Tax & Accounting Blog

Memories of Katrina: Helping Jackson County, MS Recover in the First Weeks After the Storm

Aumentum, Blog September 2, 2015

By Wade Peikert

Wade Peikert is a Senior Manager, Technical Services for Thomson Reuters and worked with the Office of the Clerk in Jackson County, Mississippi to help them through the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina.

Living on the Texas coast all my life, I know all about hurricane preparation. In the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, I knew Jackson County was going to be impacted. Inhabitants’ main concern was extended power outages, so the Records Management team arranged to remotely shut down all of the servers and equipment that Friday night to prevent any hard shutdowns. We asked the staff to send us a copy of their latest backup tapes as a precaution, as well as an external hard drive as a secondary recovery point. (Little did we know that we would actually need them.)

Sights close to the shoreline

As land approached, Katrina pivoted to the east at the last minute, hurling itself straight into Mississippi. As we watched Pascagoula take a direct hit, the Records Management team started drafting a recovery plan.

When Chancery Clerk of Jackson County Terry Miller called, he told us that the office was a total loss—all of the computer equipment had been completely submerged by the storm surge. The office had been quarantined due to hazardous conditions; there was still standing water with battery acid from the UPS units and high levels of dangerous mold spores.  The office staff couldn’t even retrieve personal items from their desks. There was no replacement equipment available, and because of the enormity of the loss across the region, hardware vendors could take months to fill replacement orders.

Darryl Slade and I had recently performed a tech refresh project at a clerk-recorder’s office in Waco and brought all of the decommissioned hardware back to the Austin office. We pulled those servers, desktops, scanners and peripherals together and built a clerk-recorder’s office in the warehouse. We loaded the Jackson County application and data from the backup devices, fired up the application, and we were in production without a single day of data loss. The only problem was transporting it to Pascagoula.

Everything from that point on was a challenge. The logistics were maddening—shipping hardware mere days after a major hurricane was almost impossible. The nearest open airport was Pensacola, FL; the nearest intact hotel was in Gulf Shores, Alabama; and rental vans were seemingly non-existent. But somehow we managed to be at ground zero in Pascagoula one week after the storm.

I’ll never forget the sight of miles and miles of electricians’ bucket trucks lined up on the interstate. The closer we came, the more devastating the scenery. Nothing was spared: signs, windows, power lines, rooftops. Boats dotted the landscape where there weren’t supposed to be boats. It was nothing I ever could have fathomed.

When we arrived, everything felt surreal. Local authorities immediately directed us to the fairgrounds. The National Guard was handing out food, water and ice. Though people were lined up for miles, they appeared calm and patient.  When we saw the magnitude of what we needed to do, with the limited resources we had to work with, we thought, This is going to be impossible. But Darryl and I also realized we had become part of something special.

Outside the clerk’s office, where the water level was about 8 feet tall.

Initially, all of Jackson County’s government offices were crowded into a small civic center, where there were only two folding tables assigned to the clerk-recorder’s office. We explained we might need more room, so we were moved to an old gymnasium where all the records books were being stored. We unloaded and unboxed the equipment, set it up on the folding tables, and by the end of day we were ready to power up.

The drive each day from our hotel to Pascagoula was almost three hours each way, so in addition to working eight-to-ten hours per day, we spent nearly six hours in the car—every day. But we knew once we arrived in Gulf Shores, our temporary home, we were back in civilization. Restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations were open as if it were business as usual. That was not the case in Pascagoula, where nothing was open for business, least of all restaurants and grocery stores.  One morning we brought in donuts and you would’ve thought we were rock stars. The best part for us, though, was seeing the office staff smile.

That week after Hurricane Katrina was filled with raw emotion: sadness, uncertainty, frustration…people would suddenly break down crying. Some lost their homes, cars and everything they owned. We weren’t just technicians; we wore many hats as grief counselors and comedians to enjoy much-needed moments of levity.

When we brought the system online, the staff’s spirits lifted. They were upbeat and excited, renewed with purpose. The road to recovery didn’t seem so distant after all. It was an awesome feeling seeing them moving through the application and looking up data. In spite of everything they had endured, they still had a job to do that gave them a sense of pride. This dedication to their work is why the clerk-recorder’s office was one of the first government offices back online in Jackson County.  Twelve days after Katrina struck, the clerk’s office was open to the public.

Shoreline – all that’s left of the homes are foundations.

In the aftermath of the storm, we had the chance to drive around Pascagoula. The closer to the shoreline we got, the more devastating the damage. In some cases the foundation was all that was left. Entire houses had been moved from their lot to someone else’s across the street. It became very clear that the storm victims would need their land records. The deeds and plats were stored in our system, which would be necessary to commence the claim and rebuilding process. I  definitely gained new perspective on the importance of protecting public records.

It was difficult leaving at the end of the week. I felt that I should stay and help out more, and I felt guilty that I had a home, car and clothes back in Texas. When I left, a little piece of my heart remained in Pascagoula.

Since then I’ve made multiple visits over the years. The people of Jackson County have come a long way from that gymnasium at the fairgrounds.  Seeing them rebuild and prosper warms my heart. Most of all, it’s encouraging to see the human spirit at work. Mr. Miller, the Chancery Clerk of Jackson County, is great custodian of public records, and I wish him well in his retirement. To all of the clerk’s office staff and people of Jackson County, congratulations on a recovery job well done.

Read more about the experience of Jackson County, MS  at tax.thomsonreuters.com/katrina10.