‘It could have gone all wrong’

2014 April 4
by Don Hammack

There’s a newsroom spring cleaning going on. Two large plastic garbage bins have been moved in and are being filled to the brim daily with all matter of clutter. Somebody was tossing this book. It was a book with the annual American Society of Newspaper Editors prize winners in it. (I don’t think they print them anymore.) Picking it up absentmindedly, the table of contents revealed something by yours truly.

This part of our paper’s prize submission for deadline news reporting was written on Monday, August 29, 2005. It wasn’t half-bad.

IT COULD HAVE ALL GONE WRONG

By DON HAMMACK
SUN HERALD

GULFPORT — It must have seemed a completely plausible plan at the time to Mike Petro and his family.

They lived at 1514 18th Avenue, just east of downtown, just off the beach, just south of the railroad tracks, right off Second Street. He and his wife Andrea, his 30-year-old son, twin 13-year-old daughters, a 6-year-old daughter, a dachshund and a cat thought they’d be able to beat Hurricane Katrina and leave town early Monday morning.

Having disregarded mandatory evacuation orders, it nearly proved a fatal mistake.

When Katrina slammed into the Central Gulf Coast in the early morning hours, ruining what we like to call our little slice of heaven, the Petros’ power went out, interrupting their last-minute packing scheme. Then they heard the water, a strange rumbling train sound.

Their house, more than 100 years old and not built on the cheap like modern ones, began to be ripped apart at the seams.

The family began to move for shelter, angling across the intersection one house north of their lot.

Petro got knocked down by a piece of his house. It plunked him down on a slab of something, he said, while his wife and kids were being herded up the street by the storm surge.

The rest of the family wound up pushed to another house on the east side of18th. Mike Petro’s slab helped him make it up and across 18th Street, and he needed help. He’d had hip replacement surgery recently and he moved with a noticeable limp.

“I was afraid for the kids,” said Petro, his voice cracking for the first time. “You can beat the hell outta me …”

As he stood on the listing porch that was two houses north of the intersection of18th Avenue and Second Street, he nearly apologized for setting up shop in a neighbor’s severely damaged house, using a piece of debris as a cane. He said he was going to leave them a note of thanks.

“I was scared to death by the end,” he said. “But they weren’t,” meaning the dachshund, which they’d managed to keep with them, and a cat that they hoped would be back after expending one-ninth of its allotment of good fortune.

His wife joined him after he was interviewed, having crossed the street. Mike Petro sat on the threshold of the borrowed house, she squatted in front of him. They grasped each other’s faces with two hands, sharing a moment they nearly robbed themselves of by poor decision making the night before.

Around him, even as the back end of Katrina’s feeder bands continued to hack at the coastline, recovery had begun. Two young Seabees who lived in the brick house just south of the railroad tracks were climbing over the piles of debris on18th.

There was a lot of debris. A mess of maroon upholstered pews and the organ from St. Peter’s By the Sea was instead by the railroad tracks. The Episcopal church moved east several years ago when the Grand Casino purchased the old church, with enough slot machine coin to build a beautiful new building, one that’s apparently been demolished.

Also among the debris was the house just north of the Petro’s and in it, apparently an 85-year-old woman and a younger man. They were in the house Sunday night, neighbors said, and Monday morning there was evidence of what had been, but only if you knew what there was when it started out.

There was a perfectly clean silver oxygen bottle, the green paint on it not so much as smudged as it lay among the pickup-sticks wreckage underneath it, but with no hose to lead back to a possible victim.

The Seabees crawled all over the place, hollering for survivors. They’d survived Katrina, with water up to their waists in the first floor of their brick rental.

Petty Officer Third Class Jesse Good said he’d been the target of an insurgent mortar attack while stationed in the Middle East with NMCB 7.

“I haven’t seen nothing like that in Iraq,” said Good, 22.

It didn’t appear there was much for them to hope for in their search.

There was an ironic sign of hope among the wreckage. Lying on a sidewalk north of where the debris field began trailing off, lay a brightly colored, hand-painted, thin wooden plaque.

It certainly had been attached to some kitchen wall some place just 24 hours earlier.

“If you’re lucky enough to live by the beach you’re lucky enough.”

It just didn’t seem too lucky Monday morning for the vast majority of South Mississippians.

Mike Petro and his clan found a sliver, but there wasn’t much else.

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