JACKSON, MS – Governor Haley Barbour was in his first term as governor when Katrina struck the Mississippi gulf coast.
The storm and the aftermath would define his legacy as chief commander of the state.
It would also define the legacy of his wife, Marsha Barbour.
“I got 70 percent of the vote on the Coast for re-election. And I said, ‘Marsha would have gotten a higher percentage than I did. She was the face of the ‘somebody cares’ ‘somebody’s trying’,” he says.
Former governor Haley Barbour has never been bashful about giving credit to his wife and partner of 44 years. And when Katrina hit, the first lady put herself in the trenches.
“She was there for the first 90 days. She was my eyes and ears and actually brought back information to FEMA, to MEMA, to all sorts of different people that she found, because she was very granularly looking at the little case by case stuff, that frankly I couldn’t have done because of what I had to do,” he explains.
It was Marsha, he says, who realized very quickly FEMA relief packages were lacking some very needed items.
“FEMA stuff didn’t have, as Marsha said, baby stuff. It didn’t have formula, it didn’t have diapers. By Wednesday, every plane that came down, every car, they would fill up the empty spaces with baby stuff. She had 2 highway patrolmen. They went around in a crew cab pickup truck with the back full of stuff.”
Mrs. Barbour was in the truck, going from Bay St. Louis to Kiln, MS.
“They went around a curve and there’s this double wide trailer, that Marsha said looked like a beer can somebody had twisted. Man and two kids in front. Troopers pull over. It turns out the man and his wife lived there with their six children and the wife and the four older children have walked towards Bay St. Louis, essentially to scavage, try to find food and stuff. the guys start getting stuff out and the man is very grateful and very nice. Finally, he says,’ look this is plenty for us’. And the highway patrolman says ‘oh, we got plenty’. He says ‘well, if you’ve got more, there’s a little old lady across the road who’s a shut-in and I know nobody has helped her, take it to her’. So the trooper smiles and says, ‘we will. but look we got plenty,’. The guy stopped him again, and says, ‘well if you’ve really got plenty, after you go over there, if you go down this road a quarter of a mile, there’s a dirt road that turns back to the right. About six houses are down there, and I know nobody has helped them. Give it to them. they need it worse than we do’. Here’s a guy who didn’t have much of anything to begin with before the storm, lost what he had, and he’s worried about the little old lady across the street who’s a shut-in and the people who lived down the dirt road. That’s Friday night. How can these people fail? How can you not have confidence that these people are going to, not only going to survive, but they are going to thrive,” he says.
Haley Barbour wrote a book about his experience, it’s on bookshelves now. He acknowledges:
“My administration, my governorship, will be remembered for Katrina. And what happened in the wake of Katrina. There’s no question about that. And not all of it positive. We made mistakes. We were making it up as we went along. Nobody had done this before. This was literally unprecedented. I think we did a whole lot more right than wrong. And I think Mississippi showed extremely well, so there’s no question in my mind that this is what we’ll be remembered for. and that my wife will be remembered for.”
For Marsha Barbour, in the 10 years that have passed she has become a grandmother six times and life revolves around the grandkids. Former governor Barbour had much more to say about those weeks and months that followed after Katrina.
Later this week in part two of our interview, he recalls a phone call he got from then president George W. Bush.
“President called 2 or 3 days after the storm. After a few seconds of pleasantries he said ‘you know where Collins is?’ I laughed. I said ‘well sure I do, I’m the governor. of course, I know where Collins is.’