BILOXI, Miss. -- The Hancock County Senior Center in Bay St. Louis survived Hurricane Katrina and served as a safe haven for the community for 88 days because of storm shutters and other mitigation measures.
The center, only two blocks from the Gulf, was retrofitted with storm shutters in 1999 after an assessment showed high winds could blow out its glass windows and doors. The project was funded with money from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP). The grant was administered by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
The HMGP pays 75 percent of the cost on approved projects that will prevent or reduce damage from storms and other natural hazards. These grants are made available for both public and private non-profit projects.
"The reason we got the shutters is because, besides being a senior center, we are a special needs shelter and we would open up whenever there was a storm," said Arlene Johnson, director of the Hancock County Senior Center. "We would take 25 patients and 25 care givers. We normally have nurses and supplies from the hospital that would come and set us up to ride out the storm."
Local emergency management officials told the center to evacuate Aug. 29 as Hurricane Katrina bore down on Bay St. Louis, where the senior center is located.
"The shelter coordinator came and told us that the storm was going to be worse than everyone had first thought. I told him that we would evacuate everyone else but I wasn't leaving," Johnson said.
The Senior Center staff worked to make sure senior citizens who used the facility had somewhere to go. Johnson then told the staff to evacuate while she and 12 members of her family took shelter in the building.
"I really felt like the building would be safe for us. The building is new and constructed with all of the hurricane straps it was supposed to have. It was built on the highest point of ground in Bay St. Louis, and it has hurricane shutters and a generator," Johnson said.
After making preparations and ensuring the hurricane shutters were down over all the windows and doors, Johnson and her family huddled inside the building as Hurricane Katrina pounded the area with 135-mph wind gusts.
"We cranked the shutters up a little bit and saw things like shingles and insulation and boards from buildings flying by," Johnson said.
Johnson and her family later discovered the storm shutters were dented by flying debris but had passed the test by protecting glass windows and doors of the nine-year-old building.
The center's roof also sustained some damage but remained intact because hurricane straps secured it to the outer walls. Windows and doors were not breached by flying debris, and consequently there was no uplift on the roof.
It helped that the center was built on the highest point in Bay St. Louis. Houses and apartments around the senior center were flooded from the 30-foot storm surge that devastated the city, but less than an inch of water came under the doors of the center.
"During the storm, we were watching out of the back of the building, and all of a sudden we saw the water coming up really fast. And when this happened we saw the people trying to get out of their houses and apartments as the water rose," Johnson said. "It happened so fast and we saw them trying to get out of the water, so my family and I went out to try to help people get into the building."
At that point Johnson opened the center as a shelter.
"People needed some place to go," she said. "We got all of the people over in this area inside, and by the time we did that, the people who were rescued by the air boats started coming in. There was no place else for them to go, and this was one of the only places still standing and not under water. We welcomed everyone who came."