On the morning of Aug. 29, Donna Slomski awoke to what she though was the sound of a freight train. When she got up to investigate, the floor was covered with water”and it was rising quickly.
The former Brookfield resident looked out the window of her one-story shotgun house in Waveland, Miss., and what she saw took her breath away.
“I looked out the window and water was coming up over the windows and up through the floor,” said Slomski, who grew up in Brookfield (her maiden name is Donna Bares), and graduated from Riverside-Brookfield High School.
Her new Jeep was submerged by sea water, which rushed inland from the gulf coast about a half mile to the south. Hurricane Katrina had finally made landfall, and Waveland, Miss. was at its center.
In 20 minutes the water was at her waist, and she struggled feverishly to find high ground for her two dogs.
“I couldn’t get up into the attic,” Slomski, 52, said. “I tied my dogs to my waist and started piling things on top of a dog crate. I put a chest of drawers on top of the crate and put the dogs on top of that.
“I tried to pull the attic stairs down, but as soon as I did, the water started going down. Within 20 minutes it was all out of the house.”
In the 40 minutes that had elapsed since the water surged ashore and back out, Slomski’s world changed radically.
Downed trees, telephone poles, cars, furniture and more littered the streets of Waveland. Roads were washed out. All of her possessions inside the house were ruined. The house remained standing, and Slomski said it’s probably salvageable.
A water line about four feet from the floor marks the high point of the flood. Below the line, mildew grows on the walls. Outside, pecan trees were uprooted, though some of the larger magnolia trees survived.
She is one of the lucky ones. Slomski lived north of a railroad embankment that ran through the town of some 10,000 residents. Everything south of the embankment was wiped out completely.
Apart from the fact that she still had four walls and a roof for shelter, every other familiar and comfortable aspect of Slomski’s life was gone. The town’s business district was devastated, including the building that housed Slomski’s “Head-to-Toe” beauty shop. The building was so damaged in the storm, it’s going to be demolished.
Slomski worked part time in one of the many nearby casinos, but the Casino Magic was heavily damaged in the storm and is closed. Employees are being given 30 days’ pay as a stopgap. After that, Slomski’s not sure where her money is going to come from.
“There are no businesses here,” she said. “They’re all gone”the Wal-Mart, the Kmart, the casinos. U.S. 90 was the busiest area, and there’s nothing there.”
While the storm was battering Slomski’s home in Waveland, her parents, Arlene and Leonard Bares, were worried sick while staying in a cottage in Michigan. They had been in contact with their daughter on Aug. 28, the day before the storm hit.
But for three days after that call, they hadn’t heard a word.
“When we thought she had been wiped out on Monday, we cried for two, three days,” Arlene Bares said. Making matters worse, the cottage didn’t have a phone.
Finally during the night of Aug. 31, the Bares’ heard a truck racing down the road toward their house. It was a neighbor, on whose voicemail Arlene’s sister had left a message.
“She’s alive!” their neighbor cried.
“The next morning we came home so we could get a hold of her,” Arlene said. “The next day we finally talked to her.”
Even that was a difficult task. In order to make a call, Slomski, along with hundreds of others in the area, would trek to the beach”the only place they could get a signal for their phones. Even then, Slomski could only call land lines.
These days, Slomski said, she and her neighbors rely on each other to get through life from day to day.
“What I have is from other people,” Slomski said.
One neighbor gave Slomski a bicycle so she can get around. A salon client dropped by last Saturday morning and brought 50 pounds of dog food. Later that same morning a doctor went from door to door asking residents if they wanted tetanus shots.
The day after the storm, neighbors cleaned out their freezers for a barbecue. A relief site”with water, food and clothing”was set up in town, but it’s not accessible by bike. If she wants to get things there, she gets a lift from a neighbor who has a truck.
The town’s water system, sewer system and many roads are still in ruins. Electricity has been restored in some places, but most appliances were ruined by the sea water. As of last Saturday, while National Guard troops were patrolling the area, Slomski said no representatives from FEMA or from insurance companies have been to the area.
Asked why she stayed in the face of the oncoming hurricane, Slomski said she had been through hurricanes in the past. The town had been lucky enough to dodge significant damage in those storms. Then there were her two dogs.
“I stayed because of the dogs,” she said. “There was no shelter that would take them.”
And she has no plans, at least in the short term, to leave Waveland.
“This is all I have,” Slomski said. “Until things stabilize I can’t go anywhere.”