Gov. Barbour on Katrina: "We were making it up as we went along"

Gov. Barbour on Katrina: "We were making it up as we went along"
The Christmas Card Haley Barbour sent out in 2006.
The Christmas Card Haley Barbour sent out in 2006.

JACKSON, MS (WDAM) - It's a scene ten years can simply not erase.

"I don't think any of us were prepared for this," said former Governor Haley Barbour.  "We were confronted with what we had thought was unimaginable and now it had become reality."

On a Monday morning back in 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast region, leaving two thirds of Mississippi a major disaster area. Governor at the time, Haley Barbour, got his first real look at devastation the next morning.

"I will never forget flying over the coast in a national guard helicopter," said Barbour. "Some places looked like the hand of God just wiped away everything. Some places for blocks. Some places for miles."

That is when reality began to set in.

"The first thing I thought about was how many people are we going to find under that debris," said Barbour.

Just 20 months on the job as governor, Barbour knew his ability to lead was about to be put to the test. Outside of recovery, Barbour also knew he'd be faced with the bigger challenge of rebuilding and renewing the spirits of South Mississippians, convincing them to come back and start over.

"You have got to get people committed to their community," said Barbour. "From very early on, we tried to give people facts that made them hopeful."

On the ground, everyday presented new hurdles. Behind the scenes Barbour was quickly assigning state workers to long term plans, including the one presented to Congress, which led to increased federal aid.

When asked how he was able to make sense of chaos, Barbour pointed to the team of people getting the job done.

That team, made up of local, state and federal workers, volunteers, politicians and first responders worked around the clock as 46 states began sending resources. In all, 954,000 people came to Mississippi, registered as volunteers and helped Mississippians believe in themselves.

"You take any of those away and we would never have gotten to where we are as fast as we've gotten here," said Barbour. "It is remarkable how cooperative so many people were who didn't have to be."

In the days after the storm, a different type of storm was brewing as concerns about whether supplies like food and water were going to be delivered from the federal government. By Wednesday there was still nothing.
"It's not catastrophic yet, but it's headed that way and General Cross tells the story, that he told the Pentagon either send us airplanes filled with food and water, or filled with body bags," Barbour said. "It finally got their attention."

That night two military cargo planes filled with supplies were on the ground in Mississippi. Although Barbour says the initial FEMA supply system was a failure, there was no choice but to make it work. From there, plans were adjusted as problems came up.

"I made some bad decisions. I made some decisions that later we changed because we realized this is not working out like we thought it would," said Barbour. "I'm not embarrassed to say that. We were making it up as we went along."

Those decisions, whether good or bad, would help pave the way to recovery, a long effort now captured in countless pictures, including one which became Barbour's Christmas card that year.

"This was on Friday after the storm and you can see just utter devastation. We're standing on the slab of where a house use to be," said Barbour as he gazed over the photo of he and his wife.

Scenes like the one in that photo littered South Mississippi, but so did stories of survival and hope. Barbour points to a story of a man who only wanted enough supplies for his family, directing responders to give the rest to neighbors.

"He's worried about people who need it worse than they do. I thought to myself, how could you not believe in people like this," said Barbour.

With those attitudes, Barbour says leadership got a little easier, and helped the image of Mississippi unlike he's ever seen. Looking forward, Barbour says the lessons learned have become just as important.

"There will be other storms and we're going to be more resilient because of what happened," said Barbour.

Barbour has also written a book about leadership during Katrina called America's Great Storm. It's his first book and was published earlier this month.