Preparing to walk into her bridal shower in September 2005, Laura Buchtel McWhorter struggled to wipe the tears from her eyes and regain her composure.

A Metairie, Louisiana, native and 2003 graduate of Mississippi State University with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast meteorology, she had evacuated her south Louisiana residence just days before Hurricane Katrina’s catastrophic landfall on the Gulf Coast.

As she arrived to her shower in Tupelo, she received on her cell phone the first images of her parents’ home sitting in more than a foot of water. Her grandparents’ home, she later learned, was in the same shape.

Her family members, thankfully, were fine. But unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for everyone.

More than 1,800 people on the Gulf coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi died after Hurricane Katrina, the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, made landfall as a Category 3 storm on Aug. 29, 2005. The storm laid waste to entire communities on the Mississippi coast, while the storm surge caused levees to fail and flood New Orleans, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents.

McWhorter and her husband, Kelley, married on Oct. 8 that year at the Chapel of Memories on Mississippi State’s Starkville campus. Immediately after their honeymoon, she said they went to Metairie to help her family sift through the waterlogged rubble and start the process of getting them back on their feet.

“It was a happy time because of the wedding, but it was a trying time, too, because of the storm,” McWhorter said, recalling the upheaval. “It was definitely a crazy time.”

That December, McWhorter had the opportunity to fill in for the beleaguered chief meteorologist—who had worked months straight without a day off since Katrina—at WWLTV in New Orleans, a CBS affiliate where she had interned during her senior year at MSU. Her interim work led to a full-time meteorologist job at the station, where she’s worked ever since.

But when she and her husband moved to New Orleans in the spring of 2006, they faced a city still wounded from Katrina’s wrath and man’s failures.

“It didn’t even look like a city,” McWhorter said. “At night, it was so dark and the silence was deafening. Even in the day, everything was just so brown and gray. Nobody knew if New Orleans would come back. There was a period when we thought, ‘This is never going to be right again.’”

A refuge from the last resort

More than 500 miles away, Michael McDaniel was appalled. He said it was the only word that came to mind when he saw the mess before him in early autumn 2005 and 10 years later, he still can’t think of a better one.

A graphic designer working in Austin, Texas, at the time, he saw firsthand what life was like for those living in Houston’s Astrodome after being moved from the Superdome in New Orleans­—the original “refuge of last resort.”

He said he vividly remembers instances where desperate people, who had presumably lost most of their worldly possessions, wandered around the stadium holding up makeshift signs with names of family members they couldn’t locate scrawled across the front. The chaos there was “mind-boggling,” he said.

“I was appalled that in the most developed nation in the world, this was the best we could do to respond to this emergency,” McDaniel said. “And I thought, if this is the best-case scenario, what happens to people in emerging countries who experience these types of disasters? It made me absolutely sick to my stomach, and I thought there had to be something someone could do.”

And so, that’s what he’s trying to do—using a disposable coffee cup as a template.

A Centreville native and 1999 Mississippi State graduate with a bachelor’s degree in art, McDaniel developed the idea for Exo, a portable emergency shelter. Reaction Housing, his Austin-based company, will soon begin full-scale production of the shelter, along with other emergency shelter products.

Built similar to a teepee using a lightweight, durable, proprietary material, McDaniel said the latest version of the Exo weighs about 375 pounds. The units can sleep two to four people, but there is also a model with desks and shelves that can be used as a mobile command center at a disaster-relief staging area.

All furniture and elements of an Exo fold flat meaning four people can quickly set up, take down and carry the shelter without machinery. It doesn’t contain its own power source, but with 110-volt outlets, each unit can connect to an outside power source, such as a generator or a car battery with an inverter.

Exos use keycards, similar to those at hotels, but can also be accessed with a regular key. McDaniel explained Reaction uses a software system to control access to the units and track registered Exo users, which would allow people to more easily locate their loved ones if the product was employed during a disaster.

McDaniel started developing the Exo in 2007. He said he basically worked on the concept and design in his backyard at nights and on weekends for the first six years.

He started Reaction in 2013, after his product acquired its first angel investor. McDaniel said, Reaction now has more than two months of orders to fill. Most of those are from commercial or individual customers who are willing to spend the roughly $12,000 per unit on recreation or other personal use.

While that might get the Exo noticed, McDaniel said he is still striving for his product to serve a greater purpose and create sales volume that will drive down the price. He said he hopes, in time, government agencies and private aid organizations will purchase Exos in advance of an emergency. That way, if a hurricane is headed for the Gulf Coast, for instance, the agency or organization could quickly stage a mass shelter area.

“We see this as becoming a tool for planning, rather than just a knee-jerk reaction,” McDaniel said. “A hurricane is the only disaster that you can see coming and plan for. And with these, people won’t be sleeping on Army cots in sports arenas. It’s a way to better keep the people and their belongings safe.”

More accurate predictions

Mississippi State University faculty and staff are also doing their part to improve disaster forecasting, response and recovery.

The university’s Geosystems Research Institute teamed up in 2014 with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and California-based Liquid Robotics to test the effectiveness of an unmanned ocean-surface vehicle in more accurately predicting the paths and intensities of hurricanes.

Associate research professor and meteorologist Pat Fitzpatrick, who is stationed among three GRI teams at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, said
institute researchers field-tested three Liquid Robotics-manufactured Wave Gliders last summer in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Wave Glider looks like it’s on a surfboard. Its main structure floats on the ocean’s surface tethered by a cable to underwater flaps that use waves for propulsion. The glider’s floating structure carries battery- and solar-powered instruments to measure wind, pressure, waves, currents, water temperature and more.

The data from the gliders is collected via satellite.

“We wanted to get one into a hurricane, but that didn’t happen because we didn’t have any hurricanes in the Gulf last year,” Fitzpatrick said. “We did get them close to some weather buoys, though, and compared the measurements. Everything compared very well except for temperature.”

Weather buoys are the standard for reading environmental measurements of storms, but if a storm doesn’t cross over a buoy, storm path and intensity predictions can be inaccurate. With more study, Fitzpatrick said he hopes NOAA can one day deploy a fleet of gliders to fill in gaps where there are no buoys.

“All it takes is a little more information to completely change the predicted path of the storm,” he said. “NOAA was very pleased with our work last year, but I think this needs more study. We need to get one of these into an actual hurricane and see how it does.”

Faster response

Mississippi State’s Social Science Research Center is developing technology using “human sensors” that could make future emergency response quicker and more effective.

Sponsored by a $150,000 grant from NOAA, SSRC researchers have accessed Twitter’s archives and sifted through almost 5 million tweets posted from the New York and New Jersey areas during Hurricane Sandy in 2008. The majority of the tweets deal with the storm, including hundreds of thousands of photos of flooding and other storm damage, and each is geocoded to within 5-10 feet of where it was posted.

The team, which includes Fitzpatrick, John Edwards and Somye Mohanty, also surveyed 20,000 residents of the Sandy-affected area, to find out how they received information about the storm and how they responded.

“This data is as useful, if not more useful, than traditional survey data,” said SSRC director Arthur Cosby. “People were using social media during Sandy to ask for help and offer help, while others were organizing aid efforts.”

Using what they’ve learned about how people use social media to request and offer assistance, the team is now developing software that emergency management services can use during disasters to see tweets from the affected area. This will help first responders use Twitter to directly contact those who need help and respond more quickly to issues.

Mohanty said it would also allow emergency managers to more easily convey accurate information to the public during weather events or other disasters.

“The more information you have, the better decisions you can make,” Mohanty said. “The better decisions you make, the more lives you can save.”

Sustainable recovery

The Biloxi-based Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, a Mississippi State research center, has taken charge of making the post-Katrina Mississippi Gulf Coast better than it was before the storm.

Using a federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as several regional partnerships and community volunteer hours, the studio’s professional staff has helped design and build more than 230 new homes and rehabilitate another 100 in Katrina-affected communities in Mississippi.

David Perkes, the design studio’s director, said the focus on resiliency rather than speed helped plot a better long-term vision for the coast. In other words, the studio doesn’t just want to build basic housing that would become rental property in five to 10 years, he said. Instead, the plan is to work with property owners to build homes that will stand the test of time and be passed down from generation to generation.

“An important lesson we learned through this rebuilding work was the value of involving community members in the design process,” Perkes said. “In doing that, we hope we will instill in them a stronger sense of ownership.”

Perkes’ team of designers and landscape architects have earned American Institute of Architecture recognition for their home designs. Most recently, the studio won an Environmental Protection Agency Gulf Guardian Award for restoring Bayou Auguste in east Biloxi, which Katrina devastated.

Through that project, the team removed debris and repaired the bayou’s wetland habitat by building a neighborhood wetland park. Mississippi State students and community volunteers also engaged in educational programs about improving the bayou’s functions of restoring and improving the nursery habitat for fish and shrimp, reducing pollution and debris entering the ocean through the integrated bayou and storm water system, and creating a marshland to contain floodwater from extreme storm events.

“Resiliency is not just about becoming better prepared for a disaster,” Perkes said. “It’s about improving the day-to-day quality of life in these communities. We’re wanting to take the awareness that comes from Katrina, and use it to build a sustainable, resilient community mindset.”

Moving forward after the storm

Back in New Orleans, despite McWhorter’s fears and those of many who trudged through the early post-Katrina days, the city has bounced back.
Neighborhoods organized after the waters receded, she said, and people, all bound together by crisis, started helping one another. The storm and its aftermath, it seems, became part of the New Orleans DNA.

“There was such a sense of community because we were all going through the same thing,” McWhorter said. “We all have our Katrina story, and we’re all connected by that bond.”

That bond the storm created in New Orleans, however, also brought with it a sort of hangover for residents, especially in dealing with the threat of severe weather, she said. And it’s changed the expectations for meteorologists in the area.

During the run-up to Hurricane Gustav’s landfall in 2008, which fortunately fell short of its “Katrina-like” force projections, McWhorter said a sort of weather-related post-traumatic stress became evident.

She explained that Gulf Coast residents have learned the storm terminology and want to see all the hurricane models, but most of all, they want meteorologists’ advice on how to stay safe.

“I don’t think I was prepared to be part meteorologist, part psychologist when I got into this business,” she said. “Here, you don’t just tell people what the weather is like; you actually have to coach them through it.

“People here are gun-shy about any storm. They want all the information you can give them, even what you would consider to be the more scientific stuff. They expect it.”

In the decade since the storm, she said, the city built back little by little—rebuilding houses, businesses and infrastructure destroyed by Katrina’s wrath. With better levees, better evacuation plans and more accurate weather forecasting, McWhorter said New Orleans is much better prepared if another Katrina hit.

What guarantees the city’s survival more than anything else though, she added, is the same force that pulled it through the pain Katrina wrought – its people.

“The storm toughened us up, and it taught us just to live our lives day to day,” she said. “If another Katrina hits, there’s definitely going to be damage. When the inevitable happens and a bad storm comes, we’ll survive and rebuild. If we made it through Katrina, we can make it through anything.”

Story by Zack Plair