Katrina Firsthand: For this Mississippi native, a harrowing night in the attic: ‘Everything is gone’ _lowres

Associated Press photo by MICHAEL MULVEY -- C.J. Higdon walks through the second floor apartment her dad used to live in at the Pelican Cay condos on the beachfront in Biloxi, Miss. several days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Mississippi coast.

Carroll Ibele, 65, a native of the Biloxi, Mississippi, area, sat down with Maisie Tivnan, of Brooklyn, New York, on Dec. 2, 2005, to talk about his experience during Hurricane Katrina. His house was destroyed, and he was in the midst of figuring out what to do next.

What follows is a transcript of that conversation.

Maisie Tivnan: Start from the beginning. Tell me what happened.

Carroll Ibele: On the evening of the hurricane, my children evacuated. They went to Destin, Florida. Me and my wife decided to stay in D’Iberville, Mississippi, with the dog. Everyone on the Mississippi Gulf Coast judged Katrina with Camille, the hurricane of 1969. That’s what caused people to stay home or to evacuate. I was on a dry piece of land and was not worried about no water hitting my home.

That afternoon, a boy who lived next door to me — about 4 feet lower than my elevation — I told him, “Son, come on over to my house.” We hardly went to sleep. We watched the water come up in the backyard and watched it come up the front yard and a little while the boy’s in my house. He said, “I’m 3-foot deep, and it’s coming your way.” We watched it come up. It rose up past the windows on the outside. I was walking toward the doors and, about that time, they exploded and blew open. And the tidal surge hit me, but I was able to jump into the hall and keep from being blown out the back glass door.

MT: What did all that wind sound like?

CI: Like a bunch of freight trains. You’re watching the trees popping out, the wind making sticks out of it. It was like any normal hurricane, except for the tidal surge.

So we are getting the water pretty good in the house. And it’s pouring through all the doors and windows now. So we pull the stairway down. We all climb up into the attic. I look down and my little security safe is floating on the floor. A bell went off in my head. I had another safe that had my life savings in it. It was outside in my shed. Unbeknownst to me, they floated! So while I’m sitting here in the hurricane, I’m visualizing my safe floating away, headed to Biloxi to never to be found again.

We watched the stairway blow away, all the bricks blown out of the side of the house. I had other people’s furniture in my house. The front of (my) house was washed away, and my neighbors’ houses were completely gone.

MT: What did you see?

CI: A 5-foot wave rolling in. One after the other. Like on the beach, watching the waves coming in. While we were in the attic, we broke a hole in the ceiling. We were ready to climb out of the attic. We would all hang onto a vent pipe. If it got too bad, we would go to the big oak tree.

MT: How far did the water get up in your house?

CI: Seven feet. Out in the yard, it was probably 8, 10 feet.

MT: What was it like to watch your house destroyed like that?

CI: My mind wasn’t even on it; that’s the beauty part of the whole thing. My mind was on the safe in the back.

We were in the attic. I tell Derek, “When this is over with, we’re going to look for my safe.” I gave him a figure I’d give him if we found it. (In the end), it was sitting right where I left it. It never floated. ...

It was like a nuclear bomb hit. I’m on a dead-end street, and there isn’t anyone but me, my wife, my dog and my neighbor. And we see nobody. All you have is gray and devastation. The mud on the ground is 2-inch thick and very toxic. If you get a cut or scratch, it eats a hole in you. For two days, I’m looking for Neosporin just to stop the sores.

My children had us for dead because of what they saw on TV. My son was so mad that we did not leave. He was crying with love and affection, but he was mad, too. It was two days later before he could find us.

We were sleeping in the attic on some discarded foam rubber. We heard an engine on the main road off the waterfront. I went running to see who it was. It was my old friend and his wife. They were the first people I’d seen in two days.

We were looking for clothes. I wear a double-large, and everything in my house had S in the collar. It was my skinny neighbor’s clothes!

When I left to go to Destin, I told my wife that it will be three months before electricity is even thought about in our area. I’ve never been so proud of the state of Mississippi in my life. It was up and running pretty quick.

I’ve had trouble with FEMA. You spend five or six weeks straightening out who you are with FEMA. It is steady aggravation now, more so than the hurricane actually was.

MT: What kind of conversations did you have with your wife? What was your plan?

CI: The plan at hand was to get away from all the mess. It was dangerous. As of today, we still don’t know what we are going to do to restore our lives back. You wake up like a goose in a new world every day. A goose gets up in the morning and goes flying. That’s the way we are now. A game plan is not in effect yet.

A friend of mine called me and asked me about it. I told him you have to go through this to understand. You have to live through it. If you are a poor person and you own nothing, or if you’re the richest person in the whole community, the next morning, you wake up and every single thing you own — I’m talking about everything — is gone in one night. Regardless of how much you got. If you’re a farmer or a man with a big business, everything is gone. It’s hard to see it without experiencing it.

MT: Do you regret not having evacuated?

CI: Not really. I never evacuated. Never. The next one I will evacuate. But do I regret it? I don’t know. I can’t answer you. I’m sure it took at least five years off of anyone’s life. It has to affect your life because of the effect it put on your mind. Everyone I talk to says the same thing: They all say their mind does not function like it did prior to the hurricane.

MT: What do you find yourself missing the most?

CI: Normalcy. Routine. When I go to bed at night, I know what I’m going to do the next day. And right now? I’m like a goose and don’t know what I’m going to do the next day. I wake up to a new world.