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Five years later, Katrina victim finally home

“It was a long journey from then to now,” recalls 17-year-old Michael Baker, “but it’s a journey I’ll never forget.”
In fact, when weather reports warned of Hurricane Katrina five years ago, Michael said his family wasn’t all that concerned about their life in Long Beach, Miss., located on the Gulf Coast. Michael was in seventh grade at the time of the storm.
“I tracked every storm since I was little,” he said. “I’ve always loved that. But nothing could be as bad as (Hurricane) Camille.”
Hurricane Camille devastated the Gulf Coast in 1969, Michael explained, and many people believed Katrina would prove to be no match for the previous storm.
So when Long Beach officials issued a mandatory evacuation just before Katrina rocked the Gulf Coast, Michael’s family packed up their belongings and stored them two feet above the floor. That way, if any water came into the house, their necessities wouldn’t get wet.
“All we had were the clothes on our backs,” Michael said, stressing that his family didn’t think the storm
would be that bad. “We didn’t take any important papers. We didn’t take birth certificates or my mother’s naturalization forms. (Michael’s mother is a native of Honduras.) All I took with me were some yearbooks and two stuffed animals I’d had since I was a baby.”
When Michael and his family headed out Interstate 10 heading north toward Mobile, Ala., they didn’t get very far.
“Traffic was bumper-to-bumper, and we only went about 30 miles in four hours,” he said.
Finally, his family decided to stop and get gas in Moss Point, Miss. before heading north once more. Michael recalls that they got as far as Demopolis, Ala. before running out of gas.
“We stayed there and rode out the storm,” he said. “We were getting reports that Gulfport and Long Beach were under water, so we tried to head back home.”
However, in Waynesboro, about an hour north of Michael’s home in Long Beach, they were stopped by officials from the Mississippi Department of Transportation, who told them they could not go to the coast.
“They said everything was destroyed,” Michael said. “They said there were too many dead bodies. It was too dangerous. There were trees down all over the interstate.”
The family then became refugees of Hurricane Katrina and stayed in the Waynesboro Baptist Church. Michael said his family — his mother, Judy; his aunts, Xenia and Ana; his cousins, Patty, Margarita, Danny, and Carlos; and he and his little sister, Emily — all stayed in a small room inside the church.
“We all had to earn our keep,” he said. “We cooked and cleaned. One night we served 2,000 dinners to power workers who were passing through.”
The church was located on a four-way stop; the other three corners were home to gas stations. So luckily, because of the church’s high-priority location, the church was without power for only half a night during Michael’s stay. However, with fuel in high demand, Michael said the situation was fragile.
“I remember one of the first nights sleeping in the church, I heard gunshots coming from one of the gas stations,” he said. “There were lines for miles and miles, and you could only get $20 of gas before getting back in line. People were very tense and hateful. We didn’t go outside.”
Finally, after two weeks as refugees, his family was able to head home. They weren’t prepared for what they found.
While the homes of his cousins and aunts suffered zero to minimal damage, Michael said his house was destroyed.
“From the outside,” he said, “it looked fine, except a branch had fallen against the front door, but my house was still standing, and there didn’t appear to be much damage.”
However, when they opened the door the state of their home was “unimaginable.”
“What we saw was unimaginable, unbelievable,” Michael said. “How water inside a house can do so much damage. I never would have imagined that I would walk into my house and step in feces because a sewer had exploded. There were inches of mud and filth.”
Worst of all, Michael lost his first puppy.
According to evacuation regulations, refugees are not allowed to bring their pets because of overcrowding in camps. Michael was forced to leave his Siberian Husky, Demon, along with his cat, Whiskers, when his family was first evacuated. He put the dog in its cage and secured it in an elevated position before evacuating, leaving it plenty of food and water. Michael thought the dog would be okay.
“My puppy was still in its cage, drowned,” he said. “I worked cutting grass to buy my puppy. I raised him myself from 10 weeks old. I potty trained him and paid for his vet bills myself. We had to leave him. I lost my puppy, I lost my home. I lost everything.”
One ray of hope in the midst of all the destruction, however, is that Michael’s cat was waiting for them when they got home.
“Whiskers was still alive, after all that,” Michael said. “I think he must have floated on the couch.”
However, after seeing their home destroyed, Michael’s family — left with no home and no possessions — had to figure out how to begin again.
“We had no idea what we were going to do,” Michael said. “FEMA and MEMA and the Red Cross were nowhere in sight. It took a while for them to even show up.”
Finally, the family was given a small FEMA trailer to live in as they tried to get their lives back in order. Michael and his sister returned to school, which had survived the storm, and his mother returned to nursing school. But life was difficult, and the reality of the tragedy hit Michael hard.
“The trailer was a travel camper for a family of four,” he said. “We put the trailer in North Biloxi, and we had to travel 30 minutes to school. My mom is back in school, we’re living in this trailer, I’ve lost my puppy, Emily is confused and crying because she wants her bed, and I hate the world. It was so hard to tell Emily, trying to prepare her to go back to school because maybe some of her friends won’t be there.”
Hoping to take a break from all the sadness and destruction, Michael’s mother, his stepfather, Tim, and his sister Emily took a vacation to the Tri-Cities area. They had taken a previous vacation to Linville, N.C., but had never made it to Tennessee. Within three days of visiting the Tri-Cities, they bought a cabin in Flag Pond.
“Moving here was the last thing I wanted,” Michael said. “I begged Mom not to sign the papers. But after I finished my seventh grade year (in Mississippi), we packed the stuff in our camper in a U-Haul and moved.”
Michael’s mother, having just graduated as a registered nurse, got a job in the NICU at Johnson City Medical Center, and Michael started the eighth grade at Unicoi County High School.
“It was hard at first because I didn’t know a soul,” Michael said, adding that things got easier. “You couldn’t really be nervous or afraid. You just had to hit it head-on. The first day of eighth grade, I had Tammy Lockner as a homeroom teacher. She really talked to me and helped me.”
He added that making friends and getting involved at UCHS has helped him become his own person.
“In Long Beach, you had to dress a certain way,” he said, adding that students at UCHS didn’t have the same expectations. “I would come to school decked out in Abercrombie. And every day, Rachel Absolom would say, ‘You have a moose on your shirt.’ It was nice being the new kid, having most everyone like you.”
And since his relocation to Unicoi County five years ago, Michael has thrived, making good grades and good friends and becoming active and involved in student activities. He said he owes much of his success to Lynn Honeycutt, who Michael describes as a teacher, friend and mentor.
“She helped me become more of an individual,” he said, “rather than just trying to do what’s cool. Now, I’m doing things for me, and I’m not trying to be like everyone else.”
Now, Michael is involved in several school and county clubs and organizations, including: Beta Club, Key Club, German Club, French Club, Drama Club, JROTC, Advisory Board, Student Council and Mock Trial, just to name a few. He also serves as the editor of the school’s yearbook and the school’s newspaper. Michael is also on UCHS’ cross-country and track teams. In between his school activities, he serves as the new media producer at The Erwin Record, and he is an active participant in the Relay For Life of Unicoi County.
Michael — transformed from a depressed, angry victim of Hurricane Katrina into a well-rounded, involved student in Unicoi County — said the hardships his family suffered were a part of the journey to the latest chapter in his life.
“Katrina was a once-in-a-lifetime storm that brought me from a mini-Las Vegas to Flag Pond,” he said. “It made me who I am today.”