Opinion Column by Bill Minor – The Clarion–Ledger – August 7, 2015

Katrina book honors heroes


Lots of Katrina 10th anniversary books are coming out, telling stories of leadership, destruction, heroism or recovery after the 2005 hurricane slammed into the Gulf Coast.
Now one, Katrina, Mississippi: Voices from Grand Zero, is markedly different. It uniquely focuses on public health’s role of unsung heroes of the medical community saving lives and helping stunned coastal inhabitants navigate the morass of a lethargic government.


Here you have a book of a response to a colossal calamity unifying a previous untried command concept under the National Response Framework.


You meet such unsung public health heroes as Dr. Robert Travnicek, a native of Nebraska, and his cadre of first responders riding out the great storm from the “bunker,” a sturdy operations center conceived 25 years earlier by legendary Wade Guice of Camille fame. Camille, thought in 1969 to be the “Storm of the Century,” was virtually dwarfed by her sister, Katrina.


Big difference: the state and coastal counties had to bear the burden of Camille, while Katrina brought in millions, and billions, of federal money and federal agencies such as FEMA that did not exist back in 1969. But don’t forget President George W. Bush telling Michael D. Brown, top FEMA guy, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” when Brown had no idea of a calamity happening in the New Orleans Superdome that would cost hundreds of black refugees their lives.


NancyKay Sullivan Wessman, a veteran Mississippi journalist and public health communicator, in interviews, sifted through situation reports and files of first responders who were on the front line when Katrina blasted the area, pushing a wall of sea water three miles inland. NancyKay (that’s what I’ve called her since her country news reporting days) digs out untold personal stories that she weaves into a melange you might think is fiction.


NancyKay had undertaken the project at the behest of Dr. Travnicek, the public health director for the state Health Department’s six-county coastal area, who believed the stories of the “champions of the storm” deserved to be told by an experienced writer..


An ex-bowling alley converted to an emergency operation center in Hancock County somehow sheltered 35 individuals, even while a big part of the makeshift center washed away in the surge as the storm’s eyewall passed close by between Bay St. Louis and Waveland.


The surge swept 3 feet of brackish dirty water through the lower floor of Hancock Medical Center even though the hospital was thought to be located on higher ground. However, the medical center saved all 35 resident patients, some in intensive care. They could not be evacuated on such short notice.


Katrina had destroyed HMC administrator Hal W. Leftwich’s home. From a travel trailer positioned in the hospital’s parking lot, he oversaw putting the hospital back into operation. Thanks to generous grants from major medical equipment companies, critical medical instruments lost in the storm were donated to HMC.


With power out, surgeon Brian Anthony, an Iraq war veteran, repaired an elderly man’s severed radial artery as an assistant held a flashlight. HMC became the refuge for hundreds of stunned citizens in the broader Gulf Coast community, many of them arriving on foot.


In the storm’s aftermath, Dr. Travnicek played a vital, if not thankless, role in deciding that thousands of pounds of shrimp, chicken and other frozen food left by the storm to thaw at the Port of Gulfport had to be destroyed and not eaten by storm victims longing for fresh food. Much of the Coast’s infrastructure had left much of the area with nonpotable water and it became Travnicek’s duty to prohibit consumption of water to block the deadly norovirus that had been detected in some shelters.


Wessman’s takeaway on the state’s next hurricane is “prepare for the worst and pray for the best.”


Bill Minor is a contributing columnist. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson MS 39215.




News feature by Mallory Pickering – The Clarion-Ledger – August 17, 2015

Katrina book honors unsung heroes

NancyKay Sullivan Wessman wanted to tell the stories of unsung heroes who chose to stay put in the dismal aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and work to save lives and restore stability to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.


The former longtime communications director has chronicled them in released book Katrina Mississippi: Voices from Ground Zero, one of several books coming out on this 10th anniversary of a storm that changed lives forever. She will have a book signing at Lemuria at 5 p.m. Thursday.

Written mostly chronologically, the book reads like a novel. It tells the story of 35 public health workers who nearly died in a refurbished bowling alley used as a communication center after the storm. As floodwaters rose, the workers wrote their Social Security numbers on their bodies, certain death was near. Wessman offers special praise to Memorial Hospital at Gulfport, which never shut down during the entire crisis.

The players in this drama are strong, self-reliant and resilient. “These people are not victims; they are champions,” Wessman said.

Wessman was two years into retirement when Katrina struck. She spent much of her time after retiring traveling the world with her husband, Dick, and she noticed after the storm that wherever they went, people seemed to think Katrina was just about New Orleans.

“Now, I love New Orleans. I went to grad school there. It feels like a holy place to me,” Wessman said.
But she also felt Mississippi was forgotten. Many Katrina survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress, Wessman said, and the stories of boots-on-the-ground workers were left untold. So when she was approached in 2008 about writing this book, the passion to clarify misinformation about the storm had already laid its foundation in her heart. Wessman believes this book — one about what really happened in Mississippi throughout the days surrounding Katrina — begged to be written.

Wessman, who writes from a viewpoint informed by 25 years as the communications director for the state Health Department, said the stories are based on personal interviews she conducted over the course of more than two years.

Wessman faced challenges that made the process of completing the book difficult. In 2010, Dick Wessman died suddenly, leaving behind his wife of 15 years. She said she did not write a word for the three years that followed.

Wessman credits her writing group, The Easy Writers, for getting her back on track and holding her accountable throughout 2014 to finish her book. Wessman completed the manuscript at the beginning of this year, spending a couple of months hunkered down in her Fondren home.

“I went to the grocery store, the drug store, and the liquor store. Nowhere else,” she said.

Her respect and care for the people of Mississippi is evident, and with the publication of this commemorative work, Wessman demonstrated her own Mississippi resilience by conquering obstacles to honor the heroes of this storm.


If you go


NancyKay Sullivan Wessman will be signing copies of Katrina Mississippi: Voices from Ground Zero at 5 p.m. Thursday at Lemuria Bookstore. She will read a portion from the book at 5:30. Wessman’s book club, the BB Queens, will provide snacks and complementary wine for all in attendance.

Published by Triton, it is also available for $17.95 on Amazon.




‘Katrina’ a gripping tale of first responders



NancyKay Wessman’s Katrina Mississippi: Voices from Ground Zero (Triton) masterfully chronicles the heroic efforts of first responders in the days leading up to Mississippi’s worst hurricane and its devastating aftermath.


Written with factual flair, “Voices” provides a gripping pageturner of the events leading up to the Aug. 29, 2005, storm that builds in tension like the storm that came ashore with surprising and shocking intensity.



Described as a 250-mile wide entity of “pure evil,” the storm claimed 1,836 lives, caused upwards of $115 billion in damage throughout Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, she relates, and churned a path of wind and water all the way to the Great Lakes.



But the focus of the book is on those who stepped up to confront the storm, prepare for it, survive it, and struggle to make the region whole afterward. Main players are listed in the beginning as champions of the storm. They include the federal, state and local emergency management teams, the local and state leaders, and volunteers. The book describes their fears, hopes and realities as they sought to help the region prepare and recover.



Many of the first responders of the coming storm were caught unaware when they were thrust into the enormity of the region’s needs, much like Joe Spraggins. Recently retired as base commander of the U.S. Air Force/National Guard facility in Gulfport, he accepted a job as director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for Harrison County.



He was contracted to begin work Aug. 29, 2005.



But Spraggins, like many others, saw the storm quickly growing in the Gulf of Mexico and came onboard early, anticipating events and taking action before his official start date, learning by doing how to respond to the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history.



He, like many others on the Coast, watched in awe:

¬ The highest sea surge ever recorded in the Gulf coming toward Mississippi;

¬ Record river levels overcoming bridges designed for 500-year floods;

¬ Windows at Memorial Hospital of Gulfport crafted to withstand 300-mph winds sucked out in showers of glass as patients huddled in hallways;

¬ The power shutting down and water cascading down stairways at the Harrison County Emergency Operations Center headquarters that was built to survive the previously worst storm of Hurricane Camille in 1969;

¬ Harrison County EOC officials finding their options as Katrina hit of “hang on, swim, or drown.”



The tales of those in aftermath are astounding and too many to enumerate, including:

» Then-U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor a homeless person, his house destroyed;

» Emergency management leaders cut off from the outside world, without land lines or cellphone service, wondering why their pleas for aid were not being met, and then watching on a Florida command center’s mobile unit live feeds on CNN about rioting, looting and fires in New Orleans;

» A funeral home owner in tears because his morgue was full, contemplating having to put bodies on the sidewalk.


Volunteers went door-to- door in the most ravaged neighborhoods with physicians in tow, not knowing what they would find. Said one: “They had dead bodies and standing water in their houses. … There was no water, no bathroom, no food, and bodies everywhere.”



Wessman details these and many more events weaved throughout the book filled with tales of unparalleled valor and sacrifice, heartache, and even political intrigue that complicated the responders’ life-saving efforts.



Wessman said in the introduction that she decided to write the book in 2008 when she “realized that nobody had told Mississippi’s story, not really.” While New Orleans got the headlines, the story of Mississippi taking the brunt of the storm seemed almost an afterthought. Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has also penned a book, “America’s Great Storm,” which is also being published in this 10th anniversary of the hurricane, that details the political and social effects of Katrina. Wessman’s “Voices” makes a great companion volume, as the title suggests, from “ground zero.”



Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including “Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them,” now in bookstores.