Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Hats off to courage

My Katrina hat
During the last few days of August, leading up to the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I struggled to write an anniversary post. Nope. It just wasn’t going to happen. My heart goes out to those who lost loved ones, homes, livelihoods; and my words seemed inane and meaningless as I considered the magnitude of loss here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and elsewhere.

Last week, however, while I was looking for sun protection for a grandson’s upcoming peewee football game, I found my Katrina hat. That hat unlocked  post-Katrina images and experiences of the marine lab where I worked. 

More than a fourth of the nearly 200 employees and graduate students I worked with at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory had lost homes as well as their offices and laboratories. With the storm demolishing five of the lab's major buildings and flooding all but one of the remaining structures, scientists and students also lost valuable research collections.

Even so, with few exceptions, everyone showed up for an all-hands meeting scheduled 10 days after the storm. Some had set to work as soon as they could get to the lab after Katrina passed. Others arrived the day of the meeting with the clothes they were wearing representing what was left of their pre-Katrina wardrobes. They clustered around the back of a pickup from which administrators announced the official back-to-work day, discussed safety measures and offered assurances that employees still had jobs although work assignments could differ from pre-storm duties.

Nearly everyone left the outdoor meeting and trooped up the hill to help with removal of debris in and around the remaining buildings. Some departed to wait in line at distribution centers for a chance to search through donated clothing for long pants and closed-toe shoes required for working amid the destruction.

The straw panama came my way a day or two later among bedding, clothes, cleaning supplies and other necessities donated by compassionate strangers for lab employees. I was thankful for its heat-stroke prevention qualities throughout the early days, while I trekked around the lab’s 52-acre campus to buttonhole individuals for media interviews or to gather information for expediting emergency housing or meeting other needs. 

These individuals worked in grueling heat and nasty debris-filled mud to salvage any useable instruments, materials and research collections, to clean up remaining buildings in preparation for restoration and to hasten the return to the business of research.

Their courage in action was evident during the hours, days, months, and even years after Katrina. Whether they were the lab’s on-site leadership, graduate students, staff, researchers or faculty, they were heroes all. The university recognized a few for their efforts; most were not. Hats off, including my Katrina hat, to all the heroes of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.


  1. "Hats off to you" for writing such a memorable post! I can't begin to imagine what the destruction must have been like, and I hope I never have to find out first hand...Kathy

  2. a hat from God, i would say. thanks for sharing your memories with us. Katrina will always been in my memories and i was not there except for the CNN 24/7 coverage that shook my heart to the core.Katrina was right up there with 911 in the horror scale

  3. My hats off to the courage shown and all the unsung heros.
    This is a lovely tribute. Thanks for sharing.