Clarksville resident chronicles former hometown's Katrina recovery

August 23, 2010|By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Back in 1972, 13-year-old Kathleen Koch made a habit of scrutinizing every detail of her new bayside home in Mississippi each time her family pulled out of the driveway to evacuate in the face of a storm, attempting to commit its every feature to memory.

The Clarksville resident said she adopted her anxiety-driven routine after seeing remnants of Hurricane Camille's wrath flung randomly about Bay St. Louis, a picturesque town on the upper Gulf Coast where her family had just moved. Three years earlier, the Category 5 storm had flattened much of the state's coastline.

Afraid the same fate might await her house, she set about creating a mental image of her home — in case it wasn't there when she returned.

"It was almost as if I was instinctively preparing for what was to come," the longtime CNN reporter said.

Little did Koch know how important those mental snapshots would be nearly 40 years later, as she tours the country promoting her first book, "Rising from Katrina: How My Mississippi Hometown Lost It All and Found What Mattered."

Koch, who lived in Laurel and Columbia before moving to Clarksville, will speak about her experiences covering Hurricane Katrina and sign copies of her book in Ellicott City on Thursday, just days before the five-year anniversary of the hurricane's landfall in the Gulf of Mexico.

In August 2005, the hurricane delivered on Koch's worst fears when it struck the Mississippi coastline, bludgeoning the town of 8,200 with 30-foot storm surges and 125-mph winds.

"While most people think of New Orleans when they think of Katrina, because that's where the levees broke, the eye of the storm was over Mississippi and the first half-mile of the coastline was erased," she said.

Koch was sent by CNN to cover the immediate aftermath of what would become the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, causing an estimated $125 billion in damages, according to the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"I had told the station to do to me what we wouldn't want to do to anyone else," she said of her willingness to steel herself to take the public on "a personal guided tour of Armageddon."

Her descriptions were marked by raw emotion as she was overwhelmed by the destruction, her tearful commentary captured by a film crew for the evening newscast.

Viewers watched as she stood on the concrete slab that had been her childhood home and then was suddenly inspired to collect an armload of bricks that had been scattered like Legos to dole out to family members as keepsakes. Cameras caught her tearfully stumbling upon high school classmates and asking strangers if they'd seen any sign of her former neighbors.

Later that day, Koch wondered aloud on live TV why the Red Cross, FEMA and the National Guard weren't on the scene. She went on to create two award-winning CNN documentaries about her town's recovery from the catastrophe.

Yet, despite these recent successes, even popular TV reporters face layoffs. And that's what happened to Koch in December 2008 when CNN let her go, along with two other longtime Washington correspondents.

"Initially, it was very tough," said Koch, who'd been with the network for 18 years. "But I wanted a life not ruled by a BlackBerry. I'd covered the White House and been on Air Force One, so when it came to the day-to-day news grind, I'd already been there, done that."

The reporter's unexpected freedom propelled her to make a bold move.

Koch, who moved to Howard County in 1987 with her husband, Rick McNaney, because of the public school system's reputation, decided to take advantage of the downtime to write "the book that had been rattling around in my head for a few years."

The result is a 264-page look at the hurricane's destruction of Bay St. Louis and the small town's triumphant comeback. The book was released Aug. 1.

It is, in part, a love letter to those who embraced her family when they first arrived and made her feel as if she belonged somewhere. A Kansas native and one of five children, she had previously lived in six cities in four states as her family was shuffled around by her father's employer, the former Martin-Marietta Corp., and lived the life of corporate vagabonds.

But it's mainly a story of loss, transformation and resurrection.

"I wanted people to see what I saw, hear what I heard and feel what I felt," Koch said.

"No one can truly comprehend what it was like to look in every direction and see nothing. Everything you used to navigate by was gone, and people were getting lost in their own town," she said. "It was heart-breaking and very disconcerting."

While the resilient people of Bay St. Louis were her inspiration for the book, writing it was also cathartic for Koch, who tells readers of her thoughts of suicide and resulting decision to seek therapy. She also records her struggle with her Catholic faith and her anger at God.

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