Cover Story

From Katrina's Chaos...

A Reason To Give Thanks

Story by Bill Sherrod, Managing Editor

Photos by Thurston Howes

Workers from electric cooperatives in Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware found mountains of gnarled trees and a state of general destruction when they arrived in the battered Gulf Coats area of Mississippi to help restore power and rebuild electric-distribution systems destroyed by Katrina.

From time to time, we forget how lucky we are. Then, something like Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita comes along, and the reasons we have for giving thanks come into sharp focus.

So it was this year as hurricane season approached. Predictions were for a higher-than-normal number of hurricanes spinning in like reckless, destructive tops from the Atlantic. With memories of past storms still in our minds but fading with time, we went about our daily tasks, complaining about the rising cost of gasoline, concerned about affairs in distant lands, and, in general, just getting on with life.

As Katrina brewed, there seemed at first to be no great cause for alarm. Indeed, even as it crossed southern Florida into the Gulf of Mexico, the storm did not appear overly threatening. But as it traversed the Gulf, building in intensity and menacing the heavily populated coastal region, concern began to mount.

Katrina’s Aug. 29 landfall, slightly off-center from a feared dead-on strike at New Orleans, nonetheless wrought death and destruction in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. New Orleans, at first seemingly spared the worst effects of the storm, was soon inundated when its protective levees gave way and water rushed in, trapping many residents who were unable or unwilling to evacuate the below-sea-level city before the storm hit. In very short order, the situation became a full-scale disaster. 

This is when we started to see imagery and words about the horrors unfolding in the stricken area, especially New Orleans. News accounts, some of which turned out to be fabrications, concentrated on the worst behavior. Much of America watched in stunned disbelief as the media, intoxicated with the ever-worsening state of affairs in the Gulf states, radiated wave after wave of apocalyptic reportage.

Largely unnoticed, especially early on, were the charitable, selfless, even heroic efforts of people, both within and outside the stricken area. From school children raising money to help hurricane victims to electric cooperative employees working to restore power in the Gulf area, the better instincts of Americans kicked in, and this is a story that needs to be told in this season of celebration and thanks.

The sixth and seventh cooperative principles, “cooperation among cooperatives” and “concern for community,” are the driving ideas behind the cooperative tenet of mutual assistance. All across the nation, electric cooperatives began dispatching crews of linemen and construction specialists. Literally thousands of cooperative workers made their way to the stricken Gulf Coast states to help their electric co-op brethren restore and rebuild electric systems.

All 16 of the electric cooperatives in Virginia, Maryland & Delaware sent crews, contract workers, and/or cash donations (totaling more than $50,000) south in the wake of Katrina. The Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives’ Safety and Training Services Department assisted in procuring 

crews and helping with logistics as the workers moved into the Gulf Coast area and rotated out. As the November-December issue of Cooperative Living was going to press, workers from this region were still on hand, helping out in Louisiana and other affected areas of the Gulf Coast.

To try and chronicle some of this effort, Cooperative Living sent award-winning photographer Thurston Howes into the fray on a three-day photo assignment. His pictures, and the things he saw, tell the story of cooperative helping hands and the goodwill of people helping people in a time of dire need.

Howes departed at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13, drove through the night and arrived in Gulfport, Miss., at 1:45 p.m. the following day.

Upon arrival, Howes said he was struck by the upbeat attitude of the people in the stricken area. “The night before I left, I’d watched the television coverage of the affected areas, and the stories were always of people complaining about how bad they had it,” said Howes. “When I got to Gulfport, all I heard was positive, upbeat people with their noses to the grindstone, digging out in a monumental way.”

The residents of the devastated areas were hugely appreciative of the visiting cooperative crews helping to restore order to their lives, as well. “One of the things I heard over and over again was how much help the workers from up north were,” Howes noted. The local people told Howes, “ ‘We can’t believe how much we’ve gotten done with your crews.’ They said the crews from up here were the hardest-working crews they had ever seen — they said they’d strung more wire than they would have ever hoped for and were literally weeks ahead of the schedule they’d set for repairs and restoration work.”

Workers from Virginia, Maryland and Delaware who were on hand to help with restoring and rebuilding in Mississippi were as upbeat as the residents of the stricken area. “The crews from here all had positive attitudes,” said Howes. “Some were staying in a tent city set up to accommodate some 2,000-plus people, some were staying in churches – people were spread all about, and the common denominator was that none of these places were what you’d call comfortable.”

There were challenges in finding food, sleeping quarters, and in locating work sites, since most all of the street signs and many of the landmarks used in giving directions were wiped out by the storm. “It was logistically difficult for everybody to find their way and do their job,” Howes noted. Eventually, people started using larger, more permanent landmarks and geographical features when giving directions, he added. There were other regional peculiarities that the help from up north had to get used to, as well, such as extra-hungry mosquitoes and “love bugs,” which appeared by the millions each day at about 10 a.m. and quickly coated any vehicle moving through a swarm.

Everyone had a story. Thurston Hendry, one of the local co-op employees who helped Howes locate workers from Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, noted that his daughter had just built a new home that was completely demolished by the storm. When asked what his daughter would do, Hendry said, simply, “We’ll just start over again.”

When Howes asked a local woman if there were any places in Gulfport to get a meal, she answered, with bright, chamber-of-commerce goodwill eyes, “Yes, there’s this great place called The Chimney …” Then, her eyes clouded as she added, “But it’s gone now … Everything’s gone now.” And she started to cry.

Poignancy was manifested in many ways, from mismatched flip-flops lined up beside smashed houses, to children’s toys lodged in the tops of trees, to a band of good-natured, benevolent, modern-day hippies who tore about the demolished landscape distributing food and water to workers and displaced local residents.

“The cooperative workers from Virginia, Maryland and Delaware were extremely positive,” said Howes.

“They all had good attitudes about being there and what they were doing in trying to help, because all of the local people were so appreciative of their efforts. And this made the guys from up north even more thankful for what they had back home, waiting for them. They were happy to be on the Gulf Coast helping out, but they were all looking forward to getting back home, back to their families,” he added.

Bo Goodin, staking engineer for Powell Valley Electric Cooperative, summed it up this way: “It was very gratifying to be back home with my family, but it was very depressing leaving the devastation behind, knowing what the residents would have to endure in the coming months. 

“I felt very proud knowing the work we did to restore power helped improve the situations of the victims of this tragedy. Although since returning we have a greater appreciation of being with our families and in our homes, our thoughts and prayers are still with those people who lost so much — their homes, possessions, and more importantly, members of their families.”


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