Tom Reno is a new Cousin to us, originally a native Missourian. He is currently a Network Engineer for the City of Biloxi, Mississippi…his responsibilities entail much, including being on-call 24/7, plus maintaining the City’s internal website. Tom is single, has never married to date – in his words “so there are no little Reno’s running around the house.” Tom is excited about finding all of us, and enjoys our new website as well as its unlimited growth possibilities. Work constraints are keeping him from being with us at this year’s reunion, but looks forward to hopefully joining us next year – asking that possibly we could hold it in Branson, MO????

Tom literally rode out Hurricane Katrina. He has been willing to share that horrible experience with us, so if you have a few minutes, let’s sit down together and take a mini-journey with Tom during this awful storm.

Tom shares that he continually checked for updates on T.V. about Katrina. When he went to bed Saturday night, the weather channel showed Katrina veering away from his area and felt no concern – he had experienced many tropical storms up until then that offered no life and death threats…he was going to remain home and ride it out. Sunday a.m. T.V. showed a much different tale: the storm had shifted and was heading right for Mississippi. The storm – even though a category 3 – was vicious: slow moving, expansive – the worst type: DEADLY!

Tom had not made exit plans, so by the time he knew he needed to it was much too late. Highways were jammed, not moving, citizens fleeing for their lives. (Tom shudders to this day when he envisions those stranded on the highways having to ride out the storm. He says he just cannot fathom what that must have been like.) Tom- for some time – had not frequented church, but he was graced by having a very “savvy” home teacher who called Tom, stating that Tom’s local church was built, retrofitted, and somewhat supplied to outride the deadliest of storms – even a category 5 hurricane – so, “please, Tom, come be with us…” Tom joined others at the church Sunday evening. Together, all who had made their way to the building rode out the storm on Monday, August 29, 2005. Everyone brought what they could from home: food, pillows, blankets. Everyone shared – there was no “mine.” Everyone took care of one another – lots of comforting took place, and because of this spirits generally remained uplifted and hopeful.

Around 1:00 a.m. Monday, all power was lost, so everyone watched the storm unfold on a battery-powered T.V. Tom “thought the storm would never end. We could neither hear nor feel the ferocious wind inside the. Through the windows, we could not see any destruction immediately around the church, except for a pine tree that toppled. I was finally able to leave the church around 6:00 p.m. Monday. The street I lived on was lined on both sides with ancient live oak trees. As I rounded the “s” curve, I saw the first signs of destruction. The street was almost impassable, but there was a clear path just wide enough to get to my apartment complex. I expected the worst, but was pleasantly surprised to find very minimal damage to the complex and no damage to my apartment at all. I will never forget sitting on my balcony that Monday night and seeing the stars as I have not seen them since I was a child living in the country. With no power across the coast, there was no light pollution and the stars were brilliant. I also will never forget the unbearable heat that arrived on Tuesday afternoon. There was no foliage on any of the trees to provide shade and not even the slightest wisp of a breeze. Three blocks south of my apartment there was total destruction. Almost nothing survived the 28 foot storm tidal wave surge.”

Because Tom is on his City’s essential employee list, he needed to get to work on Tuesday morning. Tom describes it this way: “I [must] cross a bridge over the Back Bay of Biloxi on my way to work. When I exited onto Beach Blvd. [Tuesday morning], I could not believe the destruction. The six lane road was strewn with all kinds of debris on both sides and a very narrow, dirt covered lane had been partially cleared. Neither pictures nor video could show the vast amount of destruction. I could only drive a small distance, then had to park my car and walk to City Hall. Our ground floor office in the annex was covered with mud. We had to work in that environment for a couple of days to remove servers and other salvageable technology. There were no land-based phones until long after cell phone signals were able to be accessed on Thursday following Katrina. The closest point for UPS or Fed Ex pickups or deliveries was in Mobile, Alabama. For about five weeks, the City was sending police cars and other city vehicles to cross state line at Alabama, since only emergency and official vehicles were allowed through – especially during the first two weeks following the hurricane. We are still in a temporary office and do not expect our new office to be completed for another two years.” In answer to my question, Tom says that they have a phenomenal and supportive disaster recovery firm that kept paychecks coming regularly until the City could provide on their own again.

“As debris was cleared from the streets, we could drive around and see the destruction. I was very sad to see that most of the old, beautiful and unique Antebellum houses lining the north side of Beach Blvd. had been destroyed. An irreplaceable, historic part of Biloxi is gone and will only live on in photographs and fading memories. Fortunately, each day gets better.”

The quickly rebuilt casinos “that have fueled the rebuilding of Biloxi” originally were built in 1991 on barges in the bay, entering them on ramps that extended to them from the onshore hotels. When the 28’ tidal wave surge hit, these casinos were literally picked up and delivered miles onto shore, slamming into other buildings. The casinos have been rebuilt on land within 800’ of the coastline. “It will probably take another ten years to fully recover. When Hurricane Camille hit Biloxi 30 years ago, it was a compact, strong, quick-hitting category 5 storm. It took Biloxi 30 years to recover. While devastation was beyond imagination back then, Hurricane Katrina – being only a category 3 storm – was more deadly and devastating because it was very slow-moving (almost stood still over them) and spread itself in horrifying capacity in all directions – taking in about a 26 mile swath from Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.”

Keesler AFB lost over 50% of its facilities, including their hospital as well as their medical, dental, technological, electronics, and genetics research facilities. (Keesler AFB is a training facility.)

I asked Tom if there was a noticeable increase in Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and/or suicides since Katrina. He said initially everyone was in shell-shock. 12 – 18 months later, PTSS and suicides began showing themselves. But overall, tenacity of the community with everyone supporting each other seems to have steered many away from giving up. Many moved on to somewhere else to be with family or other relatives or friends, for there was absolutely nothing in their power for them to do to rebuild their lives in Biloxi. Tom says: “With FEMA footing the bill for people displaced by the storm, the rents jumped at least 30% in just a couple of months.” Lawsuits with insurance companies for losses unredeemed continue to be unresolved.

Tom is “so thankful because I did not suffer loss. Many of my fellow employees lost absolutely everything.” Tom often remembers the 70-something woman with whom he rode out the storm while in their church structure. Her husband and son had previously died, her home had previously been quite damaged in another storm. She held on to hope that her home would be able to ride out Katrina. It was an understated difficult task for those who were asked to prepare her that her home had been leveled. She went to live with her daughter in another state, and Tom has learned that she since has died from Breast Cancer, a cancer she had at one time beat back.

Tom says: “I guess when a group of people are forced to rebound from adversity time after time, they become hardened and develop a resolve to bounce back. I take great pride in working with so many stalwart, inspiring people.” Tom says that when he feels whining coming on (which we are all prone to do and most often have a right to), or a complacency, he has all around him people who are much less fortunate than he, which gives him resolve and humility.

We are so proud of Tom, and that he is part of our Cousin family. We are so fortunate for his sharings and examples. I hope we all take at least a little part of Tom’s story into our hearts and remember those who have suffered so – and are still struggling – to begin life over after such a horrendous ordeal. Unless we have lived it – walked in someone else’s moccasins – we have no clue. We tip our hats to you, Tom, and the community of Biloxi, as well to all the peoples and areas devastated by Katrina in ways we may never, ever know and could begin to imagine. You all have our heartfelt prayers and admirations.