Former Ocean Springs, Miss., residents Tony and Peggy Dean say they had a plan in place to evacuate when a Category 3 or greater hurricane threatened their home.
But when they fled north to Hattiesburg, Miss., on Aug. 28, 2005, as Hurricane Katrina loomed off the Gulf Coast, the Deans said they had no idea their evacuation would be permanent. For nearly a year now, Tony, Peggy and their son Johnny have lived in Grovetown.
The Deans and nearly 700 other Katrina evacuees from Louisiana and Mississippi remain in the Augusta area, according to a Georgia Emergency Management Agency tally provided by Columbia County Emergency Services Director Pam Tucker.
Specific numbers for Columbia County were not immediately available.
Katrina roared ashore Aug. 29, 2005, and completely submerged the Deans' single-story brick home of more than 30 years. Nearly all their belongings - furniture, clothes, cars and anything that could not be sterilized from mold and fungal spores or that wasn't washed away by the storm surge - was lost.
"It was devastating. We saw devastation and we felt devastated," Peggy said of returning to see their home destroyed. "We saw 51 years of our lives together all washed away."
The couple, who will have been married 52 years in December, started over with the help of family and friends and now live in the Martha's Vineyard subdivision.
They came to Columbia County, in part, because another son, Jerry Dean, and his wife, Paula, live in Evans.
The Deans say they marked two anniversaries this year - Aug. 28 and Aug. 29 - the final day of normalcy and the day their lives changed.
"The day before (Aug. 28), I said, 'Honey, this is the last day we knew of a normal life. This was the last day we had a home,'" Peggy said.
The Deans' new home is filled with new furnishings and they've replaced their vehicles. They can never replace the physical reminders of a life filled with memories.
Gone are their photographs, important documents and Tony's medals and awards from a distinguished career in the Air Force.
"Everyone compared the condition of Hurricane Camille that hit us in 1969, but that was just a preview for what Katrina was," Tony said. He stayed in Ocean Springs, which is across the back bay from Biloxi, cleaning up and stripping their house down to bare studs with the help of a man who came down from Kansas City to help victims.
Looters roamed the area, he said, and he started carrying a gun. Thankfully, he said, they didn't have any serious problems with crime.
The mold spores and fungal growth in their home made Peggy seriously ill. Communications were virtually non-existent, Peggy said.
Still, the Deans say they were fortunate.
"We're so blessed," Peggy said, adding that at times they have felt guilty because of all the love and support they've received from family and friends.
"The Lord took care of us and no one got hurt," Tony said, adding that some of the people in Ocean Springs who made it through Camille tried to ride out Katrina and died.
Though they lost much, their plans to evacuate saved their lives. Tony still keeps a supply of military Meals Ready to Eat, and they watch the news to keep track of storms, though not as intently as they did when they lived in Mississippi.
The Deans' message to others? "Be prepared."
In the days after Katrina's landfall, Tucker sent 13 Community Emergency Response Team members to the Biloxi, Miss., area to help. A second team remains on standby to provide assistance to storm-ravaged areas of Mississippi and Louisiana and parts of the Southeast affected by the most recent storm, Tropical Storm Ernesto.
In the year since Katrina, faith-based charities are responsible for much of the aid sent to the region, Tucker said.
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