‘Like the Fishes and the Loaves’

In the anarchy that followed Hurricane Katrina, two women found themselves running unofficial shelters for thousands of displaced people.

A statue stands amid debris a few days after Hurricane Katrina near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. (Bryan Snyder / Reuters)

When Tricia Bliler came out of her front door after the winds and surge of Hurricane Katrina finally passed, she saw a police car washed up like driftwood against the building across the street. It was the first of many bad signs.

Bliler had perched on her kitchen counter and watched the clock as the storm surge washed through her apartment in the beachfront town of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The water rose for half an hour, remained for an hour or so, then fell for the next half hour. Once it receded, she set off walking the ruined streets of the town, to see how bad it was and to figure out what to do.

At first she saw no one, only wrecked houses, fallen trees, overturned boats, and downed power lines. Eventually, she passed the police cruiser a second time and noticed that someone had removed one of its wheels. The next time she passed, another wheel was missing, and then another. By the time she got back to the apartment all four had disappeared. Bliler has no idea who took the wheels or why, nor how long she wandered the town.

She doesn’t know why she felt compelled to hide behind a tree, later that night, from the probing beam of a helicopter. Everything was just so confusing and surreal. A moment of clarity came after she saw a man wandering alone in a tuxedo. She figured he’d lost everything in the flood and found some dry clothes at the wrecked formalwear store nearby. Surveying the anarchy, she says, “I thought: It’s official—everybody’s crazy but me, and that’s the way I’m gonna play it.” And so her personal transformation began.

On a recent balmy summer day in Bay St. Louis, 10 years after the fact, Bliler sat in a coffee shop recalling how she was transformed from a waitress at the Good Life bar to the leader of the closest thing in contemporary America to a post-apocalyptic tribe. She had not expected that to happen, it just did, she said. She became the person everyone turns to when it all goes to pieces.

Bliler did not evacuate before the storm because her closest friends had decided not to leave. As she puts it, “George wanted to stay and Wanda didn’t want to leave him and Loretta wanted to stay because Wanda was staying,” and so on. The group had spent the first night after the storm in her sodden apartment. But the water was contaminated by all manner of chemicals and pathogens, and if they remained they would almost certainly get sick. So they set off in search of a dry place and eventually climbed through a broken window in the 2nd Street Elementary School, which was situated on slightly higher ground. “I looked at it like the biggest camping trip ever,” she says. “It was in for a penny, in for a pound.”

They were deliberating about what to do when the local fire chief showed up on foot. The city’s fire stations and emergency-response vehicles had been destroyed or rendered unusable by the storm. Seeing Bliler and her friends outside the school, he asked who was in charge. “No one answered,” Bliler says. “They’re all looking at me. I said, ‘Okay,’ and I stepped forward and said, ‘I am.’”

Though Bliler did not know it at the time, a similar scenario was playing out across the bay. Beyond the collapsed highway bridge, in the community of DeLisle, a woman from a very different background, Martha Murphy, was leading her own version of a post-apocalyptic tribe. Murphy had likewise not expected to take the helm. As she later put it, “I felt like people were being assigned roles in a play, and I wasn’t there when they were doing that. And I just got this role.”

Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on August 31, 2005 (Frank Polich / Reuters)

When I arrived in Mississippi 10 years ago to cover Katrina’s aftermath, the media’s attention was focused on New Orleans. Many Americans were only peripherally aware of the cataclysm that had occurred—and was still occurring—on the Gulf Coast. New Orleans had been hit by hurricane-force winds, but the greatest loss of life had been caused by flooding. Most of the buildings along the low-lying coast had been simply obliterated.

In Bay St. Louis, a town of about 8,000 an hour east of New Orleans, I found wrecked sailboats and overturned cars blocking the streets. Downed power lines crisscrossed everything. Broken buildings straddled violently twisted railroad tracks. The few old beachfront mansions that were still standing could be heard groaning in slow collapse as timbers gave way. Dishes and glass shattered. Dogs wandered the beaches and streets in search of missing owners. Survivors had gone days without adequate food and water, cars, electricity, phones, or medical care. They were looking for loved ones and possessions and sleeping fitfully on porches, atop sodden mattresses, in ruined cars, or on the beach. The smell of death and decay permeated the humid air.

Asking around, I was told that even after the Red Cross, the National Guard, and FEMA had arrived, Tricia Bliler was the person to talk to. This turned out to be true, but it appeared to be a source of some discomfort for government officials who were deliberating what to do about her unauthorized shelter.

At the time, Bliler—a diminutive, attractive woman—was 32 years old. Before Katrina’s 30-foot tidal surge and 120-mph winds devastated Bay St. Louis, she’d eked out a living waiting tables and spent almost all of her time within four or five square blocks of what is locally known as Old Town. Immediately after the storm, she found herself unexpectedly in charge of … basically, all of it.

After they climbed in the school window, Bliler says, she and her friends found a barbecue grill and started cooking food from her refrigerator that would otherwise have spoiled. As other survivors began emerging from their houses, they saw her cooking, realized that they, too, had food that was going to spoil, and added theirs to the mix. Then the fire chief showed up, and he asked if she had heard about the chaos in New Orleans. She told him she had, on her battery-powered radio. “Then you know it’s flooding and it’s about to get bad,” he said, and advised her to make use of the stockpiles of food in the school cafeteria—which was then still locked up—for her rapidly expanding group of refugees.

So they broke into the cafeteria, and when they saw how much food was there, he said, “Don’t tell anyone, or you’ll cause a riot,” Bliler recalls. Bliler cooked on the wood-fired grill well into the night. “People kept coming. It was like the fishes and the loaves,” she says. “A boy came who hadn’t had any food, and when I gave him something he cried. And it just went from there. It just kept getting bigger.”

She went through a lone bus parked outside and retrieved the first aid kits that she knew were kept under the seats, which was a good thing because afterward someone hot-wired and stole the bus. “The next day ambulances started dropping people off at the school,” she says. “It just started happening on its own. I remember one day, around dark-thirty, I had this feeling like I was outside my body, watching everything. I had the feeling that everything that’s ever happened to me, all the jobs that didn’t work out, all the triples and doubles and hard work and the babysitting drunks, all the failed relationships, was preparing me for this. It was building up to this.”

A week later, she was cooking 300 meals a day for a growing tribe of storm victims who had lost everything and for whom no official relief had yet come. At one point, she noticed a girl signing in and recognized her as the daughter of Andy Grass, the cook at the Good Life bar. “I said, ‘Tell him to get his ass down here,’ and she did, and he came and brought another cook and Bonnie, another waitress there.”

By the time I arrived at the 2nd Street School, the shelter’s frenzied volunteers were scrambling to help the evacuees, cook and serve meals, and unload truckloads of donated items from all over the United States. Red Cross worker Liz Goodburn, hovering nearby with a notepad, asked how many meals Bliler was serving, and Bliler responded, “I’ve got three cooks. Talk to Andy. He’s the one with the less stress.” Then she was on to something else. Behind her, stacked in the school cafeteria, were cases of Germ-X disinfectant soap, disposable diapers, bottled water, and canned food, all free for the taking. The day was suffocatingly hot and humid, indoors and out; the only source of electricity was one small generator, and everyone was soaked with sweat.

I watched as a volunteer spoke to Bliler and she immediately sat down at her police radio and sent out a call for an ambulance. “I’ve got a diabetic who hasn’t had insulin since the hurricane and he needs to go to the hospital,” she said into the mouthpiece.

There was no response. She repeated the request. Still no reply. Then she looked up at the group standing nearby: a sunburned National Guardsman, two Red Cross workers and a FEMA representative in spotless agency logo shirts, and me. “Does anybody have a vehicle?” she asked. “We’ve got to get this guy to the hospital.”

Each of us waited for someone else to respond.

“I need a vehicle to take this guy to the hospital,” she repeated.

Finally there was nothing to do but volunteer. “I’ve got a vehicle.”

“Will you take him?” Bliler asked, and a minute later the diabetic and I were off to a MASH unit on the grounds of the hospital, which had flooded and was out of commission. A representative of a bureaucratic government agency might have needed clearance before transporting a sick or injured person to a hospital. With Bliler, things worked differently. As one volunteer later said, “All you have to do is watch Tricia for five minutes, and if she asks you to do something, by God, you do it.”

Martha Murphy looks through the window of a building she built near her makeshift shelter in DeLisle, Mississippi. (Laura Lyon)

Across the bay, in the small community of DeLisle, that person was Martha Murphy. Until that moment, Murphy’s life had been markedly different from Bliler’s. She was comparatively wealthy and well connected. But when I began telling her about Bliler finding the barbecue grill, she interrupted to finish the sentence: “And then she was cooking for everyone.” She knew because the same thing had happened to her.

Murphy had evacuated before the storm and returned late the next night in a caravan of vehicles bearing donated supplies. Her family’s long-time home in nearby Henderson Point had been reduced to a concrete slab, and in the darkness of a wrecked church she found a group of frightened, soaked survivors, most of whom had had to swim out of inundated buildings the day before.

“Everyone was hot, wet,” she recalled as she sat in a comfortable chair in her Uptown New Orleans home, where she now lives. “They had only dim lights because the batteries were running out. I had brought batteries and water. There was a man who was having to ration his oxygen. I had oxygen in the car.” No one was in charge in DeLisle, and there was no official disaster center, so she found herself taking control. “You want to think there’s somebody behind the curtain, making sure everything works. We all need help. But in this case, I’m elected, because my clothes are dry.”

Like Bliler, Murphy broke into the damaged local school with her friends and set up a relief base. Like Bliler, she found a grill and started cooking. Soon, she found herself marshaling resources and taking unilateral action. At one point, she felled a tree with her chainsaw to make space for a relief helicopter to land—then watched in disbelief as aid workers tossed out supplies while a guard held a gun on the storm victims to keep them at bay.

On one of the rare occasions when she was able to get cell service, Murphy recalls, she enlisted the help of friends and family to send equipment to set up water wells. They sent 17 trucks and set up three wells. At the time, Murphy was living out of her car, and when she was able to communicate with volunteers who were headed her way, she told them, “You need to think of going on a hunting trip with no lodge. We have nothing. Bring everything. We’ve got to step forward to reach the Stone Age. We’re primitive people hoping for fire. We’re not even hunter-gatherers yet.”

Murphy helped funnel supplies and financial assistance to storm victims, including contributions from writer John Grisham and his wife, Renee, who showed up at the DeLisle school within days of the storm. By the second weekend, donated medical supplies began to arrive, and a stranger from Michigan showed up and asked how he could help. Murphy asked him, “What do you do in the other world?” and he told her he was a surgeon. “He said, ‘You’ve got $5 million worth of medical supplies here. I can help.’” Soon victims were lining up for surgery on the cafeteria table.

“One guy left me with an ice chest of full of tetanus syringes,” Murphy says. “There was no agency there, so he just gave them to us. I said, ‘I’ve never given anyone a tetanus shot,’ and he said, ‘You’ll figure it out.’” Though she found a nurse to help, Murphy also ended up administering the shots. “Basically, we operated a medical clinic without liability,” she says. She later walked to the ruins of the county health-department building and left a note in a baggy, duct taped to a door, explaining that she was operating a clinic without a license and needed help. They got word to her to keep at it. Eventually, the University of Alabama Medical School sent people to assist her.

“The administrative structures no long existed,” she says. “You had to have the ability to adjust. One day you’ve got this fully developed millennial life, and the next day, nothing. You had to rethink everything about your existence. Our lives were ordered before. Then it was utter chaos. Trying to make sense of the chaos was comforting. Organizing things. A sense of order and dignity was important.”

Like Bliler, Murphy found that she was oddly prepared to assume a leadership role. What she was unprepared for was the official reaction. She recalls seeing a relief helicopter hovering over the site, shining its lights on the primitive DeLisle encampment, and says, “They came to arrest me the next day.”

When the Homeland Security agents arrived, Murphy says, she was standing outside the DeLisle school, dressed in dirty, sweat-stained clothes. By then her group had accumulated so many supplies, “the theory was that either we were profiteering or looting.” The agents had heard that she was storing gasoline, which was in short supply. When they asked her where she was keeping it, she refused to tell them. She says the agents bound her hands in snap-tie cuffs and prepared to take her away. But the local police chief intervened: His headquarters and vehicles had been destroyed by the hurricane, and Murphy had been sharing her fuel supply with him. She was released, but she says she lost count of the number of times the agents returned, threatening to arrest her.

“I learned so much about the mechanics of prejudice,” Murphy says. “The people who had the least were the most sharing, but they [the authorities] thought we were savages because we didn’t have clean clothes.” Whatever financial or social status Murphy had enjoyed before the storm no longer mattered.

At the 2nd Street School, Bliler was also setting up a drinking-water supply, using a water purification system brought by a volunteer group from Oxford, Mississippi. She set up a sign-in area where survivors logged their names, where they had been during the storm, and where they were going. “I was thinking people would be trying to find people,” she says. “I was also thinking the Red Cross will be here soon and I’ll be out of here. It didn’t work out that way.”

When trucks began to arrive with supplies donated by church groups, businesses, and other volunteers from across the country, the drivers inevitably found their way to the 2nd Street School. National Guardsmen from Florida helped her clean out the building, but the Red Cross declined to help because the shelter was unauthorized. At one point, Bliler says, she needed a break and handed the keys to the school to a Red Cross representative. The representative immediately threw them back at her. When FEMA personnel showed up, Bliler recalls, they were using poorly detailed tourism maps to organize their response. “So I said, ‘You can get better maps in the back of a phone book,’ and I found some and tore the maps out and gave them to them.”

Bliler says she doesn’t blame the government agents. “They were in just as much shock as we were,” she says. Still, she was dismayed when the FEMA members left without warning. “ I was trying to keep up with everything, walking around, and I saw the FEMA guys packing up to leave in the middle of the night.” She says the officials didn’t offer her, or anyone else, an explanation for their sudden exit. “The next day people were asking me what happened to the FEMA guys and that’s the only time I lied to them. I said they had to go to a regional meeting. The Red Cross just left, too.” So she continued on her own. When one Army guy showed up at the school, she says, “He said, ‘You’re in pretty deep, aren’t you?’ and I said, ‘I am.’”

For the next two months, Bliler provided cots for the homeless and adopted stray pets whose owners had vanished. She stockpiled and distributed clothes, medicine, and other staples, gave whatever guidance she could to families looking for help getting their kids back in school, somewhere. In general, she offered every kind of aid and comfort she could muster.

Eventually, Bliler says, school officials asked her to leave and put a church group in charge. She’d been spending her nights at the shelter, and when she returned to her apartment, she says she found all her possessions piled up on the curb. The landlord was getting ready to repair the building and, according to Bliler, evicted everyone out without notice. A local policeman, standing guard, refused to let her retrieve anything. After she told him she needed important papers, the policeman told her that he got off work at 2 a.m. and if she came back after that, she could get them. “So at 2 a.m., I drove up and he drove away, and I got what was left.”

Bliler showed me a memento: a Florida Army National Guard certificate of appreciation from the 3rd battalion of the 124th infantry. But after the shelter closed down, she herself was deemed ineligible for disaster aid. She managed to get a waitressing job in another city, but she says that when people asked what she had done during the storm, she lied and said she had evacuated. She didn’t want to go over it all. The soldier who’d been helping at the school had warned that there could be negative repercussions for what she had done. “He said once the money started coming in, people would be saying money got stolen, there’d be name-calling. ‘I don’t want you to be here anymore.’” After that, she says, “I kind of went underground.”

In the long aftermath of the storm, two of Bliler’s friends who helped at the 2nd Street School died, and she watched a lot of people fall apart. “The police were run ragged,” she says. “So many drugs, divorces, suicides.” Today, Bliler is back waiting tables in Bay St. Louis and staying with a friend while she looks for an apartment of her own, or perhaps a house that she can afford to buy.

Murphy, meanwhile, voluntarily shut down her relief center after three months. By then, she says, the official response was well underway. “There were enough cans of corn. It was time to rebuild.” She began working with a nonprofit, Hope Enterprise Corporation, to rebuild houses for lower-income storm victims.

After living in a tent for three months and in a FEMA trailer for a little over a year, Murphy says she’s surprised at how easy it is to get over losing things. “Over time, the sharpness of the pain goes away, but …” She paused for a moment, then added, “I’m just now, 10 years later, looking at how radically and dramatically my life changed.” But what she most remembers about Katrina, she says, is that, “People are good. Genuinely good.”