Video: Up a tree: A survivor's story

By Mike Brunker Projects Team editor
updated 8/30/2005 4:15:27 PM ET 2005-08-30T20:15:27

The stories sounded remarkably similar, as survivors who tried to ride out Hurricane Katrina on Tuesday recounted their desperate attempts to climb higher and higher as the storm’s floodwaters rose inexorably to their eaves and beyond.

“I anticipated it being bad, but not nearly as severe as it turned out,” Gulfport, Miss., resident Mike Spencer said on NBC’s “Today” show. “The house just filled up with water. It forced me into the attic and then I ended up kicking out the wall and climbing out to a tree.”

Others who lived through the storm used axes, and in at least one case a shotgun, to blast holes in roofs so they could escape the rising storm surge, which topped 30 feet in some areas.

Jean Jenkins, a resident of Moss Point, Miss., told the Sun-Herald of Biloxi that she spent nearly seven hours crouched in her small attic with her husband, two dogs and a cat before her son-in-law could rescue her by boat.

"It was horrible," Jenkins told the newspaper. "Horrible, horrible, horrible."

Even high above the water, fear set in. “The worst part was trying to sleep through the creaking, because the building was swaying back and forth," said Jennifer Judkins, who was on the 19th floor of a New Orleans hotel. "Looking outside at the damage, I’m just glad we made it through.”

Police and other emergency workers were continuing to rescue stranded people from flood-stricken areas on Tuesday, plucking many by helicopter from the roofs of their houses. Many who had not yet been rescued could be heard screaming for help, police said.

“We know that last night we had over 300 folks that we could confirm were on tops of roofs and waiting for our assistance. We pushed hard all throughout the night. We hoisted over 100 folks last night just in the Mississippi area. Our crews over New Orleans probably did twice that,” Capt. Dave Callahan of the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mississippi said on ABC.

Civilians weren't the only ones who found themselves fighting for their lives when Katrina delivered her potent blow to the Gulf Coast.

Emergency center collapsed
In Mississippi, water swamped the emergency operations center at Hancock County courthouse on Monday and the back of the building collapsed.

“Thirty-five people swam out of their emergency operations center with life jackets on,” neighboring Harrison County emergency medical services director Christopher Cirillo told Mississippi’s Sun Herald newspaper. “We haven’t heard from them.”

Spencer, who attempted to ride out Katrina at his beachfront home in Gulfport, said Tuesday that one thing kept him from giving up as he spent four to five hours clinging to a tree in his yard and watching his home and those of his neighbors collapse and wash away.

Video: Rooftop rescues “Knowing that eventually it’s going to be over and I’ll be here to enjoy this morning,” he told said. “It’s a beautiful morning!”

Spencer said he decided to ignore the call to evacuate when two of his neighbors said they were going to stay put.

“That kind of gave me the courage … or the stupidity to go ahead and stay out too,” he said.

But when Katrina stormed ashore as a Category 4 hurricane Monday morning, Spencer quickly discovered that he had sorely underestimated the storm’s power. When his beachfront home began filling with water, he said he used his grandson’s mini-surfboard to paddle around the house until the water got too high.

After retreating to his attic, he realized that his home offered no refuge from this storm and began kicking the wall until it gave way. Once the hole was big enough to wriggle through, he crawled out and grabbed the branches of a fortuitously positioned tree.

Houses disappeared
As he clung to the tree he watched what appeared to be a scene from his worst nightmare.

“The houses around me were just disappearing,” he said.

Spencer spent the next four or five hours clinging to it until neighbors, Anne Anderson and Vernon Lacour, found him as they arrived to check on their home, which also was washed away.

Spencer said that after being extricated from the tree, he spent the next several hours looking for a neighbor family that also had decided to ride out the storm.

“I lost sight of (them) as they were climbing over rubble as their home disappeared,” he said. “I spent the morning running around to see if I could find them.”

Lacour said the devastation to the Gulfport neighborhood was total.

“We finally got there and there’s nothing. It’s level,” he said on “Today.” It’s mind-boggling. You stand on the beach and look left and right and there’s nothing.”

Anderson lost her family home and “antiques, 150 years old or more,” but she wasn’t mourning the loss of the material possessions.

Missing future sunsets
“Behind us we have a beautiful sunrise and sunset, and that is going to be what I’m going to miss the most, sitting on the porch watching those,” she said.

Jenkins, the Moss Point woman who fled her flooded home by boat, told the Sun-Herald that she was confident staying home because she has lived in her house for 29 years and never seen the waters rise to her stoop.

But Monday morning, the water came into the home fast and furious and forced Jenkins and her husband to flee to their attic.

When she finally embraced her daughter after the long ordeal, Jenkins said she'd lost everything. "We've got nothing left," the newspaper quoted her as saying.

"You've got you," daughter Bonnie Cothran replied.

Others weren't so lucky.

Frank Mills was in a New Orleans boarding house with three elderly residents when water started swirling up to the ceiling.

Mills, 56, made for the front door but an elderly man went to a bedroom to retrieve something, and a woman went to help him.

“And when I saw her in the hallway, she was floating face up,” Mills told The Associated Press on Tuesday, adding that he never saw the other man again.

Slipping away
Mills said he made it to a roof covering the front porch of the one-story house in the lower Ninth Ward section and tried desperately to pull another elderly man to safety. But he slipped away.

“He was kind of on the edge of the roof, catching his breath,” Mills said. “Next thing I knew he came floating past me. ... I don’t know if he drowned or had a heart attack.”

Mills sat on the roof for about two hours before catching a floating compressor in the 20-foot-deep water and making his way to a two-story building nearby, where he was eventually picked up by a boat.

“I was next, that’s what I was thinking,” a barefoot Mills said as he stood in line at the Superdome with nothing but a ruined Walkman, a soaked cell phone and a bottle of water in a garbage bag.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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