Retirement Home Residents Recall Katrina's Wrath
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sep. 2, 2005 It was hot, muggy and scary. Temperatures hovered above 95 degrees in the 11-story high-rise home built for more than 600 military retirees, and there wasn't any power or water as the aging veterans peered through windows watching the total devastation hurricane Katrina left behind, including cars floating around the 49-acre complex.
Four residents evacuated from the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Miss., were among hundreds bused to Washington to stay in the home's sister facility in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. From left to right are Naomi J. Pointer, 81; Mary McLeod Nelson, 82; Barbara Folk, 82; and Sara "Sally" Manning, 80. Photo by Rudi Williams
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Naomi J. Pointer, 81, a World War II-era member of the WAVES, for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, and three other former WAVES sat around a table today in the dining room of their new home at the Armed Forces Retirement Home here, counting their blessings.
Pointer was among more than 450 retirees evacuated from the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Miss., after the hurricane hit on Aug. 29. She arrived today, along with hundreds of other evacuates, after a two-day bus ride from Gulfport, where Katrina left widespread, devastating damage along the Gulf Coast.
Pointer said when she heard that a terrible hurricane was headed to Gulfport, she initially thought, "What do I have to do to get out of here?"
After calming down a bit, Pointer said, she realized everything would be fine. "I wasn't really concerned, because I knew we'd get out all right," she said with a chuckle. "But here I am without my suitcase. It didn't come up on the bus. So all I have is a little ditty bag."
Asked what it was like riding out the storm in the 11-story high-rise structure, she again chuckled and said, "very wobbly." Nodding her head toward the other three women seated at the table, Pointer said, "We all were on the eighth floor. It was terrible!"
"It was horrific," added Barbara Folk, 82. "It sounded like rocks hitting the windows, and we could see later that the windows were chipped. There wasn't any lights in the stairwells -- no lights anywhere! No water! I think the worst part was not having any water. And the heat! It was terribly hot. It was like 95 degrees outside."
"But we were alive!" said Pointer, whose brother, Donald Gilley, also was a resident of the Gulfport retirement home. She said he left for Beaver Lake in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas two days before Katrina slammed into Gulfport and surrounding areas.
"He made a phone call to the home, and they told him to stay put," Pointer said.
Folk said they'd been assured the building would stand up against 200 mph winds, or better. "So we felt that we were in a very safe place," she said.
"They'd asked that we all stay down on the first floor. Then all of a sudden, we looked and there was water seeping in under the doors. The wind was blowing. The kitchen and everything was flooded downstairs, so they weren't able to do anything for us," Folk noted. "So they scrambled around and found some bread and made sandwiches for us. They got water up to us. We fared very well."
She said that she and Sara Manning, 80, had planted a flower bed in the front of the building. "We were so proud of that and the flowers were blooming," Folk said. "We watered them every two nights. Everybody was saying, 'Well, you don't need any more water.'"
Manning said the group of women never thought about not making through the storm alive. And, she said, there isn't a word to describe how good the staff was to the residents. "I don't know where they got the strength, or even all of the supplies they had for us," Manning said. "I'm just speechless as to know how to thank them for taking such good care of us. They were wonderful!"
"Most of them knew that they probably didn't have a house to go home to," Folk added. "And they were taking care of us. They were staying there with us, but they didn't know whether their homes was existing or not."
Manning agreed. "Their concern was to keep us safe and in a place where we would be safe," she said. "They were with us day and night.
The consensus among the four senior citizens is that they'd love to go back, but I don't know if the building in Gulfport can be saved. Manning called the home "magnificent" and "wonderful place to live."
Mary McLeod Nelson, 82, of Vancouver, Wash., has been a resident at the home since March 2003. She said that although she thought the Gulfport home would hold up, she never doubted she'd be cared for if anything happened to the building. "I think we all had great confidence that the building was strong," she said. "And I've always had confidence in my country and in the people that run our services - Navy, Army, all of them. I never for a moment thought that we wouldn't get out, because they would take care of us, and it's a very good feeling."
Another resident who made the bus trip was Edythe Jackman, 95. In a separate interview, she said the storm and the long ride to Washington didn't faze her a bit.
"Honey, I'm from Oklahoma, where we have tornadoes all the time," she said. "I'm kind of used to all these crises, so it didn't bother me. I wasn't concerned about surviving the storm," she said.
And though she's confined to a wheelchair, the more than 1,000-mile bus ride from Gulfport to Washington didn't bother her. "I like to travel. I like the bus, I like the planes, wherever they send me I go," said Jackman.
Nelson said she was moved by the welcome the evacuees received here.
"These were strangers lined up, and they all clapped and greeted us and said, 'Welcome home!' And that's just what it was," she said. "So this is like coming home to friends and family, although we didn't even know them. They were wonderful, and they even prayed for us. So I'm very touched. It's just a heartfelt thing to think that you're part of something so great as all these service people together care about each other."