Painful memories

Published 8:58 am Friday, August 29, 2014

Bogalusa and Washington Parish residents know all too well what happens when a category 5 hurricane makes landfall nearby.

Although Bogalusa and Washington Parish didn’t suffer the destruction that some nearby areas did from Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall nine years ago today, local residents still suffered collateral damage that continues to be felt today.

Current Bogalusa Police Chief Joe Culpepper was a detective on the force Aug. 29, 2005. He remembers the destruction from high winds that knocked down power lines and uprooted trees. The storm knocked out communication between agencies and cellphone signals were non-existent.

“It was just terrible,” Culpepper said. “Half the roads in town were blocked from downed power lines, and the heat was terrible. There were really no unaffected areas in town.

“If you weren’t here, it’s hard to imagine the hell we went through,” Culpepper added. “We had trees on houses, and we passed out water. We had several deaths attributed to the heat. We were spared the flood damage.”

Culpepper said neighboring police departments from Birmingham, Las Vegas and Lake Charles came in to assist. He said the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Department also came in, but soon returned to Lake Charles to deal with Hurricane Rita’s destruction. He said the Pennsylvania National Guard unit also arrived in town.

“A building in the industrial park was taken over as a command center,” Culpepper said. “The storm physically devastated the town because of all the downed trees and power lines. We had no communication with landlines or cellphones. We were cut off from ourselves. We had to be on our own for a while before people realized we needed help.”

Culpepper said church groups from all over arrived in town to provide much-needed meals and distribute water.

“The government finally kicked in and decided to help a little,” Culpepper said. “We all worked together to get through it.”

Former Daily News Managing Editor John Walker shared his recollections.

“I arrived in Bogalusa on Sunday, Aug. 21, as managing editor of The Daily News. Since Stephanie (my wife) was still in North Carolina, I lived at The Cottage on North Border. The Saturday before Katrina hit, we put out the final daily edition of the newspaper, and the last story Miss Bob Ann (Breland) put on the page was a Katrina piece that had a color map of its projected location.”

Walker said the staff took precautions before leaving.

“After we put the paper to bed, Miss Bob Ann, business manager Ann Crosby, bookkeeper Mildred Newman, press manager Earl Lott and I covered everything electronic with plastic to protect it from water from potential leaks.”

Walker did some work before leaving town.

“I spent Sunday taking photos after promising my wife and sister I would leave town by 2 p.m., heading to our family home in Smith County, Miss.,” Walker said.

“On Tuesday, I returned and entered on Highway 21 from Varnado. I thought I knew where I was but missed Border Drive completely and was amazed at the trees covering Louisiana Avenue. I remember the roar of chainsaws and the army of people helping start the recovery. We didn’t have much damage to the building, and the plastic protected the press equipment and computers, but there were leaks in the mailroom that we were still battling when Hurricane Rita hit weeks later.

Walker said the newspaper made do.

“We ran off generators for weeks, despite having our feeder line right behind the building,” Walker said. “I recall the day our heroes from Duke Power got us hooked up. An interesting thing was that one of the guys who hooked us up was from Thomasville, N.C., where we had lived. We delivered papers by Red Cross food truck. Kim Gerald laid out the pages and burned them to discs…. We drove them to St Tammany Parish and sent them to Natchez, where the paper was printed.

Director of Washington Parish Communications District Joanna Thomas and Chairman of the Board Jim Coleman said everything that could go wrong during the storm did. The Emergency Operations Center was located on Bill Booty Road at the time. The new Emergency Preparedness Center building on Dollar Road in Sheridan opened a year ago.

“It was a complete communications failure,” Coleman said. “The facility on Billy Booty suffered roof damage, and the helicopter landing pad warning light tower was blown down. The storm rendered every communication system inoperable.”

Coleman said the parish was simply cut off from the outside world.

“Almost every road in the parish was blocked by trees that were blown over,” Coleman said. “It took about 11/2-two days to open up the highway between Franklinton and Bogalusa.”

Coleman said it took approximately 60 hours before communication with Baton Rouge was re-established. Coleman recalled the first words from E.O.C officials in Baton Rouge:

“’When we didn’t hear from you, we thought everything was OK,’ Of course, just the opposite was true,” Coleman said.

Thomas said the 9-1-1 system was rendered useless.

“It didn’t operate for two weeks,” Thomas said. “It wasn’t because of our equipment. It was because all the telephone lines were all damaged. My husband said when he went into my mom’s neighborhood on Lona Restor Road that it looked like a bomb had gone off.”

Thomas said some parish residents were without power for as long as six weeks.

Coleman said people had to scramble to find whatever basic essentials they could.

“From an individual family perspective, many people in the parish did not have a cushion of money to fall back on,” Coleman said. “Because of that, they typically didn’t have a stockpile of food and water. When it ran out, they had significant problems because grocery stores couldn’t open, gas stations couldn’t pump gas, drug stores weren’t open to fill prescriptions, and there was no ice available. It was difficult for Washington Parish citizens to survive the lack of food, water, electricity and medical help.”

Coleman said parish residents came together to help one another.

“One good thing we found out about Washington Parish is that Washington Parish is where people take care of people,” Coleman said. “In many cases, neighbors took care of neighbors. If anyone had extra food, they shared it.”

Coleman and Thomas lauded the local fire departments.

“The fire departments were very good about helping communities, clearing roads and distributing water and ice,” Coleman said.

Thomas agreed.

“The paid and volunteer fire departments were just awesome,” Thomas said.