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Date of Issue: September 08, 2005

'Looking at death's door' - Island native and wife survive Hurricane Katrina

katrina pic
The supermarket across the road from the motel where the Blackwells sought refuge from Hurricane Katrina was nearly pulverized by the stormís fury.
katrina pic
Near Waveland, a house that used to be on the left side of the road was moved completely across the street and now rests on the bank of the railroad track.
katrina pic
According to the Blackwells, this man lost his house, mother and a niece in the storm. He now lives under a canopy, drinking beer and trying to cope with the catastrophe.
katrina pic
Scott and Diana Blackwell stand in front of all that remains of their screen-printing business in downtown Waveland, Miss.
katrina pic
Where houses once stood, only piles of wooden rubble remain.
katrina pic
This shopping center used to house the U.S. Post Office in Waveland, where Diana Blackwell worked.Islander Photos: Courtesy of Loren Ryan

Island native Scott Blackwell and his wife Diana stared death in the face — and lived.

Scott Blackwell grew up on Anna Maria Island and graduated from Manatee High School. His mother once had a beauty salon in the Island Shopping Center in Holmes Beach.

When he moved to Waveland, Miss., about 25 miles west of Biloxi, he was already accustomed to hurricane warnings and evacuations.

"Waveland reminded me of old Bradenton Beach," said Scott, who opened a graphic art studio 10 years ago in the artist's colony then developing along Mississippi's Gulf Coast.

After he and Diana got the warning that Hurricane Katrina had grown from a Category 1 to a Category 4 hurricane, they wisely decided to head inland and got a room at a motel 12 miles from the shore. At the same motel were a few police officers, firemen and sheriff's deputies, and about 175 people who thought they'd be safe from nature's wrath.

Older residents who went through Hurricane Camille in 1957 said the storm surge could never get that far. Scott and Diana figured they'd be safe and sound that far from the raging waters.

They were wrong.

"We heard Sunday morning it was a Category 5, but by then it was too late to leave. I thought we were far enough away, but the water started to rise in the parking lot and people started to get a little worried," said Scott.

When the storm surge burst through the ground-floor doors and air-conditioning units, Scott knew they were in trouble. First-floor occupants moved to the second floor as the water soon engulfed all the vehicles in the parking lot, and reached within a few inches of the second floor. Scott estimated the water rose about 16 feet — and that was 12 miles inland from the coast.

After the winds hit 162 mph, some people, especially the elderly occupants of the motel, started to panic.

"People were frantic. I had to stay calm because other people were starting to really panic. I figured if they saw someone who was calm, they'd relax. I just started telling everyone we'd be OK," said Scott, who is a member of the Waveland Planning and Zoning Board.

"But we were very worried that we'd drown," he added. The group made plans to head to the roof if the water breached the second floor.

"We started to see bodies floating by, including some people who were still alive. One guy had tied his boat to a tree and it just floated up with the water. He swam over to his house, got the boat started and rescued 16 people from the current, but he couldn't get all of them. It was like a giant river flowing past the motel."

"Definitely scary," said Diana, who admitted that she wanted to panic, but kept up a good front for the others who were "losing it."

When the waters receded, everyone expected help to arrive soon, but no one came. Only a few rescue vehicles looking for dead bodies showed up. "Nobody came to give us anything, no one came to tell us what to do," said Scott.

No cars or trucks worked, there was no electricity, no order, no cleanup crews, no water, no toilets and no food. "I suddenly realized we were on our own if we wanted to live," said Scott.

He and a few other people made it across the tree- and debris-littered road to a supermarket that had been torn apart by wind and water. They took essential food items for 175 people, mostly ribs and steaks, water and canned goods.

"We took what we needed to survive," said Scott. "Other people, both black and white, just looted everything. They cleaned out a jewelry store and I saw people carting away refrigerators and other appliances from a Sears store. It was disgusting."

In a stroke of luck, Scott had packed a gas grill in his car that Diane had given him as a present. Amazingly, even after being under water, the grille still worked and had a full tank of gas.

"I started cooking for 175 people. I thought I'd only have to cook for a day or two, but I ended up cooking for four days. We made sure everyone got at least one hot meal and we took care of the elderly, the kids and babies first. Most of the people were in a daze. They didn't understand what had happened to them."

Scott admits that he didn't want to understand what had happened, but he had to learn the truth about his business and the couple's home.

By Wednesday, the National Guard had cleared much of the road leading back to Waveland. Scott got a ride from a friend who had stored his vehicle much farther inland. He and Diana got within two miles of downtown Waveland before debris blocked the road. They walked the remaining distance.

"I was not prepared for what I saw," said Scott. "I knew there'd be damage, but what I saw looked like someone had dropped an atomic bomb on Waveland. It looked like those pictures you see of Hiroshima after the bomb. There was, literally, nothing left of the beachfront houses and businesses except a few concrete slabs."

One wealthy businessman had built a $2 million waterfront mansion that was advertised as "hurricane proof," said Scott. "It wasn't and it isn't there anymore."

For a 25-mile stretch along Mississippi's Gulf Coast, Katrina had turned a once thriving tourist economy into nothing more than a large scrap heap of concrete dust, wood timbers and mud.

"Everything is gone," said Scott. "It's hard for people here to understand by just seeing what little is left on television. You have to experience it first hand. We're still in shock."

The scope of damage is unimaginable, according to the Blackwells. Highways were moved off their foundations. Railroad tracks were pushed 20 feet. A five-foot bed of mud covered the roads. Where once office buildings and residences stood, only a pile of brick rubble or water-logged timber remains. Elegant casinos built to take millions of dollars from gambling-hungry tourists are reduced to millions of pieces of wood and mortar, pulverized like some gigantic hammer pounding rocks into dust.

"It's unbelievable, unimaginable," said Diane.

Scott suggested that Islanders who think they could ride out a storm with the force of Katrina should think again. A storm like Katrina would "wipe out the entire Island," he said.

People who chose to stay on the Island through Hurricane Charley last year would now be pushing up daisies, if the storm hadn't made a sudden move to the right near Port Charlotte, he predicted.

"I grew up here. I love this Island, but don't think for a minute that those winds and waves like Katrina would leave anything standing on this Island or leave anybody alive. The storm surge for Katrina was 35 feet," he said. "And it moved 20 miles inland."

That would have meant water in downtown Bradenton and likely farther east if the storm had pushed up through the Braden River.

After discovering their worst fears about their home and business were true, Scott and Diane still had nowhere to go but back to the motel, and still cut off from the outside world.

Finally, on Wednesday, someone got a generator going and those with cell phones were able to charge their batteries and start calling. Diane got on the phone and reached Scott's sister in Bradenton.

"I said, 'Don't ask how we are, just get in a truck and come get us,'" she said. Scott's brother-in-law Greg and friend Loren Ryan jumped in a van and drove nonstop to Mississippi, reaching the stranded couple Thursday evening.

"We just cried to see them," said Diane. "They were the most beautiful sight."

The couple grabbed what they had and tumbled in the van, overjoyed at the prospect of finally being able to take a bath after five days and getting out of their hell hole.

"We were starting to smell a little stinky," said Scott. "I sure was happy to see Greg and Loren, but a lot of people, especially the elderly, weren't so lucky. They had no place to go, no one to help them. When we left, the Red Cross and FEMA still hadn't shown up. They are still stuck there waiting for help, and the TV media doesn't seem to care about Mississippi. All you hear about is New Orleans."

Scott and Diane reached Bradenton Friday evening and Scott was able to contact friends through his cell phone back in Mississippi, who said the Red Cross had finally arrived with food and water.

For Scott and Diane, however, reaching Bradenton and the Island was like their deliverance.

"We were looking at death's door back in Mississippi," said Scott, "but we survived. I felt I did a stupid thing by not evacuating completely, but no one figured the storm surge would get that far inland. On the other hand, I did a very good thing being able to cook for 175 people for five days and helping them survive."

A friend has given them an apartment in Bradenton Beach to use for the next few months while they sort out their lives. Their future looks neither bright nor clear.

"The support system here for us has been great, but I still think of those people back in Mississippi who weren't so lucky. It's nice to be here, but I still worry about them and the economy. How will we rebuild? What's the first step?"

For Diane, Vermont looks like a good place to live, but Scott said he's got to go back and see what can be salvaged from their home, which thankfully wasn't destroyed, just under water for 12 hours. He's also going to try to help rebuild the city. "I don't know what's going to happen, but I feel a responsibility."

He and Diane admitted they are still "in shock" from their experience, but one day soon will have to face the reality of their future. The economy of the Biloxi area has been destroyed, perhaps for a long, long time.

"I'm self-employed and Diane worked just part-time at the post office. I don't know if we'll start over again back in Mississippi, but I do know I've got to go back."

Safe now in Bradenton Beach, both Diane and Scott said they now pay very close attention to weather forecasts and hurricane predictions. If even a tropical storm is forecast to come ashore anywhere near Anna Maria Island, "We'll be on I-75 heading to Vermont that same day," said Diane.

For messages of good will or offers of assistance, Scott and Diane can be reached at 720-7670, or mail and e-mail in care of the Blackwells can be addressed to The Islander, 5404 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach FL 34217, or news@islander.org.

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