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Surviving Katrina: Eight years later

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KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- When Mark A. Cowley evacuated for Hurricane Katrina Aug. 28, 2005, he never imagined coming back to nothing.

The CSC employee who provides weather support for Keesler, and its flying units owned a house a half block from the beach that was destroyed by one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

Cowley, a former Air Force weather technician, was first stationed at Keesler in 1997 serving as an instructor in the Joint Weather Training complex until his retirement in 2004. He met his wife Margaret, a Biloxi native, and called this area home. In 2005, Cowley worked security for a local casino and was part of the team responsible for shutting down the facility as the casinos along the beach were being evacuated Aug. 27-28.

Katrina made landfall in south Florida Aug. 25, 2005, as a category 1 hurricane. Over the next 48 hours the storm moved into the Gulf and reached category 5 status Aug. 28 with wind speeds peaking at 175 mph.

Up until Aug. 27, the hurricane was heading west of Biloxi, said Cowley, who was monitoring the storm and making necessary preparations in the event he and his wife needed to evacuate. After he got off work Aug. 28, he boarded up his house while his wife gathered their important documents and items in one location.

"I wanted to make sure we were ready to go if we decided to evacuate," he said. "At 3 p.m. I came in to check the weather, and the updated satellite imagery showed the hurricane was taking a right-hand turn heading our direction. It was at that point I decided to evacuate."

By 5 p.m. the Cowleys were on their way to Montgomery, Ala., where they rode out the storm.

At 6:10 a.m., Aug. 29, Katrina made its second landfall in Plaquemines Parish, La., as a Category 3 storm with winds as high as 127 mph.

Once the storm passed, Cowley called his brother-in-law who lives in north Biloxi, and stayed through the hurricane.

"He told us, 'your house is gone,' and I replied, 'What do you mean it's gone?'"

The 20-30 foot storm surge caused massive property damage throughout Biloxi and Gulfport, and topped the storm surge of the 1969 Hurricane Camille by 5-10 feet, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Up until 2005, everyone based their decisions off of Hurricane Camille, which was the worst hurricane to hit here," said Cowley. "Many people who stayed behind based their decisions off Hurricane Camille. My house was pre-Camille, and the water never made it to the house during that storm."

Hurricane Camille, the second category 5 storm to make U.S. landfall this century, had winds of 190 mph and a storm surge of 24 feet. It ravaged the Mississippi coastline and caused 256 deaths and $1.42 billion dollars of damage, or $8.9 billion in today's dollars, according to NOAA.

"Nowhere in our wildest dreams did we think we were going to come back to nothing," said Cowley.

Though Camille was a stronger hurricane at landfall, Katrina was a significantly larger storm, which contributed to the devastating storm surge and flooding, according to NOAA. The surge pushed boats, barges and cars inland, into buildings and houses, which is similar to what happened to Cowley's house. The surge pushed debris from the house and apartments across the street into his house destroying it.

Katrina's damages are estimated at $125 billion. In addition to being the United States' costliest hurricane, it is the third deadliest, claiming the lives of 1,800 people, with 238 in Mississippi, 1,577 in Louisiana, 14 in Florida, two in George and two in Alabama, according to NOAA.

With no house or power and long lines for gas and food, Cowley stayed in billeting at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., for a second night, and then headed east, where they stayed with his mother who lived in Savannah, Ga., for about a month before returning to Biloxi to view the damage.

"It was a great big pile of debris," he said. "We found some stuff. When we got married, my wife's family gave us a sterling silver tea set. Somehow we were able to find every piece of that tea set."

Dealing with the loss of everything he owned was not easy, but that wasn't his only trial in the aftermath of the hurricane. While he had a $400,000 insurance policy on his house, he got less than $10,000, said Cowley.

"I wasn't considered in a flood zone so I didn't have flood insurance," he said. "My policy was for wind damage, but according to the insurance companies, all the damage done to my house was due to storm surge. I didn't have a house, but still had a mortgage to pay."

Hundreds of thousands of people were in the same situation as Cowley, which caused the Federal Government to provide $110.6 billion in aid towards relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts.

Cowley applied for a grant, and received funds from the government to pay off his mortgage.

Eight years later, Cowley now lives farther inland in Biloxi. Having been stationed in Mississippi, Florida, and Georgia for most of his 22-year career, Katrina wasn't his first hurricane, although he was impacted by it the most.

His advice for new residents is to be prepared, have a plan in place, and listen to local authorities.

"Prepare for the worst and hope for the best," said Cowley.

(This is part one of a four-part series about hurricane preparedness. Maj. Marnee A.C. Losurdo is a reservist with the 512th Airlift Wing, Dover Air Force Base, Del., performing her annual tour with the 81st Training Wing Public Affairs Office.)