Coast Dispatchers Honored For Grace Under Katrina

Grace under pressure. That is how a national organization describes how coast emergency dispatchers handled the life and death calls that flooded in during Hurricane Katrina.

On Tuesday, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials made stops in Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties. Officials say they wanted to recognize all the dispatchers who were on duty in the hours during the hurricane. The A.P.C.O. with the help of several other public safety organizations raised $25,000 in gift cards for the dispatchers.

During those long hours when Hurricane Katrina ravaged South Mississippi, many dispatchers say they felt everything from helplessness to hurt to anger. Gulfport Police dispatchers shared their experiences.

It broke his heart, but on August 29th, dispatcher Brent Chapuis had to tell people fighting for their lives that help wasn't on the way.

"I hope I never have to say it again," he sighed.

In the hours after Katrina's winds picked up, Chapuis says he must have taken 80 frantic calls for help, including the desperate pleas of a woman whose house had collapsed on top of her husband.

"She was trying to dig through the rubble to get to her husband and this was obviously right in the middle of the storm and we could not respond. Obviously, she didn't understand at that point," said Chapuis.

"I remember the chief of police was standing behind me and I turned around to him and just shrugged my shoulders. What can I do? And he said 'There's nothing you can do.'"

Dispatch supervisor Donna Fox remembers how the voices on the other line trembled with fear

"I still wonder today if some of them made it that we spoke to on the phone," said Fox.

'It's made me realize how valuable life is and how quickly it can be taken from us. There were times when the frustration got to be too much."

"I had a few dispatchers that had to leave the room for a couple of minutes and come back when they regrouped. But all of them handled it really well I think. We haven't had any quit yet."

"I can't imagine leaving in the time that they need me the most," said Chapuis.

During the hurricane some Gulfport dispatchers worked 18 hour shifts. By the way, the man whose house collapsed on top of him did survive.