Bill Harris, a soft-spoken Slidell, La., man who gave credit for his harrowing survival during Hurricane Katrina to God and his “miracle cat” — Miss Kitty — has died. He was 63.
Harris, whose separation from his beloved tabby cat and subsequent reunion touched MSNBC.com readers when it was reported in the immediate aftermath of the storm, died Monday from gastro-intestinal bleeding after being admitted to a Slidell hospital for the second time in a week, said Donna Wackerbauer, a volunteer with the animal rescue organization Noah’s Wish.
Shelly Rodriguez, a social worker at the Trinity Neurologic Rehabilitation Center in Slidell, confirmed Harris’ death, but said she could not give a cause. Funeral plans were pending, she said.
Wackerbauer, who had become close to Harris since she and Slidell animal control officer Horace Troullier found Miss Kitty nearly a week after the storm, said she had gone to the nursing home on Monday to talk with Harris about finding a temporary home for the cat, since Noah’s Wish is planning to shut down its rescue operation on Tuesday — the three-month anniversary of Katrina’s landfall. Now, she said, she’ll concentrate on finding a good permanent home for the gray-and-yellow female.
“It’s heart-breaking,” she said.
Harris, a native of Kansas City, Mo., had been living with his mother, Jane Harris, at the Trinity nursing home since late September. Previously, he had been hospitalized for a chronic kidney condition that worsened as a result of his ordeal during the storm.
Harris had the credentials to be a hard case: He was a former guard at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola and a citizen’s band and ham radio aficionado who used the handle “Wild Bill” when whiling away the hours talking to passing truckers and other radio buffs.
But those who got to know him will remember him as a gentle and soft-spoken man whose Baptist faith carried him through a terrifying ordeal.
An amazing tale of survival and love
Media editor Andrew Locke and I met Harris on Sept. 5 at a Red Cross shelter in Evans Creek, La., where he shared an incredible story of survival:
Harris said he awoke the morning of Aug. 29 to Miss Kitty’s piteous meowing and found his condominium awash in Katrina’s storm surge, which was attempting to suck him and his bed out through a broken bay window.
After plunging into more than six feet of water and going under four times, Harris said that he looked up from beneath the water and saw Miss Kitty leap across the room. He followed her to a table that was still above water and found salvation in the form of a chair that had miraculously stayed upright. He spent the better part of three days standing on that chair in the water, cradling Miss Kitty in his arms.
Men on a passing boat heard his calls for help and rescued him on the third day, but they refused to re-enter the condo to get Miss Kitty. Harris was disconsolate when we encountered him, not knowing whether his “miracle cat” was still alive.
Several days later, we met Troullier and Wackerbauer in the course of reporting on the Noah’s Wish animal rescue operation in Slidell and had an easy time persuading them to take us to Harris’ condo to search for the missing cat.
We came up empty, but the next day we received word that Troullier and Wackerbauer had trapped a cat at the scene that matched Harris’ description of Miss Kitty.
Overjoyed to be able to deliver some good news amid Katrina’s devastation, we raced to the Red Cross shelter only to find that Harris had suffered a seizure shortly after speaking to us and had been rushed to a hospital. None of the Red Cross workers knew where he had been taken or whether he was still alive.
One happy ending
The next day, however, we got our happy ending. Harris was weak but alive in a hospital in Hattiesburg, Miss., and was stunned to learn that Troullier and Wackerbauer had apparently located his cat.
“I just didn’t have any idea that anybody would do that for me,” he said by telephone. “… I’m kind of crying right now.”
Later that same day, Troullier and Wackerbauer drove the 75 miles from Slidell to Hattiesburg and reunited Harris and Miss Kitty.
Harris said at the time that he believed he had been spared and reunited with Miss Kitty so that he could spread God’s word through a new ministry. But his declining health prevented him from realizing that dream.
It also precluded a permanent reunion with his beloved cat, though Troullier and Wackerbauer brought Miss Kitty by the nursing home for regular visits preceding his death.
Editor's note: Your comments on the Bill Harris story may be placed on the final installment about him in Katrinablog.MSNBC.com.
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