Panic And Fear Evident On Biloxi 911 Tapes

Biloxi's 911 lines never stopped ringing.

"Where is your emergency," a dispatcher asked.

Most people gave good descriptions of their locations and their situations.

"I'm on the beach in Biloxi and my apartment has come apart," said one suddenly trapped Biloxi resident. He stayed calm during his 911 call.

A moment later, a frantic woman yelled at her dispatcher.

"How am I supposed to get out? I've got two small kids," the caller asked.

"I don't know maam. We don't have anybody who can get to you," the dispatcher responded.

That's what dispatchers told every person who called as Hurricane Katrina approached Biloxi.

This call bothered dispatch supervisor Sheri Hokamp. When the 911 operator answered, the caller said, "We need some help out here. My house is flooded almost over my head. We almost under water. And I've got 10 kids up here."

Ten kids. Hokamp has no idea if they survived.

The supervisor let us listen to a 911 tape from the day Hurricane Katrina came ashore. As she played the cassette, she suddenly heard the same "cries for help" and "ghosts" that haunted her during the storm.

There was the woman trapped on Crawford Street.

"We can't get to you right now," a dispatcher told her.

Through tears, the woman answered by saying, "The water is going over my head. I'm about to die."

It was the longest, most stressful 12 hours ever recorded in the dispatch center.

Heather Graf had the dayshift. So she was on duty when Katrina hit Biloxi.

"It was chaos. It was complete chaos," she said.

Some callers asked for helicopters. Others demanded boats. But Biloxi followed the guidelines it established when a mandatory evacuation was ordered. It warned anybody staying that law enforcement wouldn't be around as the hurricane came ashore. So Hokamp's staff answered 911 calls to collect names and addresses.

"We answered them because we're trained to answer them," she said.

But it was hard to listen to the pleas, she said, since so many calls "literally had people begging for their life."

The hardest calls to answer while Katrina was barreling through south Mississippi were the one's with panicked children on the other end. One dispatcher tried to calm a girl named Sarah.

"It's okay," the dispatcher told the girl. "You're daddy is going to take care of you, okay baby."

The girl was in tears.

"I'm scared. I want to get out of here," she said over the phone.

"I know baby. But your daddy is going to take care of you okay," the patient dispatcher said.

Biloxi dispatchers answered 242 Katrina related rescue calls during her 12 hour visit. Yet with police under lock down orders until the hurricane passed, dispatchers could only provide advice.

"I felt guilty that I couldn't get out there to help them, because I need to send them help," Graf said. "We had to tell them no, we can't send you help."

Hokamp broke down while fast forwarding the tape to one of her most memorable 911 moments.

"To hear people begging for their life, and the life of their families and we can't just pull them through the phone, we can't send anybody to help them," she said, "It's hard."

Biloxi's 20 dispatchers normally work in an office on Popps Ferry Road. But when Katrina approached, they moved to the city's emergency operations center. That complex is on Veterans Avenue. So they were just a block from the beach while the hurricane pummelled the city.