When most people remember the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, they think of the broken levees, flooded streets and chaos of New Orleans. But University of Southern Mississippi alumnus and author NancyKay Wessman tells the story of this natural disaster from the eyes of Mississippians in her latest book, “Katrina, Mississippi: Voices from Ground Zero.”
“Most Mississippians are all too aware that Hurricane Katrina slammed Mississippi, but the news media evacuated,” Wessman said. “They went to New Orleans, and most of the world thinks of the Crescent City as (Katrina’s) target. I want the world to know that Mississippi took the blow and has not only survived but persevered.”
According to The Clarion- Ledger, Wessman based her book on personal interviews conducted over the course of two years, as well as her 25 years of experience as the communications director of the state Health Department. With a background in journalism and a master’s of public health degree from Tulane University, Wessman sought to share the story of the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s recovery from a public health perspective as well as the perspectives of emergency workers.
“I know that our government responded by allocating billions of dollars toward preparedness, but no news media talked about that in relation to Katrina, as to whether we in the Gulf South were prepared and how we responded,” Wessman said. “I knew most of what Mississippi had done to prepare, and I knew many of those first responders who had never had an opportunity to talk about what they experienced.”
“I had to help them tell their stories,” – Wessman
She shares these stories in the format of creative nonfiction— stories like that of Hancock County Emergency Management Director Brian “Hooty” Adam and 35 citizens who risked their lives to stay behind and keep emergency operations going during the storm’s assault on Bay Saint Louis and Waveland, according to the Jackson Free Press. Though state and federal officials demanded they evacuate, these 36 men and women refused.
Wessman also tells the story of Memorial Hospital in Gulfport, the only hospital that weathered the storm and continued to provide services, as well as that of WQRZ radio operator Brice Phillips, who remained on the air for the duration of Katrina and provided important information to the community.
“These people are not victims,” Wessman told Mallory Pickering of The Clarion-Ledger. “They are champions.”
According to Pickering, Wessman was two years into retirement when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. She had been spending her time traveling with her husband. Wessman was approached about writing the book in 2008, and she gladly obliged because she believed New Orleans had received more than its share of attention.
“Now, I love New Orleans,” Wessman said. “I went to grad school there. It feels like a holy place to me.” Still, she had a yearning to tell a seemingly forgotten side of the story, one that belonged to the state of Mississippi.
The former Health Department communications director stresses public health issues and emergency preparedness in her book, which reads like a novel, according to Pickering.
“All disasters are local, and all involve public health,” Wessman said. “For the first nine to 14 days, public health issues took top priority: food, water, sewers, emergency medical and mortuary services, chronic disease control, getting the health care facilities back—these were the critical issues.”
Wessman considered how USM students might use her book. She commends the book to students of not only public health, but also of history, social work, psychology, communications, journalism and more.
“Katrina touched everybody in some way,” Wessman said. “Everybody has a Katrina story and can learn from the first responders who worked in Hancock and Harrison Counties.”
“Katrina, Mississippi: Voices from Ground Zero” is available at most of Mississippi’s independent bookstores, as well as on Amazon in print and as an ebook.