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By Courtney McCain, EMT-P
Even in Joel Ellzie’s worst nightmares, it had never come to this: He was standing on a table, surrounded by knee-deep seawater swirling within the Hancock County EOC office in Bay St. Louis, Miss. More than 30 other people were trapped there with him.
Hurricane Katrina was making landfall, bringing with it a record storm surge. No one knew how hard the wind was blowing: The handheld wind meter had broken hours earlier. Electricity was gone, and the phones were going.
An operations supervisor for American Medical Response, Ellzie was assisting with coordination of medical and EMS in Hancock County’s EOC as the storm approached. There were four phones in the EOC. Calls were more frequent and frantic as the storm got closer. Until the last phone call came in, Ellzie was thinking in terms of other hurricanes he’d been through, before.
“People were desperate,” Ellzie remembers. “They were saying ‘Come get me,’ or ‘I’m trapped in my attic and the water’s still rising.’ We stayed on the phone with them until they drowned, or until the phone went dead. It was rough. We had many phone calls that ended like that and there was nothing we could do. We knew then that this storm was going to be real, real bad.”
The situation quickly got worse. The last phone call was from neighboring Harrison County EOC, from Ellzie’s bosses, Steve Delahousey and Brent Dierking (both vice presidents of operations with AMR). Ellzie was told that the National Weather Service had been trying unsuccessfully to get through on the jammed phone lines, wanting to report that another 10 feet of surge water was expected in Bay St. Louis.
“And I said, ’10 feet?! We can’t take 10 feet. We’re standing on the tables in here’,” Ellzie says. “I didn’t think about death until then, until [Steve] got real quiet, and then asked if I wanted to record a message for my family.”
Ellzie relayed a message to his wife, Peaches, and four-year-old son, Jax. He prayed they wouldn’t need to listen to it, but at the same time was thankful for the opportunity to say goodbye. Then the phone went dead.
“We gathered everybody—there were 35 of us—and we just counted off,” Ellzie recalls. “We got a sheet of paper and wrote everyone’s name and number down and put (the list) in a ZIPLOCK bag, and then we wrote our numbers on our arms with a Sharpie.”
Ellzie was number 18.
No one said much to each other. The fates of those who had begged for help earlier by phone stayed with Ellzie, who had planned to take his chances outside rather than being trapped to drown in the EOC building.
In the Harrison County EOC building, Dierking recalled the “absolutely helpless” feeling after taking a message for the family of an AMR paramedic. “Of all the things that I went through during the storm, this is one that always will stick out, and remain with me,” Dierking said. “We were all convinced that these people were probably going to die.”
Although the water only came up a few more inches and those in the EOC building were spared, their eventual, safe exit from the building began part two of the Hurricane Katrina nightmare. They found several vehicles that had not been swamped by the surge and began driving/walking through what was left of the community, picking up anyone they found. They rescued 26 Waveland law enforcement officers who had been stranded on the roof of their station and in nearby trees.
“They all came with us,” Ellzie said. “At that point, they wanted to be anywhere other than where they were. None of us could blame them, really. The entire county was a call. Everywhere you went, people needed help.”