JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – Eighteen years ago, a natural disaster impacted the coast and Matthew Lee’s life: Hurricane Katrina.
Lee had lived in Bay St. Louis his whole life. At the time Katrina hit, he was 31 and lived on the Gulf Coast in Waveland. His house was about three blocks from the beach. As the storm approached, he hunkered down in his family home at Bay St. Louis, which was only slightly further away from the beach.
Ideally, he would have left town altogether. But Lee chose to stay behind at the family house to watch the children of his aunt, who worked as a dispatcher for the Bay St. Louis Police Department.
Even though the family home in Bay St. Louis was elevated 24 feet above sea level, it still flooded with over a foot of water. Lee described the wreckage around their house as utter devastation.
“It was like a horizontal nuclear bomb struck the Gulf Coast,” Lee said.
As the storm ensued, Lee said the six-bedroom house rocked back and forth like a boat on the water. The thing that kept the house from likely being swept away was a tree that landed on top of the house. As the tree leaned against the house, it acted as a paperweight keeping the house from blowing away.
“It’s a one in a million chance that something like that was gonna happen,” Lee said.
The immediate aftermath
The devastation leveled homes and caused destruction. In surrounding Waveland, Lee said that practically nothing was left, including his house. But despite the loss, the need to survive took precedence, as it would take the National Guard over a week to arrive.
Something integral to helping Lee and others survive was being a Life Scout when he was young. His knowledge helped to save lives during the storm’s aftermath.
“We ended up adopting a couple dozen people at our family’s home that just had no clue of how to survive. They wouldn’t have made it,” Lee said.
The only place that was relatively dry and clean close to Lee was across the street from the Edmond Fahey Funeral Home. It was the only working Morgue in Hancock County, so bodies were constantly being taken in. It was as hard to go to sleep as it was to stay clean.
“Everything was just so gross, you know,” Lee said. “Like almost everybody I know ended up getting staff infections.”
In terms of food, the freezer and refrigerator at the family house had a decent stockpile of it. When the freezer eventually defrosted, Lee’s family cooked everything and had a lot of leftovers to eat. When the National Guard came, MREs became a staple in Lee’s diet.
The long term
Due to the sheer scope of the damage, Matthew Lee said that multiple groups were integral to the disaster effort, not just the military. Nonprofits, churches, and humanitarian groups also helped Lee and others make it through the adversity.
“If it wouldn’t have been for the goodwill of other people, we would have been in really rough shape,” Lee said.
In terms of a long-term living situation, it would be several months before he would receive a trailer to live in from FEMA. So Lee did a combination of living in a tent as well as a van as his musical group performed to raise money for a local high school. During that time, he saw the resiliency of his community firsthand.
“As a whole, I would say the Hancock County community kind of came together, you know?” Lee said. “There were no rich and poor at that point, there were no white and Black.”
Fast forward to 2023, and Lee is still in the music scene. Currently, he is a Senior Sound and Recording Arts major at The University of Southern Mississippi. He will graduate in December.
Lee currently lives in Hattiesburg. He told WJTV 12 News that the destruction present on the coast then is difficult to find today.
“Once you see the coast now, it’s hard to tell that anything has ever happened,” Lee said.
Lee doesn’t usually think about the anniversary. It brings up memories of those he lost during the storm and the difficulties he encountered at the time. But if a Katrina-like storm ever occurs again, he would be prepared.
“I know that if something like that ever happens again and I was stuck in the middle of it, I would know what to do,” Lee said.