen business had become. That’s when Markowitz and Jardin came up with the Fabulous Follies concept. (Though now divorced, the two are still partners in the venture.)
The idea coincided neatly with the goal of Palm Springs civic leaders to revitalize their decaying downtown, the centerpiece of which was the recently renovated Plaza Theatre, a stunning example of Spanish mission-style architecture where comedian Jack Benny once broadcast weekly radio programs heard coast to coast. Some city fathers, however, including then-mayor Sonny Bono, thought the idea wasn’t “classy or artistic enough.” But Markowitz was undeterred, and eight months and three visits to the city council later, he was granted his wish. The Fabulous Follies revue made its debut in 1991, with none other than Markowitz as the master of ceremonies in addition to his duties as the show’s producer and the theater’s director.
Initially, he local newspaper critic panned the production, and neighboring merchants complained about all the congestion the new show had created. But as the crowds grew, and visitor spending in nearby shops sharply increased, the griping ceased. Within a year, it was the toughest ticket in town – the 806-seat venue sold out for weeks in advance. Now in its ninth season, the Follies has evolved into quite the enterprise, with annual attendance exceeding 180,000, making a $15 million impact on the community. In 1997, a documentary about the show, called Still Kicking: The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject, while “Time of Your Life,” a feature segment about the Follies made by KOMO-TV in Seattle, won an Emmy Award.
But fame and fortune aren’t what inspire these sprightly seniors. “It’s for us,” says Markowitz. “But in order to succeed, you have to impress other people. This isn’t a career move for Miss Evans [an eighty-six-year-old showgirl who amazes audiences by jumping out of a wheelchair and doing the splits]. You can’t threaten her by saying, ‘You’ll never work in this town again.’ It just doesn’t have much impact.”
Says legendary hoofer Donald O’Connor, who headlined last year’s show, “When you see something like this, it gives you a shot in the arm. People leave here different than when they come in.”
He’s right. I could almost see the cartoon bubbles floating above the audience’s heads as they shook hands and exchanged words with the cast in the lobby after the show.
“Why hang it up?”
“Why quit doing something you love to do, just because you’re supposed to?”
And in many ways as spiritually fulfilling as church, I think to myself as I leave the theater. That deep thought is interrupted by an observation no less profound. It’s those legs again. That line of lovely legs. Really and truly, they’re such nice legs.
[The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies] [American Way Magazine]
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
When a San Antonio Express-News reporter was killed in Mexico, the paper’s editor took the matter into his own hands-literally.
IT WAS A PLEASANT, MILD DECEMBER DAY IN SAN ANTONIO almost three years ago when Bob Rivard’s life changed. At the time, he was taking a golf lesson with the general manager and the publisher of the San Antonio Express-News, the newspaper he edits. Rivard had heard two days before that his paper’s Mexico City bureau chief, Philip True, was missing in the mountains of west central Mexico. He had dispatched one of his reporters to find him. But he couldn’t get True out of his mind. Now he made a more difficult decision: Against the advice of his associates, he would go to Mexico and find Philip True himself.
True had been on vacation, taking a solo one-hundred-mile hike through remote territory populated by 20,000 Huichol Indians. True knew the Huichols were perhaps the least assimilated and most undisturbed of all the indigenous peoples in Mexico. He wanted badly to write about them. But he had been rebuffed by his editors, so he decided to learn more on his own time.
He had been gone for thirteen days-longer than the trip was to have lasted-and had failed to check in with his wife from the fourth village on his route, one that she knew had a pay phone. He had never failed to check in before. His wife, Martha, in Mexico City and pregnant with the couple’s first child, telephoned the Express-News, reaching Susana Hayward, a reporter who had recently covered Mexico City for the Associated Press. Rivard then sent Hayward to Guadalajara to join Martha’s brother-in-law Manuel Obaya and True’s best friend, Fred Chase, in their search for True. In a rented plane and using the detailed map True had given to his wife, they combed an isolated area straddling the border between the states of Nayarit and Jalisco. They landed in several villages, including Almotita, where the Indians were openly hostile. Yes, they’d seen True, one villager said. His legs had been bleeding because dogs had attacked him. Something about the story didn’t seem right.
By then, Rivard was in Mexico City, determined to help Hayward and the others track down True. As it happened, he was uniquely qualified to do so. He was a veteran correspondent with both a taste for exotic adventure and the ability to speak Spanish fluently. His coverage of the guerrilla wars in El Salvador and Guatemala and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua for the Dallas Times Herald and Newsweek in the eighties was considered first-rate. Eventually he became Newsweek’s chief of correspondents. His south-of-the-border credentials were so good that in 1999, after two years as the editor of the Express-News, he was offered the job of editor of the Miami Herald, the most important English-language newspaper in Latin America. He declined, persuaded to stay in San Antonio by promises made by the Hearst Corporation (which owns the Express-News) to increase his salary and let him hire more reporters to write longer, more literary pieces.
Rivard began leveraging every personal and professional contact he and the paper had in Mexico, working his way up the chain of command to Fernando Lerdo de Tejeda, President Ernesto Zedillo’s minister of social communications. The Cabinet officer asked Rivard what he wanted.
“I want you to treat this like Senator Kennedy’s son is missing,” Rivard said. “We want that same kind of resource allocation.”
Perhaps True had been hurt, making it difficult to walk, Rivard theorized. Or, even though True was an experienced hiker, he could have gotten lost in the unfamiliar terrain. Lerdo de Tejeda then spoke with the minister of defense, and by the end of the next day, Rivard was flying into Guadalajara to meet the army general in command of the region. A massive public information campaign was launched. Hundreds of leaflets offering a 10,000-peso reward were distributed to the villages. The Huichols’ radio network, broadcasting in both Huichol and Spanish, made announcements every hour. “I don’t think there was a Huichol on earth who didn’t know we were looking for a foreigner named Philip True,” Rivard says.
Then came a break: A Huichol hunter named Margarito Diaz walked two days to tell the search party that he had found a body between two villages. The general’s helicopter, containing Rivard, Chase, and Diaz, took fifteen minutes to fly near the spot, which was in a steep ravine. The body was no longer there, but there was clotted blood in the dirt. Rivard then followed a trail of feathers from True’s sleeping bag to the bottom of the canyon. “A dog ran up to a sandbank and started to dig and sniff,” says Rivard. “You could smell death. Fred and I got down on our hands and knees and started to dig in the sand.” They found Philip True’s body stuffed in his sleeping bag, his bandanna knotted tightly around his neck. The gruesome discovery provided some closure for True’s family and friends, but having found True, they now sought justice.
Shortly after True’s body was found, two Huichol Indians, Juan Chivarra de la Grin and his brother-in-law Miguel Hern‡ndez de la Cruz, were charged with his murder. The last entry in True’s diary spoke of an unpleasant encounter with an Indian named Juan who had threatened to take him to jail and had asked True to follow him to his village, where True evidently spent the night. True’s binoculars, camera, and backpack with his personal papers were found in Chivarra’s home. The suspects quickly confessed to the killing, providing the police with details that only True’s attackers could have known. Their reasons were vague: at various times they said True had taken photographs of sacred sites, insulted Chivarra by calling him a veterinarian, and barged into Chivarra’s abode and beat him up while drunk, then raped his wife.
After the two were apprehended, Rivard-who is convinced of their guilt-tried to speed the murder trial through Mexico’s balky judicial system. In February of this year, he met personally with President Vicente Fox and with officials from Fox’s new administration, just as he had met with the State Department, three judges who have presided over the case, and four prosecutors. He enlisted journalistic organizations in the United States and Mexico to speak out on True’s behalf.
But he was up against more than just bureaucratic intransigence. Two months earlier an American expatriate from Atlanta named Miguel Gatins had taken an interest in the case. Gatins, who lives in Guadalajara, felt that Chivarra and Hern‡ndez were unable to defend themselves because of their status as poor, indigenous people. He financed a legal team that rolled out a parade of expert witnesses who said that the Indians had been tortured into confessing. They also presented findings of a third autopsy, which concluded that Philip True had not been strangled (though by then the corpse was so disfigured from previous autopsies that there was no neck on the cadaver to examine) but instead had accidentally fallen to his death while staggering around drunk. On the strength of this new evidence, the accused were released by a county judge in Jalisco in early August.
When Rivard heard the news, he returned to Mexico, meeting with Martha True and securing the support of Jeff Davidow, the United States ambassador to Mexico. Davidow said, “The evidence strongly indicates foul play”-pointed words coming from a diplomat. Rivard met with Fox’s top legal adviser, who, Rivard says, shared his disbelief. (“To this day, the court has not notified Philip’s widow or this newspaper about the acquittal,” Rivard says.)
He held a press conference to remind the Mexican press, including those papers siding with the Indians against the gringos, that True’s plight was also theirs. “The Mexican press was having a field day,” he says. “Drunk American hiker dies. We win. America loses.’ We tried to point out this was not a soccer game, with a winner and a loser. Philip’s not getting special treatment. There are many journalists in Mexico who’ve died. It’s in their interest to seek the truth.”
Gatins, meanwhile, has hailed the Indians’ release as a “great victory for justice.” The Huichols, he said, had been treated like “the classic scapegoats: Indians with no connections, no money, up against the power of the press and American institutions.” Bob Rivard sees it differently. “This man, like some other people here, [has] an attitude that ‘They’re Indians; they can’t possibly be guilty of homicide.’ That’s a quite romantic view. We’ve always been emotionally prepared that the Huichols would not pay for their actions. But we weren’t prepared for the judge’s finding that True’s death was accidental.”
The case is still alive. Prosecutors have filed a final appeal of the acquittal before a panel of three state judges. The Express-News has continued its coverage. In one story, the paper profiled Gatins, who spent $30,000 to finance the legal team that freed the Indians. In another, it wrote about the suspects, Chivarra and Hern‡ndez, both of whom now deny killing True. Back in San Antonio, Rivard, whose newspaper is seeing to it that Martha True and her son are financially taken care of, is trying to concentrate on his main job. “We’d like to get the Philip True case behind us and focus on the newspaper,” he admits. But he’d like a better legacy than the official Mexican version-a drunk gringo stumbling around, beating up Indians, raping their wives, falling off a mountain. You get the sense Bob Rivard sees himself in Philip True, before he crossed over into management. “It meant a lot to me because he was a writer willing to go to the mountains to get his story, use his vacation time to do the work so he could sell it to us,” he says. “How many reporters have hammered away at their editors and weren’t able to get them to see their genius? You ask again and again, and if you still believe in it, you just go do it. Which is what he was doing. What I’m doing is what any editor should do. The staff should expect their editor to be passionate. If not the editor, then who?”
[San Antonio Express-News] [Texas Monthly]
The Houston Texans play their first game this fall, but players such as Avion Black and cheerleaders have been perfecting their moves for months.Photograph by Jerry Gallegos
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Houston, we have a football team. Again.
The scene was vaguely familiar: rowdies with painted faces; fans decked out in Battle Red, Deep Steel Blue, and Liberty White jerseys; a long line of supporters-some with portable radios plugged into their ears-eager to have temporary tattoos of a bull glued to their faces; a palpable buzz of excitement in the air; and outbursts of cheers and chants, egged on by a bull mascot named Toro and a bevy of cheerleaders waving pom-poms.
“Hous-ton Tex-ans! Hous-ton Tex-ans!”
Never mind that the crowd was cheering a team that’s never played a single down, or that opening kickoff was some six months away. Pro football was back in Houston, and that was reason enough for several thousand fans to show up at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, alongside players past and present, a squadron of front office personnel, and an infantry of media types, including a full ESPN crew providing live coverage.
The event was the first and last official Houston Texans Expansion Draft, a process that would ultimately determine the nucleus of players for the newest franchise in the National Football League. The actual gridiron at Reliant Stadium was miles away in south Houston, and the only hard hits were on the NFL highlight films showing on the big screens. Even the first player drafted, offensive tackle Tony Boselli of the Jacksonville Jaguars, was a foregone conclusion. But no one was complaining. After going almost six years without a home team to root for, in a city where football is practically a birthright, Houston fans were warming up for their brand-new team, the Houston Texans.
Tackled for a Loss
In 1997, Bud Adams, the only owner the Houston Oilers ever had, finally gave up negotiating with Harris County to build a stadium to replace the Astrodome and moved the franchise to Nashville. It was not a happy parting. The general sentiment voiced around Houston to Adams was, “Don’t let the door hit you on your way out of town.’ Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Washington Redskins and one of the few people on Earth entitled to wear three Super Bowl rings, couldn’t believe what had happened. “Six years ago, I’m driving through downtown Houston and I look in my rearview mirror at the skyline and think, ‘There’s something wrong with this picture. This is the fourth largest city in the United States, in a state where football is king, and there isn’t a football team?’ How can you not have a premium franchise NFL team in this city?”
Fans J.C. and Juan Chapa were wondering the same thing. The brothers were heartbroken when their team left town. “I haven’t been able to watch football in a while,” said J.C. Chapa before the expansion draft began. But the brothers apparently had gotten over the hurt, because they showed up duded out with war paint on their faces, wearing football helmets with bull horns coming out of the sides and matching jerseys-one with the number 32, representing the H-town franchise as the 32nd team in the NFL and the other with ’02, the year the Texans joined the league.
The Big Comeback
The Reliant Stadium promises to live up to its state-of-the-art reputation.
Photograph by Jerry Gallegos
The Chapas’s game gear is part of the Sunday extravaganza that will be playing at Reliant Stadium this fall. They’re season ticket holders in the end zone seating section known as the Bull Pen, where the really crazy fans are being directed to whoop it up in the tradition of Cleveland’s Dawg Pound. “The Texans are already doing more for the fans,” says J.C. Chapa. “With the Oilers, it was just show up on game day. Houston always had first-class fans. Now it’s got a first-class team. McNair is first-class, the whole organization is first-class.”
McNair is Bob McNair, the billionaire whose deep pockets, determination, and will not only brought professional football back to Houston but also elevated the standard of how the game is played and watched. As majority owner, McNair beat out Los Angeles-the preferred choice of the league’s owners for an expansion team-by raising the $700 million admission fee the NFL was charging the new club and helping lead a public/private financing voter initiative in Harris County to build the state-of-the-art Reliant Stadium.
McNair didn’t stop there. He hired top-shelf personnel, starting with the aforementioned Chancy Casserly as executive vice president and general manager. McNair then added Dom Capers, the head coach who had led the expansion Carolina Panthers to the National Football Conference championship game in their second year, and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, who also knows a few things about starting from scratch as the first head coach of the new Cleveland Browns. All of a sudden, Houston sounds like one of those premiere franchises Casserly was talking about.
It’s about time. Pro football came to Houston with the Oilers, a charter member of the American Football League, in 1960. The Oilers won the upstart league’s championship the first two years, beating the San Diego Chargers both times, largely on the passing and kicking of Houston’s first home-team hero, George Blanda. But a third title eluded them after the AFL merged with the NFL in 1970.
While that doesn’t detract from the glorious feats of crowd favorites such as Blanda, Charlie (the Human Bowling Ball) Tolar, Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, Kenny (The Snake) Stabler, Dan Pastorini, and Earl Campbell, or colorful coaches such as Bum Phillips, Jerry Glanville, and Jack Pardee, it speaks volumes in explaining why few tears were shed when the Oilers left town.
Out of the Spotlight
While the Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowls. the Oilers were lucky to advance out of their division in the playoffs. Dallas was America’s Team. Oilers Coach Bum Phillips, still a folk hero in Houston, allowed that Houston was Texas’s team. After losing an AFC championship game to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Phillips apologized for the defeat, noting that while the Oilers had gotten their foot in the door, they’d kick it down the next season and go to the Super Bowl. It was a promise Phillips couldn’t keep.
Extreme-gear fans such as these expansion draft attendees will whoop it up in the stadium’s Bull Pen. Photograph by Jerry Gallegos
Where the Oilers played also figured into their second-class status. Throughout the team’s history, each and every home venue was a borrowed one, from the Jeppesen Stadium on the campus of the University of Houston to Rice University stadium to the Astrodome, which was built for Major League Baseball’s Astros.
That’s the clearest difference between the old Houston Oilers and the new Houston Texans. When the Texans tee it up this August, it will mark the first time a Houston pro football team has played in a facility designed specifically for its needs. The 69,500-seat Reliant Stadium has already established a new standard for spectator sports facilities, just like the Astrodome did back in 1965, when it was touted as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
The The Ninth Wonder?
The tricked-out Reliant is the first NFL stadium with both a retractable roof (the translucent fabric covers a frame that can open or close in about 10 minutes) and real grass, returning the field of play in Houston to a natural state for the first time in nearly four decades. (AstroTurf was invented just in time to replace real grass inside the ‘Dome when its 4,500-plus skylights, which let in the sun, were painted over to pacify baseball players who complained they were losing track of fly balls.) To appease longtime fans still stewing over the removal of the Astrodome’s old exploding scoreboard in 1988, Reliant Stadium has two giant scoreboards, jammed with more information than a website and enough pyrotechnics to light up half the state.
In the tradition of the luxury suite, a staple of every pro stadium, Reliant’s high-dollar seats will be closer to the field than those managed by every other NFL team. Meanwhile, Texans players have been spreading the word about the four training fields across the street from the stadium, including one all-weather, covered field. Once football season ends, Reliant will be transformed into a whole other kind of arena as the new home of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the biggest rodeo in the world.
The stadium’s reputation is spreading like wildfire. The NFL has committed to staging the biggest game of all, the Super Bowl, at Reliant in 2004. And the powerhouse Big 12 college athletic conferencewhich includes the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylorwill hold its 2002 championship football game there in early December.
But those events aren’t anticipated nearly as eagerly as the upcoming season, when the Texans meet the Cowboys, who rarely played the Oilers, on opening day of the regular season and later host AFC South Conference division foes the Tennessee Titans (formerly known as the Houston Oilers). Those games, fans hope, are where the difference between old Houston football and new Houston football will be most evident, especially on the scoreboard at the end of the game. But regardless of the outcome, one thing’s for sure: Houston, we have a football team. Finally.
[Texas Journey] [Reliant Park] [Houston Texans]
SPRING LOADED Modern-art treasures reside at 101 Spring Street (left), where Donald Judd (above) lived and worked on and off from 1968 until his death in 1994. Photographs by Rainer Judd
The House That Judd Built
Time Out New York
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
August 14-21, 2003
These days you won’t see many signs of life at 101 Spring Street. But the contents of the late Donald Judd’s home changed the course of modern art.
The faded relic on the northeast corner of Spring and Mercer Streets is about as anonymous as a building positioned at one of the most well traveled corners of Soho could be. The mysterious gray edifice, among the last of the fine examples of cast-iron “skyscrapers” left in New York, glows like a jewel when its five floors are lit up at night But the only exterior signs at 101 Spring Street are two discreet symbols with the letters ADC on the doors and two words, JUDD FOUNDATION, in small type on a window. Untold hordes-from the Prada-clad Soho elite to guidebook-clutching tourists-pass by the address daily without giving it a second thought.
What they don’t realize is that hidden inside are several floors filled with treasures that changed the course of modern art. Peer through the ground-floor windows and you’ll get a hint: There’s a row of fluorescent-light structures, five stainless-steel-and-Plexiglas boxes affixed to a wall and eight bricks carefully stacked atop one another. The boxes? Creations of the late Donald Judd, the irascible, influential artist who bought the building in 1968 and lived and worked there on and off until his death from lymphoma in 1994. The T-shaped lights are an installation by the late Dan Flavin titled To Don Judd, the Colorist. The bricks: a 1986 sculpture by Carl Andre called Manifest Destiny. Upstairs, works by Frank Stella, Claes Oldenburg and, of course, Judd himself hang among the Alvar Aalto chairs and African masks that the resident artist surrounded himself with. Judd’s concept was to integrate the art with the space around it, so that he was in effect living in art. As such, the building provides an indelible connection from the origins of Minimal and Conceptual art in the early 1960s-a rational, tactile response to Abstract Expressionism, the dominant form of the ’50s-all the way to the recently opened Dia: Beacon in Putnam County, New York [see “Remains of his day,” below].
But until last year, the fate of the art and of the building itself was uncertain, as the various threads of Judd’s life became entangled while his complicated legacy was sorted out. The main players were two organizations: the Judd Foundation (headed up by Judd’s daughter, Rainer), which handled the settling of the estate; and the Chinati Foundation, created by Judd in 1985 to oversee the art mecca he’d established at Fort Russell, an abandoned army base in Marfa, Texas. (Chinati is run by Marianne Stockebrand, the German curator who was Judd’s lover at the time of his death.)
INTERIOR MOTIFS Carl Andre’s Manifest Destiny can be seen through ground-floor windows. Photograph by Rainer Judd
One participant even suggested selling 101 Spring in order to payoff debtsJudd owed several million dollars as a result of 20 years of buying property, mostly in Marfabut, according to Rainer Judd, the idea was swiftly cast aside. (The structure alone was valued at $940,000 soon after the artist’s death.) Now the estate is in the final stages of closing, and the Judd Foundation has turned its attentions to restoring the building, which within the next few years could be kept open on a regular basis like a museum, provided the funding materializes.
“If there’s anything to be preserved of the spaces that Judd created, you have to preserve Spring Street, because it gets you to everywhere else,” says Rainer Judd, who has the title “executrix-trustee” on her business card. “It’s really the beginning.” The Judd Foundation has secured a grant from the National Historic Trust to do a feasibility study of restoring the structure. The first stage, the scaffolding needed as part of facade reconstruction, has been erected, and a major fund-raising effort is in the planning stages. If all goes well, a rehabilitated 101 Spring Street will tell the saga of an immeasurably influential person, place and time in art.
That saga begins with the idea of permanent installation, which ushered in a new way of thinking about art and its environment that transcended galleries and museums. As much a theorist in his early years as an artist (and later a collector as well as a creator), Judd was an established critic recognized for his caustic and perceptive commentary for Arts Magazine, Art News and Art International. At the same time, he was gaining acclaim as a founding father of Minimalism.
When he was searching for the home that he eventually found on Spring Street, Judd wrote that his requirements “were that the building be useful for living and working and more importantly, more definitely, be a space in which to install work of mine and of others.” After he bought the former factory, which was erected in 1870 and was in total disrepair, Judd said, “I spent a great deal of time placing the art and a great deal designing the renovation in accordance. Everything from the first was intended to be thoroughly considered and to be permanent.”
Judd was also a Soho pioneer, one of a handful of artists in the former no-man’s-land who lived where he worked, surrounded by enough space to put his concepts to the test. Frustrated by how his art had been shown and handled by museums and galleries, and driven by the desire to demonstrate how it could be done properly, he worked with friends such as Flavin, Andre, Oldenburg, Stella, Larry Bell and John Chamberlain to install pieces inside his loft building.
By 1977, however, Judd was running out of space and, more significantly, running out of patience with what he described as “the harsh and glib situation within art in New York.” In the midst of separating from his wife, the dancer Julie Finch, he split for far west Texas with his two children, Rainer, born in 1970, and son Flavin, born in 1968. The big art he subsequently created in the small town of Marfa is, of course, another milestone. The New Yorker described the Chinati Foundation and Judd Foundation properties the artist acquired in the isolated ranching community (where the film Giant was made) as the “Xanadu of Minimalism.”
“101 Spring is the father of Maria,” says Peter Ballantine, Judd Foundation art supervisor, as he unlocks the door to the building, in order to give a private tour of the space he has looked after since Judd’s death. Facts fly as he makes his way through each floor. That ADC on the door stands for Ayala de Chinati, the name of Judd’s ranch south of Maria. In the ’50s, Ballantine says, Judd studied philosophy, including the works of Hume and Berkeley, at Columbia.
BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE On the fourth floor of the building, a chair by Gerrit Rietveld stands before a Frank Stella painting. Photograph by Rainer Judd
Ballantine goes on to elucidate Judd’s desire, alongside other Minimalists of the early ’60s, to counteract the emotionally fervent Abstract Expressionist movement, which had a dominant hold on the art world. “Judd thought you needed to verify things and know what you’re looking at first,” Ballantine says. “Otherwise, everything afterwards is built on sand. It was a reaction to ’50s Abstract Expressionism.”
In 1962, after years of painting, Judd made his first object. (“He never liked the term sculpture,” Ballantine says.) His show at New York’s Green Gallery the next year was a sensation. In 1968, at age 39, he was honored with a retrospective at the Whitney. “In those days, you either had to be dead or close to it to have a one-man retrospective at one of the big New York museums,” Ballantine points out, “and he’d only been doing sculpture per se for six years.” As the value of his work skyrocketed, Judd was able to buy his first vehicle, a Land Rover, and his first home, 101 Spring Street, which he snapped up for $68,000.
The structure’s tall wood-frame windows let in a surprising amount of light for that part of the city. From early to mid-afternoon, it takes on a dazzling quality not unlike the brilliant light of Maria. The building, Julie Finch says, was always in transition. Judd abandoned the first floor and moved his studio to the third floor in 1973; the street-level windows made it too easy for friends and strangers to interrupt the artist’s work. About a year later, the then-empty first floor was reinvented as his first permanent installation space. Part of the second floor became Finch’s studio for dancing after Judd squeezed her out of the third floor. The rest of the second floor was dominated by a huge table, built by two workers from Maria, and by the kitchen, whose centerpiece was a commercial stove, a now-fashionable accessory that was rare in a private residence back then. “Don loved plain-looking, functional things,” Finch says. He commissioned a David Novros fresco in 1970 and later installed an Ad Reinhart painting from 1952. Most of these furnishings and finery are as Judd left them, as if caught in amber.
The third floor, which contains a stand-up desk, a reading table, two large Judd pieces from the ’60s, a Larry Bell glass sculpture and some Aalto chairs, was Judd’s sanctuary. The fourth floor is decked out with an Oldenburg from 1961, a Flavin from 1962 and a Stella from 1967, alongside Rietveldt chairs and Etruscan candlesticks.
The family initially lived on the fifth floor. Judd designed dressing rooms and installed stainless-steel sinks. There’s a loft for Flavin Judd and underneath it, a small room that was occupied by baby Rainer. The fifth floor also contains the largest Dan Flavin piece in the building, Dedicated to Flavin Starbuck Judd ’68, a series of bulbs in interlocking metal frames that extend along the entire length of the floor. The Flavin complements Judd’s first sculpture, the untitled work from 1962. The low-lying Judd-designed bed in the middle of the space arrived in 1970.
Soho, as it soon came to be called, was transforming as rapidly as 101 Spring itself was changing. A cooperative children’s play group formed on Prince Street. Giorgio DeLuca ran a cheese shop on Prince before joining forces with Joel Dean. A restaurant called Food opened at the corner of Wooster and Prince. According to Finch, by the time she left the building on the way to divorcing Judd, ten years after they moved into 101 Spring Street, neighborhood artists were fighting discos.
Judd found that his money went further in Texas, at least in terms of wide-open spaces. But he never abandoned 101. In 1983, his children returned to live there and attend high school. And all along, the kids took their father’s creative process in stride. “Art just came with the territory,” Rainer Judd says. “101 Spring Street is the expression of how one person lived.”
In Judd’s last will and testament, the artist stated: “It is my hope that such of my works which I own at the time of my death as are installed at 101 Spring Street in New York City, or in Marfa, Texas, will be preserved where they are installed.” Almost ten years later, it appears his hope will finally be fulfilled.
REMAINS OF HIS DAY
ARTIST IN RESIDENCE Judd as seen in his 101 Spring ground-floor workspace in 1970. Photograph by Rainer Judd
Donald Judd’s ideas about installing art continue to fuel a movement 40 years later.
The idea of permanent art installation, which formed in Donald Judd’s brain in the early ’60s, sparked a transformation in how contemporary art is viewed and presented in the country’s galleries and museums. Here, a time line of the sometimes contentious journey from Judd’s early days in Soho to the newly opened Dia: Beacon.
>> In the early ’60s, Judd complains about the way his art is exhibited and writes extensively about new ways of installing it. He philosophizes about the subject with Heiner Friedrich, a Soho gallery owner; the pair especially likes the concept of a single-artist museum. Some of their ideas are worked out at 101 Spring Street.
>> Friedrich is sufficiently inspired to cofound (with his wife, Philippa de Menil) the Dia Foundation in 1974. Dia is intended to give unlimited freedom to a small group of chosen artists, including Judd, Dan Flavin, Walter De Maria and composer LaMonte Young.
>> Soon after, Dia fulfills Judd’s quest for space, light, privacy and permanency by purchasing Fort Russell, a former army post on 340 acres in Marfa, Texas. Judd converts the abandoned barracks and artillery sheds into exhibition spaces. Meanwhile, Dia funds other single-artist, site-specific installations, like De Maria’s Lightning Field near Quemado, New Mexico.
>> Dia, in a financial crisis, auctions off some of its holdings and has to renege on some promised stipends to artistsincluding Judd. Judd, threatening a lawsuit, wins custody of his art (and another $2 million) in an out-of-court settlement. In 1986, Judd creates the Chinati Foundation to steward his installation works and the work of other artists at the Marfa fort.
>> The concept of a museum dedicated to a single artist becomes reality at the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, New York, dedicated in 1992.
>> Mass MOCA, a contemporary-art museum in North Adams, Massachusetts, opens in 1999 and carries on Dia’s founding ideas. Its stated mission is to give artists “the tools and time to create works of scale and duration impossible to realize in the time and space-cramped conditions of most museums. We endeavor to expose our audiences to all stages of art production; rehearsals, sculptural fabrication, and developmental workshops are frequently on view to the public, as are finished works of art.”
>> The Judd estate is settled in 2002, freeing up the Judd Foundation to preserve 101 Spring Street, as well as Judd’s residences and smaller properties in Marfa, while the Chinati Foundation continues to oversee the big art at the Marfa fort.
>> Dia opens Dia: Beacon in May 2003 in an old factory building, the former Nabisco plant in Beacon, New York. The theories worked out at 101 Spring Street are manifested in Dia: Beacon’s exhibition of such artists as Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra and, naturally, Judd.
For information on tours of 101 Spring Street, visit juddfoundation.org or call 212-219-2747. [Time Out New York]
- What Would Donald Judd Do? Seven years after Donald Judd’s death, the residents of a cow town in far west Texas are caught in the middle of an estate war between the renowned artist’s former lover and his children. [Texas Feature, July 2001]
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
November 4, 2005
“Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight For Seadrift, Texas"
By Diane Wilson
Chelsea Green Publishing Company
400 pages, $27.50
While working on an oral history project called “The Voices of Civil Rights,” I spent a year traveling around the country, collecting dozens of personal stories about a critical period in our nation’s history. The stories I heard were both uplifting and heartbreaking. But they also made me wonder whatever happened to activism and activists, to people who were willing to put their lives on the line to change the world. The movement, it seemed, was a distant subject, something that had happened a long, long time ago before everyone settled into more comfortable lives.
Then I met Diane Wilson. My friend Michael Berryhill was a neighbor of hers in Seadrift, the small fishing community on San Antonio Bay where she grew up. She may have not faced the fire hoses on the Selma bridge or locked arms with nonviolent protestors in Memphis, he told me, but Wilson was a fighter willing to give up everything to fight for her bay and her way of life.
He wasn’t kidding.
Over the course of an afternoon on the front porch of a small purple house fronting the bay, Wilson reeled off the story of her life, how she grew up in a family of outlaw fisherman, worked as a shrimper as her father and her father’s father did before her, ran a fish house (a rarity for a woman on the coast), and came of age in her forties when she learned that she was living in the most toxic county in the United States and decided to take on the largest employer in the county, a Taiwanese-based corporation with friends in Austin and Washington.
She brought the saga into the present, how she’s banned from the Texas Legislature following a series of arrests for demonstrating in front of that august body, how she’s protested the Iraq War in Congress where she and activist Medea Benjamin unfurled a banner in the gallery while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testified before a congressional committee. How she kept going back to New York for a hearing that had to do with civil disobedience actions at the United Nations, where she had handcuffed herself to the building in an effort to bring attention to an international campaign for justice for the victims of the 1984 chemical disaster that killed thousands in Bhopal, India. And how, despite arrests and harassment, despite setbacks and disappointment, despite the overwhelming odds she faced in tackling corporate power and its political patrons, she took pride in being what she called an “Unreasonable Woman.”
Later I would learn that the phrase has a special meaning for Wilson. It comes from a favorite quote from George Bernard Shaw: “A reasonable woman adapts to the world. An unreasonable woman makes the world adapt to her.” Wilson, in fact, helped to found an organization called Unreasonable Women for the Earth, a precursor to Code Pink: Women for Peace.
Fittingly, her memoir is titled An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas. It’s the story of Wilson’s transformation from an inherently shy mother of five who preferred the solitude of the shrimpboat into an international environmental activist. She has also written an elegy to the endangered Texas Gulf Coast and an indictment of the chemical-political-industrial complex that has done so much to harm it.
Wilson evokes a visceral love for the water, the Gulf and the bays that define her sense of place. She never hesitates to invoke the ethereal, the mystic, and the spiritual to explain it all. At the same time, she makes clear that fishing, shrimping, crabbing, and living off the water is a way of life fast-disappearing from this part of the world for a number of reasons. No one has done a better job of capturing the challenges that this small, declining subculture deal with day to day. The shrimper, she writes
…was in the wrong century on the wrong path at the wrong place, and his addiction to the water was either gonna drive him crazy or kill him outright. One desperate shrimper lay facedown on the back deck of his boat in the shrimp and the muck and the hardheads and begged the dying shrimp to tell him their secret. Where they went. What they were doing. But that pile of shrimp said nothing and kept their silence to their slow gray breath.
Her own transformation began in 1989, when a shrimper named Bill Bailey, who was suffering from three kinds of cancer, handed Wilson a newspaper and told her to read an article from the Associated Press, a story about a first-ever report on the federal Toxic Release Inventory, which ranked the states on the emissions pouring from their industries. Texas, Wilson learned, was first in most emissions “with Louisiana breathing hard down our necks.”
“Four times our little Calhoun County was mentioned,” she writes. “A piddlin’ little county on the Gulf Coast that was lucky when fifteen thousand people lived and stayed overnight… Besides that first-place prize, Calhoun was third for shipping toxins out, sixth for sticking them down wells, then twenty-first for flinging them in the air.”
Soon after she read the article, Wilson called Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney in Houston, who told her to call a meeting–the first of a seemingly endless series of meetings that turned into a series of one-woman hunger strikes and other “actions.” Wilson taught herself how to navigate the complex bureaucracy of state and federal environmental regulations and how to investigate the byzantine organization of a far-flung global corporation. Those skills, along with the chemistry that she picked up along the way, enabled her to expose the hypocrisy in the law, as she compared the heavy hand that metes justice to gill-net fishermen with the apologetic slap on the wrist delivered to industries that were dumping tons of toxic material into the air and water. Following the paper trail, Wilson outed a sweetheart deal between Formosa and its security firm, which happened to be owned by a Texas state senator (Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria)).
She also traced the fingerprints of former Senator Phil Gramm to the decision to locate Formosa Plastics’ vinyl chloride plant in Calhoun County. After environmental protesters in Taiwan forced the company to forgo construction of the plant on the island, it was Gramm who recruited the plant to the Texas Gulf. He then had his former campaign manager appointed regional head of the Environmental Protection Agency in Dallas, where he regulated Formosa in the manner that Formosa wished to be regulated, i.e., discharging without a permit with the full knowledge of the EPA. As Wilson makes clear, fulltime environmental activism came with a price: Her marriage ended. Her brother went to work for Formosa. And in a bitter break, she parted with Blackburn. After everyone shunned her (somewhere after her first hunger strike), she found support among the Vietnamese shrimpers and crabbers in Seadrift.
Along the way, there are enough metaphors and homilies jammed into the telling to make me wonder if her editors didn’t make her busier’n a one-legged man at a butt-kicking contest to come up with yet more homilies in order to burnish her Erin Brockovich credentials. Although Wilson makes a pretty good case for ecofeminism, the references to goddesses, spirits, and dreams are not always easy to grasp, especially if one reads this as a policy book, which it definitely is. No writer has ever explained the tangled web that is Texas politics and its dealings with environmental issues so succinctly as Diane Wilson.
An Unreasonable Woman ends with Wilson’s attempt to blow up her beloved shrimp boat in the bay–a desperate effort to change, if not the world, then at least her part of the Texas coast. That effort led to some measure of success, as several chemical plants began to take seriously her campaign for zero-discharge.
Zero discharge is doable. So that’s what I say to every nonbelieving chemical plant and what I haven’t gained in sophistication or professional etiquette, I make up for in unreasonable behavior. I am not so well behaved anymore.
Indeed she’s not. In 2002, Wilson was arrested in Calhoun County after she scaled a fence and chained herself to a tower belonging to a Union Carbide plant, an action she undertook on behalf of the victims of Bhopal. For her, this was more than a symbolic act of solidarity: The Toxic Release Inventory–the subject of that long ago AP story that set her down the path of environmental activism–was written into the law by Congress in the wake of the Bhopal disaster. For Wilson, a vision of civil rights that includes global environmental rights is no stretch at all. Of course, that’s not the way local officials–nor officials from Carbide and Dow Chemical, its parent company–see things. Today Wilson is facing a four-month jail sentence as a result of that 2002 Carbide arrest. Currently she’s on book tour and in no hurry to come back to Texas and serve that sentence. As she explains in interviews and talks throughout the country, Warren Anderson, the former CEO of Union Carbide, has never gone to India to serve time, despite that nation’s repeated efforts to have him extradited from the United States. So why should she go first?
Unreasonable? Maybe. But consider the decades-long tale of environmental destruction that Wilson relates in her book. And consider everything that has happened along the Gulf Coast in the past few months, we can only hope that it starts raining unreasonable women–and men–in this state. Soon.
Katrina Mississippi Coast Report
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
posted September 8, 2005
See also – KATRINA PHOTOS
Listen – NPR’s Day to Day (Sept. 12, 2005) "Weathering Katrina at the Log Cabin Bar". Reporter Joe Nick Patoski relates the story of a group of people who holed up in a Mississippi bar to ride out Hurricane Katrina, and then had to make a harrowing escape through the roof and across two makeshift gangplanks to safety at the height of the storm.
Here’s some of the raw reporting I did from the Mississippi coast.
When I got the call Wednesday, I agreed to help cover the hurricane with the stipulation I go to Mississippi. I was listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR the day before and a caller who had a relative in Waveland complained she’d heard zero coverage about the area, which was in Katrina’s bulls-eye.
Jackson, 160 miles inland, was still reeling from the effects Weds night. Power was out in most place, there was a boil water alert and gas stations were all closed. I’m glad the guy at the rental car agency at the airport recommended I buy a full tank of gas now. The Hilton was full with an exceptional number of guests with dogs, walking them outside in the bushes, around the hallways, and in the elevators.
US 49 from Hattiesburg to the coast was officially closed Thursday morning but I went anyhow, arriving in Hattiesburg only a few hours after the road opened. I drove around Hattiesburg and the damage was as severe as any coastal town I’d seen, even though Hattiesburg is 60 miles inland. Power was out, poles knocked down, property damage severe. Three gas stations had just opened with lines several miles long and highway patrol guarding the stations. I awaited at one station with a short line until I heard that the scheduled fuel delivery was just a rumor.I backtracked to a station where I only had to wait an hour and a half to buy the $20 maximum–eight gallons at $2.49. The pump attendant said he’d waited 5 hours in line that morning and paid $3.99 a gallon. Folks were calm but there was tension in the air. An armed security guard manned the store’s door, allowing only a few folks in at a time. I heard one lady behind the counter say they were about to run out of gas.
Although US 49 was open, there were still trees and power lines on the pavement I had to dodge. The only other vehicles headed south were power company caravans, fire trucks, police, search and rescue teams.
I drove straight to Biloxi to chase a story, the amount of debris and damage growing more intense by the mile, winding around boats in the road, more power lines, trash piles until I reached Mary L Micheal Seventh Grade School which had become a refugee center. The new residents were largely African-American with a strong Vietnamese-American contingent tied to Biloxi’s shrimp fleet and a smattering of Anglo-Americans. Everyone had already staked out a spot to sleep on the hallway floor with huge fans powered by generators blowing a hot, humid breeze down the hall.
No one complained, although no one seemed to know what to do either. Everyone was waiting, and when approached by a stranger were eager to share their personal story of surviving the hurricane and the unprecedented storm surge that came with it. Media and FEMA officials were nowhere in sight. I had to use the rest room which was already overflowing with since there was no water pressure, much less water. These were truly the dispossessed.
Yet no one complained loudly, no one lost their cool.
I spent two nights on the floor of the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport, which had become the emergency management center for the county, finding a spot the first night behind the dais where the Board of Supervisors normally make county decisions. No one seemed to mind. We slept where we could. The funeral home around the corner became the county’s coroner center. Out front in the street, several tractor-trailer trucks idled. Each was full of bodies.
For two days, I took Navy baths with hand wipes. I was glad to get a burger or cheese sandwich from the relief workers who’d come in from Outback Steakhouses in the Texas. I was happy to drink hot coffee, nevermind powdered creamer wasn’t on the menu.. Cell service was spotty, on for a few hours, then off indefinitely, which is why I couldn’t find my shooter, Marc Asnin, the first day. Instead of sticking around Gulfport, he drove 150 miles each night to Pensacola, Florida, where gas was plentiful and the late summer crowds were focused on the beach, not disaster.
Communications, on which we are so reliant in our profession, was next to non-existent. I tried to remember how journalism was done in the old days, before computers, cell phones, and modems.
At one point, I had to borrow a satellite phone from a reporter from the Baltimore Sun to let the bureau know I was OK. No cell service, no internet, having to calculate decisions based on using as little fuel as possible became the norm. Marc was a real pro when we finally did hook up. He’d taken cover under a truck with a fireman when the first tower of the World Trade Center imploded on 9/11. That was bad, he said. This was worse. Especially when we got to where the eye of the hurricane came ashore around Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Lakeshore, just east of the Louisiana line. There, the shock had yet to wear off five days after the fact. While recovery efforts seemed to be making an impact in Gulfport and Biloxi, help was arriving painfully slow in these towns on the western Mississippi coast.
To the person, everyone I approached was glad to talk. Mississippi folks are born storytellers–that’s why there’s such a deep tradition of bluesmen and writers–and every one had quite a story to tell.
The smells are still sharp in my mind. The dead leaves around the courthouse that lent a scent of fall to the scene early in the morning, when the search and rescue teams were preparing to leave. Too often though, the smells were foul, so rotten and vomit-inducing that it transcended sewage and rot. This was far more severe. Marc’s assistant summed it up as we followed some Army engineers clearing a debris strewn street in Waveland as we tiptoed around black muck that stuck to our boots. "That’s the stench of death." He was right.
The resilience of the people gave me hope, considering most had lost everything. Call them crazy, stupid, or ignorant, but these Mississippians have such a strong sense of place, they’re not about to leave. This is their home. At least here, they’re not strangers.
Marc made sure I got back to the real world by giving me five gallons of gas from several cans he’d bought before coming to Mississippi. On the way out Saturday night, Hattiesburg seemed almost civilized, despite the obvious damage. Jackson was a veritable shining city on the hill, a modicum of progress, although what few gas stations were open had long lines and patrolmen just like down south. Every hotel room was booked. I got the next to the last room in Canton, 20 miles up the road. I made it out but what I saw and reported was still with me. The story was following me. The man checking into the hotel ahead of me had driven up from Pearlington, where I had been that day. He cussed FEMA, complaining his town wasn’t even on their disaster map, and no official had shown their face. He told his own story about using a pickaxe to break out of his attic and escape to his roof in order to survive. Like most everyone else, he lost most of his property. But he still had a plenty of heart.
Katrina may have wrecked havoc from Mobile to New Orleans, but nowhere was the destruction so thorough as the remote towns of the western Mississippi coast. While rebuilding efforts were well underway in Gulfport, Biloxi, Mobile, and New Orleans five days after the storm blew in, the residents of Hancock County including the small towns of Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Pearlington where the eye of the hurricane passed overhead were still in a state of shock. This once-pastoral landscape of lowlands, bays, estuaries, and Piney Woods was clearly ground zero, as if God dumped a box of wooden matches in the sand. No manmade structure escaped damage.
Cars littered the roadside. Boats were tilted in parking lots. Houses were crushed, twisted, and ripped apart. Pine trees were snapped in two and lifted whole out of the ground, their rootballs intact.
Help was coming, but in a slow trickle at best, and the frustration was mounting. At a press conference in a courtroom of the Hancock County Courthouse, which had become the area’s Emergency Operations Center, Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre (yes, he’s a cousin of Brett Favre) told a press conference attended by three local reporters that he understood people breaking into stores and businesses if they needed food, water, or medical supplies. "We have had situations were people have broken into businesses for reasons of survival. I understand that, but not if they’re carrying out televisions or jewelry. Do not go in people’s houses. That will not be tolerated by neither the homeowner nor the officials." One proprietor of a convenience store in Bay Shores was literally giving his store away. As one refugee from Pearlington told me at a motel in Canton, almost two hundred miles north of the coast, "We weren’t even on FEMA’s map."
Any survivors in southern Hancock County who managed to ride out the storm and live had a harrowing personal story to tell.
More Eddie Favre at the press conference attended by three local media people: "Most of our people don’t have transportation and the ability to get there [to shelters]" Favre admitted frustration with the federal government’s reaction. "I don’t think anyone can be satisfied with the response."
But he praised the locals. "We have have had so many people who have lost everything and they still want to help. Our people are taking care of ourselves and taking care of our neighbors."
Desperation had grown to the point that Favre had to issue a health advisory. "Some people are using the bay to clean up. We recommend do not use the bay. The bay is contaminated."
More Favre: "It has totally destroyed any economy we had." Still, he projected optimism. "People may have lost a house, but they still have a home. People will rebuild. There’s going to have to be some things done that have never done before."
"We’re still missing people."We’ve had rumors martial law has been declared. That’s not the case. We still have strict law enforcement to protect people who are still here. The next rumor is we’ll have mandatory evacuation. There is no mandatory evacuation. But we do ask if people can leave, they should do so. Give us a few days, we’ll have water running."
"There are areas along the beachfront where there are no longer houses. The bayous are silted in. We’re not looking for airconditioning or things that make life easier. We’re looking for barebones essentials. None of us have gone through anything like this.
Hancock County EMA director Brian "Hootie" Adam: "Hancock County was in the bulls-eye."
For the first two days, "WQRZ-LP, 103.5 FM, The voice of Bay Saint Louis, Waveland, Diamondhead and the Kiln" was the only communications link to the outside world, hunkered down in the cinderblock building housing the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency. The 100 watt low power FM community station, normally solar-powered, is the brainchild of Brice L. Phillips, 39, a skinny disabled ham radio operator (KB5MPW) on social security, who built the station two years ago in anticipation of a disaster like this, and his girlfriend, Christine Stach, 34, who has MS and constantly clutches their dog, who is the station’s program director.
The station, owned and licensed to Hancock County Amateur Radio Association, serves 17,460 households and more 39,000 individuals along the western Mississippi shore, previously operated at his house near the beach in Bay St. Louis. When he saw the hurricane was headed towards Mississippi on Sunday evening, he climbed the 130 ft tower above his house to remove transmitters and moved the station’s equipment to the courthouse on Highway 90. "I knew we had to come here," Phillips said. The station was off the air for four hours.
"We were back up on the air by five [pm], the night before the storm hit. We stayed on and then we got knocked out about two in the morning when we had that tornado warning before the eye of the hurricane [hit the shore]. We have the only emergency alert system here. That was the important part, to keep it up. That’s why we built the station. We had to temporarily move down here. I brought one of the four antennas from the tower [on the roof of his house], unmounted it, put it up here. We had great SWR [Don’t know radio lingo] because we have the four changers that run on DC power. We have a laptop that controls them and all of our announcements are on it so we were able to put messages on it. The Emergency Alert System was able to run because we’re the first warning for emergency alert.
During the hurricane, Phillips said, "We were broadcasting New Age music during the hurricane, like Enya, a little bit of light folk, a little bit of light rock. So it calms people down. That was the broadcast. Then we brought the amateur equipment, all the ham rigs, too. We didn’t get that communications system set up until the following day [Tuesday] right after the storm.
"We had six repeaters here. They all went down. Harrison County has one radio repeater, we’re still on it. We came online. We were adding antenna after antenna after antenna. For the first two days it was nothing but antenna building. Then once one system got in, we had help from volunteers who came in. It was kind of rough.
"We do all the public bulletins–where food can be found, points of distribution for food, water and ice, shelters, advisories, public notices–‘Don’t drink the water, folks’, if you’re lucky enough to have it. We haven’t had any water here.
"We’re a 501 ( C ) corporation [non profit station], Hancock County Amateur Radio owns the license. WQRZ stands for Who Is Calling Me? in amateur radio lingo. That’s why we chose those call letters.
"The day after, the guy from the only Radio Shack around here wandered in. Of course I have extensive doings with the local Radio Shack store. They had 12 foot of water in that store, in Waveland. He came in. I was so happy to see this guy. I said, ‘I’m commandeering your store.’ We were short on coax-Ns, other things. He told me, ‘Yeah, you can have anything in the store."
"Right now we just finished recording that press conference, 47 minutes. We’ll run it again this evening, run it again tomorrow until another one comes out.
He doesn’t know if he and Christine still have a place to live. He shakes his head and holds back for a second, then says, "Somebody came in yesterday and said it lifted off the stilts it was on and set back down and piles went through the house. There’s 30 ft. of tower left.
"Come look at my van outside [in the parking lot of the courthouse]. We had bad luck. That’s my van." The roof is completed sheared off. The wind flipped the top off and tossed it, "This is what I drove down here with all the stuff [equipment including the antenna beams]. This is my car [a gray ’96 Ford Crown Victoria that was a gift from another ham radio operator]. The water came up and then it caught on fire. I almost killed Killer [his dog] because killer was in the car. We had to get him out. The water rising under the dash started the fire. Christine was freaking out, she went into an MS attack because of the dog. She thought it was dead."
"The water was this deep [waist-high] by the house when we tried to get out of there, about six o’clock that evening. The station was already online here, rolling. I went back to the house to get the van and all the supplies six o’ clock Sunday evening.
"I got all my clothes. Christine didn’t get all her clothes. I have food for a couple days and basically all the radio supplies because you can’t do anything if you don’t have communications." I had to run all these wires and put the antenna up.
Did you feel safe in the emergency center? "It was not cool. Water started coming in the door, three or four feet deep. That’s our safe room. It went under." The roof started coming off the building.
The National Guard and FEMA pulled out, Phillips said, declaring "this building is no longer safe." The only ones remaining were locals.
"We numbered ourselves," Christine Stach says, showing a number scrawled in black ink on her wrist. In case they drowned, recovery teams could ID who the victims were. "Everybody lined up in the room before the water came up and we numbered ourselves," Brice said.
Brice: "Water was coming in and we were in the safe room and the eye of the storm was here. We had no electric. We didn’t have any batteries inside. It wasn’t until the next day we started bringing batteries in and established communications and got our transmitter back up. I tried for a day and a half to turn the wattage up in the transmitter but there was water in the coax where the antenna is."
"He predicted this years and years ago," said Al Showers, 42 the local reporter for WLOX-TV Channel 13 in Biloxi ["I used to have a house near the beach on Cedar Point in Bay St. Louis"] "He definitely saved the day. For the first 48 hours he was Hancock County’s only link to the outside world, the only communications whatsoever. He was it. He works on my computers and scanners and told me, ‘One of these days, we’re going to have a hurricane and I’m going to be the only one with communications. It came to pass because of his ham set up. He stayed up around the clock, doing this. My station was broadcasting, ‘We haven’t heard from our reporter. Anybody, please. We were able to talk with my station through the Civil Defense in Harrison County. That’s the only way they knew their reporter was alive and well, because of Brice’s setup. As soon as Civil Defense activated, he was broadcasting and never left the air."
"He saved the day," said Kenny Daniel, a bald headed ham operator (KD5KWS), 38, who is an MP in the 115th Company of the National Guard in Brandon (sp?), MS ( who came from Jackson Sunday before Katrina hit to help at the station.
[Daniel shows one of the messages the station has received to carry to the outside world: It’s to Sister Claudia Murphy, St Catherine Village, Madison Mississippi, (601-856-9023) It reads: "Pray, know that Rod, Dot, Margaret, and George are okay. We lost Nan, God rest her soul. Pearlington was leveled. Jane and I were in deep water for hours. Rod had lots of water too, haven’t talked with him but we heard. Devastation is surreal. Love you very much. Will call as soon as I can. Pray, Pray, Pray. Love, (signed Jan Murphy, Madison Parish, La Salle St. Tallulah, LA)]
WQRX 103.5 FM 463-1035 http://baystlouis-ms.com/wqrz.htm
From Friday’s New York Times: "On Thursday afternoon, Horace Hodges, another temporary tenant, made the rounds, carrying two buckets and offering to fetch water from a murky, puce-colored swimming pool to fill people’s toilet tanks. In the parking lot, a wharf rat the size of a small dog scurried underfoot as Howard O’Gwin Jr., who was living in one room with nine other family members, two dogs and a bird, unloaded bottled water from a shopping cart."
Here’s the rest of the story:
The parking lot of the Coast Inn and Suites motel on the northwest corner of Highway 603 and Highway 90 overlooks what is normally one of the busiest intersections in Bay St. Louis. For now, though, the lot also accommodates three boats. The two 19 ft Magnum skiffs with Yamaha 90 outboard engines belong to brothers Dan and Howard O’Gwin. The parking lot is where their boats came to rest when the floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina finally receded hours after the storm blew through.
Both Dan O’Gwin, 54, and the family of Howard O’Gwin, 50, are living at the motel for now. Dan spends his days sitting under a tent awning next to his skiff in a beach chair, which is where he was sitting alongside Howard Jr when a reporter approached them. Howard Jr. sleeps in his boat to protect some of the last property they have that is still in one piece. The Coast Inn was the destination for several boatloads of survivors the O’Gwins picked up when they abandoned their homes, as Dan and his nephew Howard, Jr. 17, slender, shirtless in a bathing suit, and relaxed if he was out for a day at the beach, explained.
"We came here by boat," Dan O’Gwin said. "That’s how our boats got here. Water come up in our houses, cars went underwater, this whole area was flooded up to the second floor in the middle of the hurricane."
It’s not too surprising. The O’Gwin brothers, Howard Sr and Dan grew up on the water, "we worked on tugboats on the Mississippi River as kids," Dan said.
Dan O’Gwin lived four blocks from the motel next door to his grandmother in a house he’d moved into only a month ago. Howard O’Gwin and his family were riding out the hurricane with friends in a brand new brick house at 702 Edna Street in Waveland, between Highway 90 and the beach. "During the storm, it was fine," Howard Jr. said. "We were watching trees popping and everything. All of a sudden, we noticed the wind was blowing one way, and the water was blowing the other way." The sea and the bay were coming one. "Five minutes later, it came up and started seeping through the walls. Five minutes later it was up to our necks. It was that fast."
Howard, his wife Cathy, 44, Howard, Jr. and his younger brother Ben, 15, got into ther skiff and unwittingly became an impromptu search and rescue team when they abandoned the flooding residence. "We came all the way up Margie Street, up Highway 90. We rescued about 21 people and five dogs. One of them’s still here.
"I was in this boat," Howard Jr. said, "with my dad, mom, and family. We started before him. It was about nine o clock when we started. We came down Margie Street. I had my whistle blowing. We were hollering and screaming in case anybody needed help. We seen flashlights from people needing help. We rescued people all along the way. Some houses, we seen flashlights shining on us."
"I was scared but I didn’t want my wife or my family to see that I was scared," said Howard Sr., a muscular truck driver for an oyster company who used to work offshore on oil rigs. "If they would’ve seen me being scared, they would have panicked too."
"I couldn’t pass them up," Howard Sr said of the people needing rescue. "It’s just in my heart."
More Howard, Jr. "We came here [to the motel] first, dropped all the people off here, then we went over here to my grandma’s house. He [Dan] lives right next to him. Got them, then met up with him," Howard O’Gwin, Jr. said, nodding towards his uncle.
By the time his brother Howard Sr. motored up, Dan O’Gwin said, "I knew it was time to go. I was standing in my doorway, looking behind my house to the east, and I seen a big ol’ building, twirling up in the air like this, I can hear OOOOOOOoooooooooo when I heard that, I looked up to where the sound was coming from and this house was spinning. I went ‘Uh unh’.I got on the floor behind the wall and I heard itÉ.you wouldn’t believe the noise. After it hit, I went and looked out to see where it was, there was stuff everywhere, I mean a whole building everywhere, big steel beams. If it would’ve landed on my house, it would’ve probably smushed us. I’ll never go through that again."
Howard, Jr. said, "By the time we got to him [his uncle, Dan O’Gwin] he was trying to get his boat undone."
"The water was up to my neck," Dan O’Gwin said. "I couldn’t stay there. I had to get out or die. You had to go. It was either there or die. I reached over and grabbed a bird in a cage and put it in a console. I climbed in my boat and come up the highway, but I hit three foot waves, 155 mile an hour winds, spun me around two or three times, shot me back that way," Dan O’Gwin said. "I got behind a building, caught my breath and come on back this way. All them cars you see over there were, they was all under water. I tell you what," Dan O’Gwin says, "I was coming up the highway against that wind. I had it almost half-speed. That’s how had that wind was. Spun me around. I went the other way. These guys were following me. They couldn’t find me at first. They found me behind the Take One Video. I said, ‘Let’s get down the highway or we’ll get killed. So we came down the highway, ended up right here and rode the hurricane right up there."
Dan O’Gwin said they never considered evacuating in advance of Katrina. "Waveland’s been here 150 years and there’s never been water here. We knew we’d catch the wind, but we never thought we’d have water here."
"That black guy, we saved him," Howard Jr. says. "Every time we walk past him, he says, ‘Y’all need anything?”Y’all need something?’ because when we found him, he was in a motel down the street on Highway 90," Howard, Jr. said. "He and his wife were up to their necks in water when we found them."
The black guy is Horace Hodges, 58, who lived at the Burgin [sp] Inn [on Hwy 90] and now resides at the Coast Inn. "I had water up my nose. I was hanging from the rafters and my wife couldn’t swim. I said, ‘Baby, if you’re going down, I’m going down with you. We’re gonna hold each other and go ‘Gnnngh’ [makes a drowning noise].’ This man here [Howard] if I had $180,000, he could have it right now. I’m serious."
What are the O’Gwins going to do now?
"That’s a good question. I don’t know," said Dan O’Gwin, who receives a disability pension [he weighs at least 300 lbs], shaking his head grimly. "We’ve been trying to figure that out for two days. Maybe go back to the house and try to clean something. All our vehicles are under water. We don’t have no gas, no oil to change them out and get them going again. That’s all we got, our boats, and they’re high and dry."
"There ain’t a house left from the railroad tracks down to the beach [about a third of a mile]," Dan said. "Nothing left down there. I mean nuthin’."
But the O’Gwins ain’t leaving. "This is our home. We’re going to stay here as long as we can stay here."
"I just want to rebuild," Howard, Jr. says. "All our jobs got wiped out, Howard Jr. says. "We got knocked strictly off the ladder." But in the short term, their kindness is paying off. "They gave us a hotel room for saving all the people."
Long term, the O’Gwin’s will likely stick it out. "This is some of the best fishing here in the whole world–speckled trout, reds, flounder," Dan O’Gwin says. "I like to fish," Howard, Jr. agreed. "I’m 17 and I bought that boat. I saved a lot. It’s the best investment I ever made."
But if another hurricane is headed this way again? Dan O’Gwinn, he didn’t hesitate. "I’m going to the Canadian border. It done made a believer out of us." [Big Howard is 50, his brother Dan (the fat guy) is 54. Son Howard Jr. is 17. Howard Sr. wife Cathy is 44, Son Ben is 15.]
On Roberts Street, a one-lane paved alley off Sears Street in Waveland less than a mile from the beach, bulldozers diligently pushed away debris to clear a narrow path on the pavement among a tangle of wires, metal and wood to accommodate residents trying to find belongings and others looking for family members still missing. The smell of death was palpable. One solider in full military gear, Specialist Fourth Class Tim Brewer, a US Army Specialist E-4 from L Company of the 223d Engineers from Charleston, MS scanned the landscape and shook his head. He’d never seen anything like this.
"Not really. We did a year in Iraq and I don’t think Iraq was this bad. We was all over Iraq. Our main body was in Tikrit."
This was worse than Tikrit?
"I would say so. War is different. They didn’t go in there and bomb everything. They had targets. With a hurricane, it don’t have any targets. It just picks up everything."
At the Log Cabin, a combination bar/liquor store/ and laundry on the south side of US Highway 90 at the corner of Little Bay Road in Waveland, just east of Lake Shore, seven men and two women loiter on the elevated front porch of roadhouse with the rustic log exterior. Inside, there’s what remains of a short, four stool bar, a mud-encrusted pool table and a video dart game flat on the floor next to a wire cage containing six yapping Chihuahua pups. Around the side are what remains of a laundrymat and a liquor store. There’s a half empty quart of tequila under one bench and beer bottles scattered around the porch and in the muddy lot in front. A few of the blue-collar crowd appear to have been drinking in the early afternoon, regardless, or perhaps because of the ruin surrounding them.
"That’s my Lincoln right there," says Micheal Claudel, standing in the lot in front of the porch pointing to the west boundary of the lot. "It was parked over here," he says, pointing fifty feet to the east. Claudel, is none too pleased that his 1992 model Continental was flooded out and no longer runs. He’s not real happy he has no home either. "My house is totally underwater, it’s sideways in the weeds," he says matter-of-factly.
Claudel, a boyish looking blonde haired man who is 40, who speaks with a thick Yat [ie. New Orleanian] accent, knows he should have known better. A native of Tarrytown on the West Bank of the Mississippi River across from New Orleans, he’s been through a few hurricanes. He moved to Shoreline Park near Bay St. Louis six years ago when he gained custody of his son. He tried to ride out the storm with friends including Micheal Cuevas, the owner of the Log Cabin.
"A friend of mine, Micheal Cuevas, owns a bunch of property on this corner," Claudell explained. "We stayed next door in his laundrymat. He stayed in the liquor store with 11 people. Three of us stayed in the laundrymat. I had a place to go but something told me just to stay here. I had a place to go on the other side of I-10, my sister’s house in Pass Christian about 20 minutes from here. I wouldn’t have lost that [his car]. But these are my friends and when I seen themÉ.and it got kinda late, about 9 or 10 [Sunday night] and the storm started up so I stayed here."
That decision cost him his car, but saved a few lives in the process including that of a legally blind man and a pregnant woman past her due date.
"About 7:30 Monday morning, we got two inches of water. Half hour later, we’re standing in three foot of water. It’s coming up pretty damn fast. Real fast. We’re looking at each other, wondering what in the world we’re gonna do? We got on top of the dryers. We saw everybody going out of the liquor store. They had a convoy going out of the liquor store because the water was so high, they couldn’t stay in there no more. So we followed right behind them. When we got right here [at the corner of the elevated porch of the Log Cabin], Gail reached over to the handrail and missed it, and her husband, D.H. grabbed her. It [the water] was rushing like the Colorado raids. The current was unbelievable. I stood right here [on the steps] and swung these boots that were tied around my neck and Gail and D.H. grabbed my boots, friend of mine grabbed my leg, water was all around us, and pulled us all up there. She couldn’t even stand up. He [D.H.] was holding her from there to here, she’s a little short girl, five foot or something, four foot, whatever.
"We all get into the Log Cabin. Water’s still comin’ up. Hour later, it’s higher, so we get on the pool table." Claudell and his friend Bobby McAlister pushed the pool table beneath the attic entryway. "We open up the attic, start putting everybody in the attic [the entrance is directly above the pool table]. We get up in the attic. It’s coming up, coming up, coming up. It took an hour before it rose into the attic. There’s about an inch in the attic. So we didn’t waste no time.
Together with Bobby McAlister, 44, and his brother David Smith, 38, Claudel broke a hole in the attic ceiling. "We said, ‘Now, we gotta break loose,’ Claudel says. "So we busted it loose. I took this right here," he says, holding a table leg, "I took it up in the attic with me. And after we got the vent off we started beating and prying, we got enough room so I could squeeze myself out, then we broke it loose and started transporting the people. Me and Bobby McAlister made a bridge. There was a hole in the roof so we took some boards, one by eight and one by six planks, put two of them together, crossed over the gable of the roof, walked a good 40 feet along the back of the roof [which had blown apart]. We saw the trailer [Michael Cuevas camper adjacent to the Log Cabin] was just getting water on it, so we grabbed two 6x12s and laid them across. The last bridge we made went into the bathroom window on the second floor of another building behind the cabin] Bobby McAlister would take them over the peak and bring them to me. I’d meet them at the bridge and we walked across the bridge, across his camper and across the other bridge and put them in a little bathroom window [on the second floor] the smallest window in that building. [about 24 inches wide]. We got about a foot of water, but we were safe."
Or maybe not so safe. "That was our safety zone, but the building over there was shaking so bad," Bobby McAlister says. "We were just all standing there, waiting for whatever was gonna happen."
"We just tried to stay calm because I knew a bunch of us couldn’t swim," McAlister recalls. "There were dogs. Her dad is blind. She was pregnant full-term. Only thing I can do is try to keep a level head, try to get everybody to safe harbor. It was definitely an experience. That wind sound it was making. Somewhere between supersonic and an almost scary sound, it was constant."
"Now Micheal Cuevas, the owner, is legally blind," Claudel explains. "I’m going over the roof with him" holding and guiding him on the boards. "The wind’s blowin’ a hundred, a hundred twenty five miles an hour, easy."
"We stuck together, me and him," Claudel says of the elderly Cuevas, a short, white haired gentleman. "He listened to every word I said. Got him in the window and everybody was safe."
"We got everybody over there", across the mobile home to the second floor of a back building, "all the pets, how many pets ya’ll got? Six? Six dogs. Two or three birds."
Cuevas, 66, who was raised "in the Kiln" as he calls it, six miles to the north and has lived at the Log Cabin for six years, joins the retelling. Cuevas was in the back room laying down, when his daughter came in and said, ‘Daddy, you got to get up. There’s six inches in here. We got up and come in the liquor store. We stayed a little bit and the water got that deep [belly high]. We all got out of there, got our six Chihuahuas and two birds. We put them in an ice chest and drug them with us to the porch. We stepped into the Log Cabin. When it [the water] come up to the bar, well, then we said we had to get in the attic. Then we put the birds and dogs in the attic and this man Mike and Bobby McAlister and Bobby McAlister’s brothers, knocked that hole in the roof, put these two boards from this building to the trailer, and put two other boards from the house trailer to the two story building and took us one at a time. That man there [Claudel] took me across the bridge that’s about eight inches wide.
"The wind was goin’ 125, 150 miles an hour," says Cuevas. "When you’re going across the roof, you’re like this [Cuevas wobbles like a drunk trying to walk the line.] You slide. It’s a miracle that everybody’s alive. It’s a miracle. We saved six puppies and three birds, and one of the birds got out. We lost one bird. It’s unbelieveable. See all these cars here? There was about six foot of water over these cars. See that two story house over there?" he says, pointing to the group’s final stopping place. "Water got two feet deep up there. Yes, sir, we was gittin’ scared. Lemme tell you another thing, we had a lady who was in a travel trailer over there [in a mobile park behind the Log Cabin] and she tried to climb out of a hole. She couldn’t go. And that woman’s dead. We told the law about it that same day. They waited two days before they went over there." Her head stuck out of the trailer for two days.
"We could see her out this window," Michael Claudel says. "She had a one by one vent at the top of the trailer that she broke out. She stuck her head through it but couldn’t get the rest of her body [out]. So when the water come up, it must have come up over her head. What a horrible death."
"That man [Claudel] and Bobby McAlister saved my life," Cuevas says.
Another man out in front of the Log Cabin calmly mentions he still couldn’t find his 20 year old daughter. He hadn’t lost hope. He was still looking. But he knew the prognosis wasn’t good. As for Claudel, he’s staying in the room where he and Bobby McAlister led the others to safety during the flood. "I lost my car, my home is totaled, it’s just a big mess. But we’re alive, thank God, thank God."
A few miles farther west on Highway 90m west of Bay St. Louis and Waveland and a few miles from the Louisiana line, fifteen full-grown country boys and several dogs mill around a parking lot cluttered with cars, trucks, an RV, portable generators, a tractor, chainsaws, and tools. Two men lean over a generator that’s been flooded out, yanking on the power cord to get it to start. Two others, Todd Shiyou, 35, and his brother, Steve Shiyou, 39, conspicuously wear shoulder holsters with nine millimeter pistols, just in case looters show up. They’re all part of Reggie Barrios’ buddies who saved lives during the hurricane and have been functioning as a freelance emergency management agency ever since. Barrios, 39, owns 15 acres including the lot, the house behind it and the artesian well in back of the house, from which he’s provided cold running water, a precious commodity on the western Mississippi coast since Katrina hit, to one and all.
"This is my home," Barrios said by way of introduction, "and we’ve made it a community camp. Every decision made we discuss and agree on. The current process now is, ‘Stop us now if you’ve got a better idea.’"
A burly gentleman with a tattoo of a cross and Jesus and the phrase "Only He Can Judge" on his right bicep and a tattoo reading "The Renegade" on his left bicep, Barrios rode out the storm because his sister, who lives next door, wouldn’t leave. Instead, she took in about 12 people in her house before Katrina blew in. Reggie had 15 people in his house. "This is high ground most of the time," he said. This is 18 feet above sea level. People come here to run from storms."
If someone had to ride it out with her, it was her brother. Barrios, a mechanical contractor for Southernaire Inc., is a take-charge leader by nature and in this instance, a paragon of Can Do, self-sufficiency, as he explains in his rapid fire, plain-speaking earthy way.
"Late Sunday night it started getting real bad. By Monday morning, we was in the most intense part of the storm. We was watching the trees in the yard. The ground was getting so soaked and loose it [the wind] was blowing them over without breaking ’em. We made it through the brunt of the winds and we got into the eye wall, then the swell came, the storm surge. It come across from these woods [northeast], I watched it come into my house, coming in out of bay. That storm turned counter clockwise and pushed water into the bay and swelled out the bay. Bayou Phillips is right there. It come right over through these woods, which naturally drains in the other direction. It was a reverse pattern. In 15 minutes, the water was deep in my house. Fifteen minutes later, I was out of my house. [about 10 am]
"We was trying to board the building up. We was putting up six inch fence boards. We had a chop saw, a generator, and a nail gun. The water was rising faster than we could board the front door and the side door. When I saw how high, how fast it was coming, I said, ‘Listen, let’s open the doors, cause it’s gonna get blowed out, let the water through and get out. So we got out. We got that Freightliner [truck] running, it [the water] was just about up to the bed. That was the highest thing. It was a diesel. We drove it backwards down the road, and got out of the flood [driving in reverse west]. The water was starting to consume the road at a rate of about 100 yards every ten minutes. So he’s staying ahead of it and we’re all caught up to it, and I knew my sister was in there so we gotta get ’em out."
"We went up to the junkyard [about 100 yards west of his house], there was a boat sitting there. We got it on the trailer, but it wouldn’t start. Got another battery, still couldn’t get it to start. We’re sitting there, before the third battery was in, we got swept off the trailer, so we had to get out of the junkyard. By that time it was rushing across the ditch. We looked back, we saw–I believe it’s the Thomas family, I think it was their son–he had managed to get a boat, wedged the boat ahead of the surge on the road. We got everybody in my house down the road to the Welcome Center [the Mississippi Welcome Center by the state line, in the truck]. The first time we went there, they didn’t want to let us in. The officers that was working said they would lose their jobs. Hello? We’re out here, we made it here. You’re inside. So Red told them, ‘I’ll drive the truck through the door if you don’t.’ They accommodated us with a bathroom corridor, which we were happy to have. [Mark Necaise, 38, one of Barrios’ crew, said, "The security guards said their boss told them to run out the 30-40 people who were already in the Welcome Center"]
"Turned around with the big truck, we come back. We were going to get my family out.
"By the time we got back, I said, ‘Is this your boat?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Thank you.’ I got in. He said, ‘It’s stuck.’ I said, ‘It won’t be for long.’ We started pushing it. The water’s coming. It’s got a big motor. We got it free. Drove it down the highway. Drove down the driveway, over the roofs of the cars, over to my sister’s house. We got on the roof and started stomping on it. We knew, if they weren’t there, they were gone.
"My nephews had popped up. I said, ‘Get em out now.’ Got everybody out, put ’em in the boat, drove back down ahead of the storm surge, wedged it up on the side of the road. Got into the truck and left it [the boat].
"Mark [Necaise, 38, one of the Barrios crew] come back and got a man who was drowning in the ditch out. I don’t know who he was. By the time he was through making the third trip, we’re running out of eye wall. He brought boat back. We left. We got a total of thirty people out of two houses and the ditches."
"We tried to get into Lake Shore to get more people out but there was so many trees down at that water level, it was impassable. You gotta understand, an eyewall is so large, and no more. You got so much time. We’d been watching it on television until around 4 in the morning, my antenna had totally disintegrated before we lost power. 4 we lost information, 4:30 we lost electricity.
"We stood out the blow. That was the thing I was grateful to see, when daylight come, so I could make assessments, see what’s going on outside. We were fortunate trees [pines, some 60 ft high] were blowing away. I was praying, ‘Please go away. Blow the other way.’ Fortunately they did. They [trees] didn’t land on the house. We were beneficial this building is solid block [cinder block] and survived Camille. It’s got two roofs on it, so we knew it had a better chance than any other structure did. But this wasn’t the hurricane to be here in.
"I told my sister at nine o’clock the night before, go to NASA [the Stennis Space Center nearby]. They’ll let you in. She didn’t do it."
But the Barrios crew didn’t stop there. After the storm, Reggie Barrios managed to get ahold of Hancock Bank in Denham Springs and have $1,000 fronted to him on his signature. The crew went to Wal-Mart, spent $600 on shoes, socks, underwear, footpowder, towels, shirts, the basic necessities, and a new well pump. "We didn’t have time to wash. We were still standing in mud," Barrios said. "We brought it back, hooked up it, God willing, it worked."
"I got running water right now." [at a time when ice and bottled water were just beginning to be brought into the county by relief workers].
"I got four of ’em [wells] on my property, one of ’em free flowing if you want to catch water."
Barrios says his motivation to keep helping after the storm passed was simple. "Because they got nowhere to go. And if they stay here without water and sanitation, you’re gonna die," he said bluntly.
"We trying to move our trash away from us. We’ve got water. We have systems in here that don’t require city power–they’re gravity feed septic systems from the old days. They work. They’re getting the water out. We can use the toilet, we can wash our hands."
He escorted a visitor into the front room, whose floor is clean and smells of bleach. "See, this room we took back today. But look at the rest of it," he said, walking into a dark hall way, thick with mud. The rooms on each side are a mangled clutter of furniture, fixtures, wires, metal, and music equipment including drums, speakers, and the Fender jazz bass he’d bought a couple days before Katrina. "I never got to play it," Barrios shrugged. The flood water had risen to the ceiling ("I’ve got standard eight foot ceilings and you see them blowed out. I haven’t found the water line yet."). The damage was complete.
"This is my home. Set aside the monetary damage. Imagine the turmoil if we wouldn’t stayed in it. I found pieces of my sister’s furniture in my house. One of the table chairs from her house was in this hall. It was a very strong version of that tsunami." The comparison was apt and accurate.
"Gangrene, tetanus is our number one jeopardy," he said, walking on board into the backyard toward a pipe spewing clean water. "We’ve got one shower in a camper we’ve been using. We’re going to clean up one of these bathrooms next. I make everybody spray bleach water on the floor before they get in, making them keep their feet dry, put powder on ’em. The last two days we’ve been blessed not to have rain. We’ve put walkways everywhere. The number one most important thing I tell ’em is Keep your feet dry ’cause that’s what’ll put you down."
"It’s a standing order, Anybody wants free-flowing water, can have it," he said while rinsing his hands in the water trickling out the pipe. "We’ve got a washing machine on the way because we have infants, we have mothers who are dependent because they have to maintain these infants.
"Again, what’s gonna happen here is long term issues. We cain’t let children get sick. We don’t have a hospital. They have a piece of a hospital left. I stuck a nail in my foot the day of the storm when I got blowed out in the surge and two days later I had to lance it with a steak knife, get the infection out of it, and pack salve in it until I can get somewhere and get something and keep from ruining my feet ’cause I know what I gotta do to keep them."
"It was a bad situation, but it’ll get worse. People thinks the worst is over but for the ones living here now, it’s just begun. The shock is all that’s over. The reality is here to stay. I’ve been here since Camille. I know what Camille did to this place. I was standing a hundred yards from here. I was less than four years old and I can tell you, it made an impression on me, but it cain’t scratch this."
"Nonetheless, like I said, this is a blessing from God to have this," he said, glancing at the well water flowing out gently. "Clean, 800 foot deep water. It is potable. They have recommended that we don’t drink it. And that’s because they say of the possibility of bacteria as a precaution because we have enough bottled water to carry us through. But we would if we have no choice, and I would consider it the safest source, save set aside the bottled water. I have been drinking it. I stopped when they told us to, but I will drink it again if we run out [of bottled water]. I pray we don’t."
He’s not stopping here.
"My next concern is we get more tractors mobilized. I got my tractor up as soon as the water receded, my generator obviously, a few electrical tools, salvaged all the hand tools, I got my old winch-driven truck running, which is a ’78. All of the modern vehicles you can forget it. The computers are gone. But the antique stuff, we got it running. The next concern is fuel. If fuel runs out, we’re down to washing and drinking from this well outside. If we can get more generators and more fuel, we can achieve more sanitary levels and more solitude, I believe."
Barrios was beginning to sound like the ideal that FEMA is supposed to be.
"Last year, I shut my business down and went to Florida when Ivan came through and Frances and Jeanie. We stopped in Pensacola where Ivan was. For whatever reason, we would up going to Vero Beach. Having survived several hurricanes, I’ve worked disaster relief, I’ve worked ice storm ’94 in the Delta.
"I do know if you don’t lose heart, you can bust through to the other side.
"I’ve been back to those places a year after it happened and I see, yeah, I can tolerate this. This is family property four generations. I kept it manicured like a park. In fact I was going to make an RV park. We were in the process of making a store out of this," he said, referring to the house "and a park out of that," nodding towards the spacious back yard.
"I’m going to immediately make a store now. People need commerce here. I have money in my pocket, nowhere to spend it, nothing to buy. If there was a store here, anywhere local, we could buy things we need. We need stores now."
"Fuel is our most pressing demand. We have probably 50 gallons of fuel in reserve in that we have several vehicles including my truck which is carrying 30 gallons and other ones we haven’t drawn it out of yet. I’ve drawn money out and we’ve got people going in different directions to get fuel. We’ve sent them north. We’ve sent them to Pascagoula, to Louisiana. Get it now. Money is not our problem. Commerce is."
He peeled off $100 in twenties and gave them to one of his buds, who says he heard the BP in Diamondhead had opened, although it turned out to be nothing but a rumor.
So what can people do?
"Number one, pray. The second thing is, if you think you have anything that can be usable in this situation–generators, fuel, money is a tool, it’s an asset–anything you’re willing to give, get ahold of somebody, get it to them. The government moves a large quantity of stuff at a slower pace. The fast moving organizations are the churches and the individuals and charities that are private. They don’t have bureaucracies to go through. They can pack the car and leave tonight. They don’t have to wait on a signature. And we need them here. Bad."
"Lemme tell you something, south of St. John’s Church, is there no building standing period. Not one. There’s a half ice house and a water tower at the bayou [Bayou Phillip] Where they were building a casino, you can forget seeing that in the next three or four years. It’s gone.
"This is Lake Shore [where Reggie is] We come under a Bay St. Louis mailing address. If you wrote me a letter, you would address it to Bay St. Louis.
My address is 7431 Highway 90, Bay St. Louis. That’s the mailbox out there with the prop marks on it. Mark ran over it with a boat, pulling a man out of the ditch."
"I’ve survived on this hill [18 feet?] two Category Fives. Will I be here for another one? No. You can believe one thing, when it comes to the point I have to make the decision to leave, if my gut and my head, if just one of them says go, I’m gonna take their word."
"I can choose to leave any day," Reggie Barrios said with steely resolve. "But once I’m gone I can’t come back to help them." It’s pretty clear the thought never entered his mind.
Reggie plays many musical instruments and often has jam sessions at his place. He likes “blues, ZZ Top (in that order), all kinds of music, except hip hop” although he allows Christian hip hop is OK.
Captain John Rigolo, leader of eighty troops from Virginia Task Force Two from the Virginia Beach, VA, pauses while his troops rested under the twisted awning of what once was a gas station in Waveland.
"We’re part of the national Urban Search and Rescue teams." He turns to his troops. "Hey, fellas, mill about smartly, they’re going to take some pictures. OK? We got down here Tuesday morning. We came here to do search and rescue, to find live victims, patients if you will, and fatalities. We’re marking fatalities for the teams coming behind us.
"This is a tough one. Our team operated at the Pentagon in the aftermath of 9/11. A number of our guys operated at the World Trade Center. We saw a lot of destruction at both of those, but here the destruction is widespread.
"People who may not have had a lot to start with have even less now. It’s tough."
His team had yet to do a rescue, Rigolo said. "Unfortunately, all we’ve had so far is fatalities. We have done some animal rescues the last couple of days. Most of it has been recovery. A decent amount, yes sir.
"It’s tough. You see a lot of destruction, a lot of widespread loss. People have lost everything The stories we’re hearing about people who’ve ridden out the storm, living in their attics, one guy jumped on a boat, tied a sailboat to a tree, another lady who pushed her children up into it. She hung on to the bottom of a tree when the storm surge came through. Incredible stories of survival.
"We’re just about done with our search of this operation. What we’re doing, we’re hitting every street, every house, every structure. Going through the debris fields looking for any possibility of survivors, fatalities as well, identifying those for closure on that."
"We’re about to move our operation here to another location."
"Our group has a lot of experience. We have deployed a number of times during the last year for hurricanes. We were down in the panhandle of Florida, searching structures there. We’re well trained for this one, unfortunately." Katrina, Rigolo said, is "the worst I’ve ever seen."
Rigolo recalled one particular incident. "A woman found us and asked us to go to her mother’s house. We went by her house and we would see it was damaged very severely, and her mom’s car is visible in the garage, but she [the daughter] couldn’t get into the house because of the debris field. Her mom’s in there and I hope she’s alive. So we’re going to go in and look for her. That wasn’t even in our area. Our area was a couple blocks away. We go in there and start working away and a dog starts barking. The lady said, ‘Oh, that’s Buddy. That’s her dog.’ You can hear Buddy yapping in the background, it was a small Shitzu [SP?] The lady cried a heartfelt, ‘Mom, mom! Buddy, Buddy!’ started yelling out. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God’. All of sudden, in the house, we found her mom. Obviously, the turnout wasn’t good, but the positive side of it was, that we got Buddy. Buddy was actually entrapped in some debris and trees, we extracted him, turned him over to the daughter. She was very teared up. A very sad moment was a very good moment. The dog survived–she got at least a piece of her mom, something very important to her survived the storm. Turn that off now," Rigolo instructed.
He then related how his troops, a very tough bunch, were emotionally moved by the moment.
"Camille was a lady. Katrina is a bitch."
Shorty Necaise, 45, Bay St. Louis, who lost his wife in the storm surge. "Waveland is completely gone. It’s bad when you go down to the beach and you don’t know where you’re at. City hall’s gone. St. Claire’s [Catholic] Church is gone.:
"We’d never thought something like that would happen. This is worse than Camille." Brian ‘Hootie’ Adam, director, Hancock County EMA. "Hancock County was in the bulls-eye."
"This is the price you pay to live in Paradise." Timothy Shiyou, 37, Lake Shore. His two cousins flanking him said Tim was still in a state of shock.
"FEMA didn’t even have Pearlington on its map." Resident of Pearlington checking into a motel in Canton, MS on Saturday night.