Howard County Times

Clarksville resident chronicles former hometown's Katrina recovery

Back in 1972, 13-year-old Kathleen Koch made a habit of scrutinizing every detail of her new bayside home in Mississippi each time her family pulled out of the driveway to evacuate in the face of a storm, attempting to commit its every feature to memory.

The Clarksville resident said she adopted her anxiety-driven routine after seeing remnants of Hurricane Camille's wrath flung randomly about Bay St. Louis, a picturesque town on the upper Gulf Coast where her family had just moved. Three years earlier, the Category 5 storm had flattened much of the state's coastline.

Afraid the same fate might await her house, she set about creating a mental image of her home — in case it wasn't there when she returned.

"It was almost as if I was instinctively preparing for what was to come," the longtime CNN reporter said.

Little did Koch know how important those mental snapshots would be nearly 40 years later, as she tours the country promoting her first book, "Rising from Katrina: How My Mississippi Hometown Lost It All and Found What Mattered."

Koch, who lived in Laurel and Columbia before moving to Clarksville, will speak about her experiences covering Hurricane Katrina and sign copies of her book in Ellicott City on Thursday, just days before the five-year anniversary of the hurricane's landfall in the Gulf of Mexico.

In August 2005, the hurricane delivered on Koch's worst fears when it struck the Mississippi coastline, bludgeoning the town of 8,200 with 30-foot storm surges and 125-mph winds.

"While most people think of New Orleans when they think of Katrina, because that's where the levees broke, the eye of the storm was over Mississippi and the first half-mile of the coastline was erased," she said.

Koch was sent by CNN to cover the immediate aftermath of what would become the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, causing an estimated $125 billion in damages, according to the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"I had told the station to do to me what we wouldn't want to do to anyone else," she said of her willingness to steel herself to take the public on "a personal guided tour of Armageddon."

Her descriptions were marked by raw emotion as she was overwhelmed by the destruction, her tearful commentary captured by a film crew for the evening newscast.

Viewers watched as she stood on the concrete slab that had been her childhood home and then was suddenly inspired to collect an armload of bricks that had been scattered like Legos to dole out to family members as keepsakes. Cameras caught her tearfully stumbling upon high school classmates and asking strangers if they'd seen any sign of her former neighbors.

Later that day, Koch wondered aloud on live TV why the Red Cross, FEMA and the National Guard weren't on the scene. She went on to create two award-winning CNN documentaries about her town's recovery from the catastrophe.

Yet, despite these recent successes, even popular TV reporters face layoffs. And that's what happened to Koch in December 2008 when CNN let her go, along with two other longtime Washington correspondents.

"Initially, it was very tough," said Koch, who'd been with the network for 18 years. "But I wanted a life not ruled by a BlackBerry. I'd covered the White House and been on Air Force One, so when it came to the day-to-day news grind, I'd already been there, done that."

The reporter's unexpected freedom propelled her to make a bold move.

Koch, who moved to Howard County in 1987 with her husband, Rick McNaney, because of the public school system's reputation, decided to take advantage of the downtime to write "the book that had been rattling around in my head for a few years."

The result is a 264-page look at the hurricane's destruction of Bay St. Louis and the small town's triumphant comeback. The book was released Aug. 1.

It is, in part, a love letter to those who embraced her family when they first arrived and made her feel as if she belonged somewhere. A Kansas native and one of five children, she had previously lived in six cities in four states as her family was shuffled around by her father's employer, the former Martin-Marietta Corp., and lived the life of corporate vagabonds.

But it's mainly a story of loss, transformation and resurrection.

"I wanted people to see what I saw, hear what I heard and feel what I felt," Koch said.

"No one can truly comprehend what it was like to look in every direction and see nothing. Everything you used to navigate by was gone, and people were getting lost in their own town," she said. "It was heart-breaking and very disconcerting."

While the resilient people of Bay St. Louis were her inspiration for the book, writing it was also cathartic for Koch, who tells readers of her thoughts of suicide and resulting decision to seek therapy. She also records her struggle with her Catholic faith and her anger at God.

"I decided that if I expected interviewees to be brutally honest, then I couldn't be anything less," she said. Her teenage daughters, Kaitlyn and Kara McNaney, occasionally found her crying at her computer keyboard as she typed revealing personal information others might have chosen to keep secret.

To provide balance in her life, she serves meals to the needy at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center twice a month and makes sure to get to the gym to get much-needed endorphins pumping.

In the end, the book was her "final healing," she said. But there were other emotions to confront.

In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, the people of Bay St. Louis had looked to her with hope and the expectation that she could "fix things," since she was a TV reporter who could bring media attention to the town's plight.

"But I only offered a thimble's worth of help for an ocean of need," she said. "This book is my way of delivering on a promise that I would never let anyone forget what happened there. While reporting is ephemeral, a book is final and permanent."

And so it's not surprising that Bay St. Louis has been reaching out to the author since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April sent millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, making the BP oil spill the largest in U.S. history.

In response, she penned a column for CNN's opinion website, describing "the first black tar balls and foul patties" washing up on the beaches of her adopted hometown during the annual crab feast on the Fourth of July.

"Hurricane Katrina was like an amputation — a swift, crippling and traumatic blow. … The oil spill is a like a slow-moving plague," she wrote online last month.

While Koch is keeping busy with her book tour, she has her eye on future TV projects.

"But I had the same gut reaction to the oil spill as I did to Katrina — to write everything down as it happened," she said, possibly hinting at what her next move will be.

"Right now, I just want the people of Bay St. Louis to feel that I did them justice."

If you go

Kathleen Koch will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday at Barnes and Noble Booksellers in Long Gate Shopping Center, 4300 Montgomery Road in Ellicott City, for a book discussion and signing.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the population of Bay St. Louis. The Sun regrets the error.