As Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the Gulf Coast one year ago, George “Sonny” Hoffman drove his camper against the flow of evacuation traffic. Sonny had a longstanding hobby of riding out storms and wanted to intercept Katrina when it hit land.
The former Green Beret — missing an arm and blind in one eye from a munitions explosion during the Vietnam War — was planning a date with the biggest hurricane of his life, a one-on-one with Mother Nature. Instead, he ended up confronting human nature as self-proclaimed savior to a group of people who were tough, argumentative, stubborn and, in some cases, drunk in the face of crisis.
It is an epic tale of survival, no matter who tells it. But a year after the storm, it also is a fractured saga, filled with conflicting memories and recriminations. And Sonny's role in the ordeal is perhaps the most controversial point of all.
On the storm's eve, Sonny left Biloxi, Miss., for nearby Waveland, his destination a cheap roadside inn on Highway 90 run by a friend. The one-story, cinder block Texan Motel enjoyed a slight rise in the otherwise flat beach town, and he thought it was a good spot to witness the fury of Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane.
“What I really wanted was to be the only person left in Waveland,” Sonny says.
For decades, Sonny had been “intercepting” storms because of his love of violent weather. He lives in a camper moving along the Gulf Coast, from Panama City, Fla., to Brownsville, Texas. MSNBC.com tracked him down in Corpus Christi, Texas, living at the South Padre Naval Air Station.
Left behind at the Texan
To his dismay and irritation, he found 10 people and six dogs at the Texan who weren't budging. In one room, two women and two men were drinking hard and had two pet dogs. An older couple who lived at the hotel was sequestered in a rear room with three dogs. And a younger couple with two kids and a dog had retreated to the motel from a rental near the beach.
“I spent the first two hours trying to get rid of them,” Sonny says. “I said, ‘Is there something you don’t understand about a Category 5 hurricane?” (Sonny has developed his own theories on hurricanes, and he maintains that Katrina was wrongly downgraded to Category 4.)
Those survivors from the Texan who could be found say they had debated evacuation but gave up the idea as the storm approached. It was getting dangerous on the roads. They were out of cash. The family of four had $60, barely enough for a tank of gas and a stop at McDonald’s. Shelters would not allow the dogs.
“Most people don’t really consider animals as part of the family,” says Michael Cupp, a wiry auto mechanic who was living in the motel’s back room with his wife, Carol, and three dogs. “To my wife and me, they are just like kids. ... Wherever we go, they go.”
The holdouts also thought the Texan would be safe. The area hadn’t flooded in Camille, the whopper hurricane of 1969, so they reasoned that it wouldn’t flood this time.
‘I thought he was nuts’
Sonny believed the group was in a world of trouble and appointed himself commander. As he tells it, he began formulating plans and back-up plans.
To the others, his presence was something of a joke. A paunchy, self-professed expert on hurricanes who said he was a writer and took pictures with his cell phone. And he was damned bossy.
“I thought he was nuts,” recalls Colleen Saurage, who remained with her husband, Robert Abadie, and two children.
Her husband, Robert, didn’t like being ordered around, even by a decorated soldier, and took an immediate dislike to the outsider. Robert, a fiery man who works as a landscaper, questioned Sonny's motives, figuring he wanted to write a book taking advantage of his family’s misfortune.
Prophet of doom
Sonny was alone in his belief that the Texan Motel, a mile and a half from the waterfront, would flood. He predicted the storm surge would reach 20 feet on Highway 90 and 7 feet at the hotel.
As the evening wore on and the winds picked up, he began preparing for water, recruiting Robert and Colleen’s kids, Richard, 6, and Aaron, 9, to help blow up two inflatable kayaks.
“Which (their father) thought was stupid,” Sonny says. “He’d just walk off in disgust every time I brought out one of these ‘beach toys.’”
By nightfall, Sonny had persuaded no one except the kids about the coming deluge. So he focused on trying to prepare them for the storm.
“I said the hurricane has got a voice,” Sonny recalls telling Richard. “She’ll tell you when it’s time to take cover, and when she does, she’ll scream real loud, and when she does you run into that concrete shower with your mom. But when she’s not screaming you can come out and look around.”
As the night wore on, the wind did scream, littering the parking lot with trees and ripping the awning off the office. Sonny darted from one room to another checking on the residents throughout the night.
Hurricane coming? ‘Have a drink!’
"I could not have been more excited and was determined to whip this motley crew into a seasoned hurricane survival team,” Sonny recounts on his "Hurricane Man" Web site. He was sure that the others did not see him in the same light. “... I have no doubt they thought ... there was an empty bed in the VA lock-down psych ward.”
MSNBC.com was unable to reach the four men and women in the party crowd — they’ve dispersed since the storm — but the other survivors say their party continued late into the night. The revelers broke into a neighboring seafood restaurant when they ran out of their own alcohol.
Their plan had been to retreat to a friend's house when the storm got closer, but police threatened to arrest anyone on the streets.
“They were stringing me along … letting me come and entertain them with my hurricane stories and what we were going to do — and like ‘hey, have a drink!’" Sonny recalls. "… And when it finally came crunch time, they couldn’t go. … So at midnight, zero hour on the twenty-ninth, they were mine.”
Michael and Carol Cupp kept their distance from the drinkers and everyone else. They remained in their tiny room with their chihuahua, cockapoo and a chow named Bubba. They listened to Sonny when he came by, through a closed door.
“I’m getting a bit annoyed by these people because they wouldn’t invite me in and I’m trying to save their lives,” says Sonny. “I’ve got woods between me and the storm and while I’m talking to them, I’m being pelted with all this debris and some of it could kill me.
“So one time they cracked open the door and I just pushed my way on in. … Oh, the dogs had a fit!”
And so it went until dawn.
Deluge at dawn
“Everyone had the sense of relief that when the sun came up that you know — it was over, you’d made it through the night,” says Colleen, even though the wind was still blowing.
It was only then that Katrina brought the deluge. As Sonny remembers it:
“It was Robert who brought it to my attention that the parking lot across the street was filling up with water. It had become a lake, the cars were floating. Their lights were on. Then we notice that there’s a river flowing down Highway 90. It looked like the Colorado River.”
Colleen describes it this way: “I walked out to the street to see if I could see anything. And that’s when the wave (came). ... It looked like somebody ought to be surfing on it. It had a white cap. … I would have expected a parade of pink elephants before I would have expected this huge wave coming down Highway 90.”
Within minutes, the water was lapping at their ankles and rising fast.
There was sudden sobriety, and even a certain solidarity now.
And, as Sonny notes with no small amount of pride: "Suddenly they didn't think I was so crazy."
The Cupps had to be retrieved or risk drowning in their room, but it was too dangerous to enter the outside door, on the windward side. Robert or Sonny, depending on whom you ask, broke down a connecting door to the adjacent room to create an exit.
All 11 people and six dogs raced to an abandoned house behind the motel. But at the point when the group came together, their memories of what happened diverge.
Abandoning ‘the Alamo’
According to Sonny, a retreat to "The Alamo," as he dubbed the raised, open structure used to store extra furniture, was his Plan B.
“The idea was that because it’s higher up off the ground, we could go inside there and make a little fort and just ride out the storm,” he says.
He remembers ordering everyone to leave when the water in the Alamo was knee-deep, in case it collapsed.
But his fellow survivors remember he tried persuading them to climb into the rafters, which they refused to do. No one remembers this more vividly than Carol Cupp, a diabetic who struggles to get around due to her bad back and knees, and weight.
“Whose idea was it to get up in the rafters? The guy with one arm,” recalls Carol Cupp.
Michael Cupp, Robert and Colleen all say they fought the idea.
Who will float, who will swim?
With the water now about 4 feet deep and rising, the bickering band finally agreed to leave the house. They had Sonny’s inflatables, and Robert spotted a leaky skiff behind the motel.
Still, there was a shortage of flotation.
Sonny figured the dogs and non-swimmers, including Michael Cupp and two motel workers among the party crowd, could go in the skiff, and Colleen and her two kids could use his two-person kayak. He and Robert, at least, would be in the water, guiding the boats.
The only way to transport Carol Cupp, as Sonny saw it and others came to agree, was in the one-person kayak. The skiff had only a few inches freeboard with all the others in it, and he believed she would sink it.
In a moment that astonished everyone, Sonny ordered Carol Cupp to get in the inflatable boat, and she did.
“He told me to lay down in that (boat) and I’m like 'No, I ain’t gonna do it. I’m claustrophobic,'" recalls Carol Cupp. “They talked me into it ... (and) when they shoved the boat, I went right out the door.”
Dog in a kayak
While Sonny had his back turned, the inflatable he had intended for Colleen and the kids disappeared. Also missing was Bill, another from the party crowd, and his chow Cisco. When Sonny caught up with them across the way, the dog was alone in the boat.
“It makes me laugh today but at the time I was very angry at Bill,” says Sonny. “I come marching over there and I look in that kayak and he’s got that damn dog of his wrapped up ... and all there is that little nose sticking out. ... And I said ‘Bill, this is not for the dogs’ … and he’s telling me, ‘Now, Sonny, my boy (Cisco) can’t swim’.”
Sonny relented, and the boat bearing Cisco, with Bill swimming alongside, made up the third vessel in the makeshift flotilla. Colleen and the kids rode in the skiff with the non-swimmers and five dogs. Both boats tied up with the kayak carrying Carol, who was retching as she bobbed in the storm surge.
For some five hours, they battled the wind and water, which continued to rise until it was near the roofline of the hotel. And they continued to argue over the best course of action.
Sonny recalls that “Plan C” was tying up the flotilla to a massive live oak until the water receded. But a large tree limb had fallen onto the “tree of salvation,” and it had become too dangerous to remain.
Drifting toward disaster
Sonny cut them loose and admits he was out of plans. The flotilla started drifting toward the torrent on Highway 90 — a terrifying moment that the survivors now recall differently.
As Sonny remembers it, the others failed to understand the gravity of the situation if they were to be caught up in the storm surge. He recalls swimming for their lives — one-armed, in 10-12 feet of water, with the bow line to the flotilla in his teeth — trying to reach a nearby restaurant that might provide a solid anchor.
"While we’re drifting out towards our certain death, they’re singing, ‘Row, row, row your boat,’” Sonny recalls. "I was in a real panic, and they weren’t, and that was upsetting me, especially when I needed help getting this flotilla over to that restaurant."
The Cupps, however, say that Sonny wanted to take the boats out on the highway and "go with the stream" but that they rejected the idea.
"That's the worst idea in the world," says Michael. "Got a lot better chance of surviving if you can hang onto something … than getting into the middle of a stream that’s moving 30, 40, 50 miles an hour. You never know where you’re going to wind up at."
Robert and Sonny eventually maneuvered the boats to the restaurant, helped by a lull in the wind. There, the group remained lodged in what Sonny describes as a "wind trap" on the lee side, clinging to eaves and drain pipes until the waters receded.
Aftermath of an ordeal
Robert Abadie, Colleen Saurage, Richard and Aaron and their dog Buster camped in the parking lot of the Texan Motel for nearly two months before moving to Florida to escape the heat and flies of the disaster zone. When they returned to Waveland in December, they managed to get a FEMA trailer, which they now occupy on an empty lot in Bay St. Louis. Colleen and Robert are doing yard clean-up and landscaping. She is expecting their third child.
The Cupps left Waveland a week after the storm and lived for a time with relatives. They were unable to get a FEMA trailer but have rented a trailer on the lot with Robert and Colleen, which they share with two of their dogs. Their third dog, a chow, died after the storm. Michael resumed work as an auto mechanic.
The two families now face eviction by the landowner and former manager of the Texan for what he says is their failure to pay utilities bills.
The Texan Motel has been gutted and stands empty except for a homeless man who has taken over one of the rooms.
The party crowd dispersed and could not be located for this article.
George "Sonny" Hoffman, suffering chest pains and cramping, was taken to a local emergency room the day after the storm and later spent time in military hospitals in Pensacola, Fla., and Honolulu, Hawaii, where he was treated for wounds and for deep abscesses in his gums. Ultimately, doctors removed his teeth because of the damage suffered in the storm. He is now living in a camper in Corpus Christi, writing a book about his experience in Hurricane Katrina, and adding to his hurricane Web site while awaiting a new set of teeth from the Department of Veterans Affairs.