911 callers reflect on desperate pleas for help during Katrina

911 callers reflect on desperate pleas for help during Katrina
Then 10-year-old Sarah Jeanfreaux grabbed the family bible before retreating to the attic. (Photo Source: WLOX)
Then 10-year-old Sarah Jeanfreaux grabbed the family bible before retreating to the attic. (Photo Source: WLOX)

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Panic. Desperation. That's what was heard in their voices - the people who called 911, begging for help during the height of the storm because they were trapped in their homes.

Residents caught off guard by Katrina's fierce storm surge did the only thing they knew to do - call for help.

DISPATCH: "911, What's your emergency?"

UNIDENTIFIED CALLER: "Please come help us. The water's going over my head. I'm about to die."

CALLER - LOU BLOMBERG: "I just want to let you know that me and my mamma are going to die. We're trapped in our house and it's falling apart."

A decade later, the voices still haunt Sheri Hokamp, the 911 dispatch supervisor in charge on that fateful day. Hokamp was the person who had to remind her staff that no matter how desperate the calls, they were not allowed to send help.

"Which is what we do," said Hokamp. "We take care of people and at the time, we felt like our hands were tied and we were not able to do what we do to keep our citizens safe."

As floodwaters invaded homes, people called emergency dispatchers knowing they wouldn't make it.

DISPATCH: "911 What's your emergency?"

IDA PUNZO: "Hi Baby, we were stupid. We're down on the beach."

DISPATCH: "The only thing I can tell you to do is do what you gotta do, because we can't get anybody down there right now."

IDA: "Well, if worse comes to worse, my name is Ida Punzo... and tell my family I love them." 

When Punzo dialed 911, she had already accepted her fate.

"I remember sitting on the couch and having a good heart to heart with the Lord saying, 'This is it Lord. I'm not afraid. I'm ready.'  And well, I knew. I knew I was going to Heaven then."

But first, she needed to do something very important. She needed to leave a message for her daughter.
"I'd like to tell her that I love her unconditionally," Punzo said through tears. "And that I'm sorry because I didn't want to die without saying goodbye."

Punzo has since reconnected with her daughter. They both still live in South Mississippi, but Punzo says she will evacuate the next time a major storm heads our way.

Some of the most difficult calls to take, came from children.

DISPATCHER: "Sarah, it's ok. Your daddy's gonna take care of you."

SARAH: "I'm scared, I want to get out of here."

DISPATCH: "I know baby. But your daddy's going to take care of you ok?"

"I remember sitting on the couch and my parents went and dialed 911 and they got them to talk to me," recalled Sarah Jeanfreaux. "I just did not understand how they could not come get us."

Sarah was only 10 years old at the time. Her family lived in Eagle Point, and found themselves trapped by the rising water.

"I just remember sitting there watching the family pictures just come off the wall and float by me. And that was just I think the most devastating moment," Jeanfreaux said. "Just seeing things start to... like my house, float by me. All of our memories."

The only thing Sarah grabbed before taking refuge in the attic was her family Bible. She clung to it the entire 12 hours.

"It was just something that was special to our family and this can't be replaced. You know, I can get more toys. I could get more clothes. But I could never have this again."

Sarah still has that Bible, and says it stays next to her bed. She now has her own family, two children and a husband. And they, too, chose to stay in South Mississippi.

And Sheri Hokamp is still a supervisor at the Biloxi Dispatch center. After living through the horror of Katrina, she doesn't want to remember the bad. Instead, she took away one very important lesson.

"I hope that I never stop to gauge anything against Katrina. I want it to be in my mind's eye, worse than Katrina was so I can actually be on the front side of that on what to expect, and to get these people where they need to be ahead of time."

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