Gulfport officers share stories of Hurricane Katrina rescues, recovery

Gulfport officers share stories of Hurricane Katrina rescues, recovery

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - They lost their headquarters, 46 vehicles, and 25 employees were left homeless. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina hit, members of the Gulfport Police Department want to send out this message: "We were devastated, but not down".

Two members of the force shared their harrowing experience during the storm, and how Gulfport's finest came together during their time of need.

"They were in the bathroom and in the bathtub and I remember the last words I heard from her was, 'There's water coming up through the drain.'  So she says, 'Let me call you back,'" recalled Elfren Acosta.

But at that moment, Acosta lost all contact with his wife Jennifer. She and the couple's seven-week-old baby boy Brennan were supposed to evacuate to Florida. Instead, the two ended up riding out Hurricane Katrina on the rooftop of their house in Bay St. Louis.

"My wife had taken the baby and put him in car seat, and put a life jacket around it, just in case," said Acosta.

Acosta, meanwhile, was in hurricane mode at Gulfport police headquarters.
"I was very worried about the status of them, at the same time also, I knew I had job here," he said. "Going into homes and finding people stuck in attics and such, trying to get them out, injured people and all that stuff, I just know it was in the back of my mind wondering how's my seven week old little boy and wife?"

Once word got around the station that his family was unaccounted for, fellow officers wanted to help.

"Chief Papania was one of the officers that spearheaded in getting a vehicle for us to go back down to Bay St. Louis trying to locate them," said Acosta.

Leonard Papania, then a police lieutenant, was himself a victim of Katrina. When his home flooded in Bayou View in Gulfport, he tried to drive into work, but his police car took on water and stalled.

"I gathered what I could, radioed in one more time, and just started walking. I remember watching the power lines pop, the trees falling and I'm thinking about this is probably it for me," said Papania.

Papania walked about a mile, before being rescued by fellow officers. Papania said his department has emerged from the storm stronger and better prepared. The employees work in a fortified building now, with an emergency command center and bunk rooms. He credits the leaders before him, and the men and women who showed incredible courage and dedication.

"They did things that were heroic and selfless. While they too were victims, they afforded their cities just fantastic levels of work," said Papania.

That heroism shined when the officers helped save Acosta's wife and baby, found huddling in a neighbor's attic. Recently, his ten-year-old son Brennan took a picture, sitting next to the very truck that was used to rescue him.

"It was amazing support. You truly got to see what they mean by the brotherhood of the police department," said Acosta.

Chief Papania said about 100 employees who worked during Katrina are still with the police department today. The department also made other policy changes. For instance, once the department goes into 'storm mode', all employees must be inside city limits. Plus, no city assets, like cars and equipment, can be in a flood zone.

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