First responders remember dark days after Katrina

WAVELAND, MS (WLOX) - By Doug Walker – bio | email

WAVELAND, MS (WLOX) - When Hurricane Katrina struck on August 29, 2005, the world of Waveland first responders was turned upside down. As the fifth anniversary nears, they gather at the trailer that serves as the fire station to collect their thoughts and share their memories of that awful day. The memories are painful and bring out the raw emotion of that moment in time.

Lt. Mac Cowand is a police officer, and he remembers how he felt.

"Helpless, and you're looking for help. We were lucky," Cowand said. "We had people from Florida come in who had been through it. Three or four days later, we had Orange County, Polk County and they really helped us out."

In an ironic twist of fate, first responders like Assistant Fire Chief Mike Smith almost became victims themselves.

"When the water came in the fire station and started coming up the hallway, that was very unique and so at that point, it was just survival honestly," Smith said.  "We went from being a rescuer to almost needing rescue."

Cowand said it was very frustrating for the men and women who were so used to helping those in need.

"You have no patrol car, no cell phones, no communication whatsoever with the outside world. You have no way to get around and do anything for anybody because everything is completely inundated."

But Smith said they managed to get out and walk through what was left of the city, and offer what little aid and comfort they could.

"And I remember the morning after walking down Gulfside and I was walking over trees and through the debris and people were emerging from their homes that morning and it was like,  I related to the after effects of a bomb dropping. People walking out, they looked dazed and confused and everybody looked like that."

But even in the midst of all that misery, the presence of the first responders stood out.

"Just to see us, I think made it a lot better for the citizens because they knew that not everything was gone," Fire Captain Tony Mallini remembered.  "They were just happy to see somebody else."

Standing and walking along the still desolate parts of the Waveland beachfront, it brings to mind the incredible sacrifices made by the first responders.  Those sacrifices did not go unnoticed by the public in the days and weeks after the storm. There was a sense of real gratitude for what they brought to the table.

Howard Parker, a detective with the police department, recalled the tears of joy from desperate citizens.

"Some people would cry and they would just thank you. Something as simple as a bag of ice meant the world to some of the people after the hurricane," Parker said. "They would show emotion and break down and cry and let you know they appreciated what you were trying to do, and let you know that they were thinking about us and were wishing they could give something back to help us at that time."

The final death toll in Hancock County was 56. Despite the danger, and their own losses, every first responder told us they wouldn't think twice about doing it all over again if another Katrina should ever strike the coast.

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