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Wednesday, March 1, 2006

"Nothing Like Camille"

Coyt Bailey, News Pilot, as told to James T. McKenna

After he'd checked that his Jackson, Miss. Mercury Aviation had survived Katrina, Coyt Bailey grabbed a cameraman and set off Aug. 30 in the R44 WLBT-TV charters from him to survey the storm damage. He'd covered six or eight hurricanes. The cameraman had covered more, including Hurricane Camille in 1969--the Big Storm before Katrina. "We'd never seen anything like this, either of us," Bailey said.

We departed before daylight Tuesday morning, Aug. 30, right after Katrina moved through the Jackson, Miss. area, and went straight down to the Gulfport area. We're under contract with the local NBC affiliate in Jackson, WLBT.

We've covered several storms for them. We really didn't know what to expect with this one. We just thought it probably would be very similar to what we found with Ivan and Georges--real heavy damage. But we didn't expect anything near the scale of damage that we found when we got down there.

Our cameramen, Joe Root, has been with WLBT since right after the Korean War. He was one of the first to actually fly after Hurricane Camille hit back in 1969. So to have him on board and be able to have that bit of history right there, real time, as we were watching the effects of Katrina unfold in front of us.

No one expected it to be anything like Camille. I'd been down on the coast the Friday before Katrina came in and had actually driven Highway 90 from Bay St. Louis and Waveland all the way back down through Gulfport and that area. I bought something for my wife at a boutique shop in Waveland and went and saw the same site 3-4 days later. Of course, Waveland was completely destroyed.

Joe was trying to remember where Camille's storm surge had come up to. Everybody bases the storm surge on whether it crossed the railroad tracks. There's the CSX rail line, which runs from east to west and basic parallels Highway 90, which is the beachfront highway. If the surge passes the railroad, that's a really big deal. He was trying to recall where the surge had come from Camille. In some areas, it had been as bad with Camille as it was with Katrina. But Camille certainly didn't have the width of Katrina. It was more of a concentrated punch; Katrina did damage from New Orleans to Alabama.

We came back to Jackson and fed our reports back through a microwave system to the station once we got within 75-80 mi of Jackson. The anchors at our station were just dumbfounded, as we were, in trying to describe what we had seen and not really having any reference for anything to scale it by.

The next day we were busy flying power-line patrols, looking for downed power lines for another customer. People were calling from all over, looking for all sorts of things. It was difficult to sort through all the messages and try to return calls. For some reason, one note caught my eye. Our secretary handed me a big stack of message. This one was from a guy who was in Jackson and he was from Chalmette [in Louisiana's St. Bernard's Parish]. He said there was a big group of stranded people in Chalmette and they had not had any contact and that they were held up in a big refinery in Chalmette. They'd had no contact with anyone, he said, and they desperately needed just to know someone knew they were there. I got a couple of other friends of mine who also fly R44s and we went down. They said they needed insulin and other medical supplies, so we made a deal with Mississippi Health Dept. to carry medicine to Gulf Coast hospitals if we could get extra supplies to take to Chalmette. I think we did that for four days, until relief supplies reached them.--As told to James T. McKenna

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