I was on Autopilot: An Interview with Warren Wilkerson – Katrina Storm Survivor

Malcolm Suber addresses storm victims and volunteers in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Love for his pets changed Warren Wilkerson’s life in August 2005. As Hurricane Katrina bore down on Pascagoula, Mississippi, Warren decided to ride out the storm at home because his pets were not welcome at any of the shelters in the area. With his two dogs and three cats in tow, Warren endured the storm in his attic, away from the water that crashed in downstairs.

The storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico reached 41 inches inside of his home and left behind 4 inches of mud and unknowable quantities of toxins. The wind took off a part of his roof that still has not been permanently fixed. Warren had also stored his food too low downstairs, and the toxins in the water rendered everything inedible. In the days before his rescue, the Church of Christ brought him and his animals the food he needed.After the water receded, Warren started the long process of putting his life back together. His sister, Peggy, and a friend, Dr. Kelly, brought him and the dogs to medical and veterinary centers, respectively, for care. None had any lasting health problems, but Warren admits that both he and the dogs had a hard time going back into the house after the storm.

“I had to pick them up and carry them in. I didn’t want to go into the house, either. I’m not a scared man, but going back into the house was extremely difficult. It became easier as I started removing debris and appliances. It became therapeutic,” Warren said.

With his health taken care of, Warren returned home and lived in a tent in his backyard while he contacted his insurance company and FEMA.

“I couldn’t get a hold of [my insurance company] for a week, then they had me to drive to Jackson where they gave me a check for $1,200 as a National Disaster Displacement payment. Everything inside of the house was ruined and the final amount I received was less than $10,000 to cover everything because I had no flood insurance.”

FEMA covered Warren’s entire home in blue tarp due to the hole in the roof.

“It was only a small section that was damaged but FEMA covered the entire house regardless of how big the hole was. The [roofing] contractor came to lift it up, and picked up the nails that FEMA had placed. The tarp and nails did more damage than the initial hole.”

With so many scam artists seeking to profit on others’ misfortunes, Warren claimed it was preferable to be on a waiting list for a reputable roofing contractor, even though he has waited more than two years for his roof to be permanently fixed. He hopes that his name will come up on the list by June 2008.

The roof constituted just a small portion of Warren’s troubles. His more immediate problems involved the mud and toxins that were covering his living space. Warren did all of the cleaning and removal himself.

“I drove to Hattiesburg [Mississippi] to a company that sold antibacterial cleaners to get rid of the mold and toxins. The cleaner was a controlled substance in an unmarked bottle. The company trained me how to use the chemicals and the respirator that came with them.”

He cleaned his garage first so that he could live there while he rehabbed his home. Warren had to wait 2 to 3 weeks for the chemicals to subside in the garage before anything was livable. He had to remove the wallboard and wash down the studs that held up the roof. FEMA left him home tests to check the mold and toxin levels and he has had two professional inspections since the storm. “Everything is safe now,” he said.

The problems outside his home don’t have such straightforward solutions. Every time it rains new sinkholes open up in his yard.

“There are new sink holes all the time. A new one developed 3 days ago. I stepped in it and went down to my knee until I caught myself. The city comes and throws gravel in and packs it with “camper” and adds soil to it.”

Warren says that this fixes the sinkholes, but new ones continue to pop up.

Along with the sinkholes, Warren has had trouble growing any new plants in his yard.

“After 6 months I tried planting. It didn’t work. After 1 to 2 months everything looked great, but then everything turned brown. The land had to cleanse itself,” he said. Now, “the ground has purged itself of the toxins and things grow, but I’m still waiting for external work so there’s no point in planting much, because it will just get trampled by the workers.”

With all of these problems one might wonder, “Why stay?” Warren works for Northrupp Grumman Shipbuilders and had only four years until retirement at the time of Katrina. Since Warren still had a job to go to, it made sense for him to stay and rebuild. Others couldn’t cope. Warren related the story of his elderly aunt and uncle who lost everything in the storm.

“My uncle has since passed away. He couldn’t handle the stress and devastation. And people don’t have to be old to feel that stress.”