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Ripples of Hurricane Katrina felt in Wichita 10 years later (+videos)

VIDEO: Wichita man tells of being trapped in Hurricane Katrina

John Patrick Brunke was trapped in a school on the beach during Hurricane Katrina. His house was destroyed, so he was free to travel and move to Kansas, where he met his wife.
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John Patrick Brunke was trapped in a school on the beach during Hurricane Katrina. His house was destroyed, so he was free to travel and move to Kansas, where he met his wife.

On the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, Asia Bunner, 7, awoke to cold water droplets on her face and the sound of shattering glass. She felt tired and confused.

She tiptoed over the glass shards from her bedroom window in Gautier, Miss., past her stepdad in front of the TV, and curled into bed with her mom.

Her stepdad had thought they could wait out the storm. But now the winds were mangling their garage door, stripping apart a Lowe’s store within eyeshot and demolishing Asia’s school a couple of miles away. In Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., just to the west, more than a hundred people would be killed before the day was over.

Back in Kansas, Asia’s father, Robert Bunner, 42, saw what was happening on the news, grabbed his phone and dialed. But a recording said the area had been hit by a hurricane, and the phone disconnected.

He kept dialing.

The Bunners are two of many Wichita residents whose lives were transformed by Hurricane Katrina, the most deadly and, except for the great Mississippi flood of 1927, most destructive storm to hit the U.S. in a century.

Although residents of New Orleans and the Louisiana and Mississippi gulf coasts endured its most serious consequences, many Wichita residents were swept up in the aftermath.

Some survivors moved here permanently and others made Wichita their temporary refuge. It brought some families closer together and split others apart.

The community organized a massive relief effort, donated untold resources and some even moved away to help broken communities rebuild.

Looking back 10 years later, all of those affected said the hurricane had spun their lives in unpredictable new directions.

‘Where is God?’

The waters of Katrina started rolling onto the front lawn of the international school where John Patrick Brunke taught in Pass Christian, Miss., at midnight on Aug. 29.

By the next day, everyone on campus was crammed into the second floor of the one building that was not under water.

Then the windows started to explode and the walls started to bend. So they opened the doors to relieve the pressure. “When we opened the doors, all the glass and everything in the classroom started flying out the doors,” Brunke said.

The cars that had been floating down the street crashed through the first-floor walls and slammed into the pillars holding the building up.

A middle-aged man who was taking refuge in the school ran outside and down the steps, shouting that he needed a baseball glove he’d left in the trunk of his car that was now floating away. Other adults pulled him back, but he wouldn’t relent until someone volunteered to retrieve the glove.

Brunke never forgot that moment. “This guy was OK with someone else literally risking his life wading into water where you’ve got nails, debris and vehicles floating by to get a stupid glove,” he said.

Brunke lost everything from his baby pictures to his house and truck in the storm. “In the Bible, it says the best way to enter the kingdom of heaven is to give up everything, and to follow Jesus, give up and sell everything and follow Jesus,” Brunke said. “I had so many things. I had a whole library. I had DVDs. I had everything you can imagine and now all of a sudden it was all gone.”

But after the storm, he said, he “realized life is more than that, all these books and pictures and DVDs and all these material things. It’s the people around you, the family that you have.”

Without a house holding him down, Brunke was free to follow his heart. He’d been talking to a woman for a few months and decided to fly to Kansas to meet her. She would eventually become his wife and now, the mother of the sixth child they are expecting in December.

In a situation like Katrina, “A lot of people ask the question ‘where is God?’” Brunke said. “They turn and say ‘there is no God.’ But the experience of people coming together, that is God.”

Vacation

Steve and Cathie Maulin flew from Wichita to New Orleans for a vacation three days before Katrina struck.

They stayed in a 20-story condo in the French Quarter, a neighborhood that lost electricity but didn’t flood. For a couple of days, Steve Maulin said, the streets were packed with people buying beer and cigarettes, even though there was no electricity or water.

Two days later, they were ordered to evacuate to the New Orleans Morial Convention Center, where they were met by thousands, hoping for refuge. Instead, they were greeted by foul odors and little else.

“There was no law, no food, no nothing,” said Maulin about the second largest holding spot for survivors after the Superdome. “There were buildings burning downtown. Three times we had a mass people stampede. Something would happen and you’d see hundreds of people running at you.”

Maulin had to wait for hours to use one of the payphones, which only occasionally worked. No one was allowed to leave.

The National Guard finally showed up on Friday with heavy machine guns pointed in their direction, Maulin said. A lady next to him asked, “Are they going to shoot us?” No, he told her, it was just a show of force. A day later Maulin and his wife hopped on a bus and headed back to Wichita.

“I was mystified – living in Kansas all my life, and rescue has always been a few hours away, not a week away,” he said.

When Maulin goes on vacation now, he said, he always rents a car, just in case he and his wife need to escape.

Preparation

Randall Duncan, the emergency management director of Sedgwick County in 2005, received a call after the hurricane telling him that Wichita needed to start getting ready.

Hospitals in the storm areas needed somewhere to send patients. So Duncan mobilized local government agencies and hospitals. He called McConnell Air Force Base, where patients would be flown, and Sedgwick County EMS, who would pick them up when they arrived.

Then he received another call telling him to prepare for more people – a lot more. The Air Capital of the World would be the third city to receive Katrina survivors by plane. He notified nonprofits and public officials to prepare for what could be thousands of evacuees. The numbers kept changing, he said.

Red Cross and fire department volunteers filled Century II with “a sea of cots” that was supposed to provide temporary housing for 500 people. United Way donated software that would allow family members who came searching to track each refugee to his or her own cot.

The night before the planes were to arrive, Duncan said, he worried about details like how the police were going to be able to identify criminals and sex offenders, who might not want to be identified and who might have carried drugs or weapons through a rushed security process.

On the morning of the big day, he received another call. Only 27 people had showed up in New Orleans to be airlifted out and so the government was shutting the program down before anyone flew into Wichita. “We all kind of sat there and had our moment of Jeez Louise,” Duncan said. “Your first thought is ‘why did we do all that preparation work if we’re not going to get anybody.’”

He said he told his tired colleagues, “You know what, this is probably the best exercise we’ve ever done because this is as close to real as you can get without having it really happen.”

And they all went home early.

Silver linings

That isn’t to say nobody came. Yelando Johnson, a social worker in Wichita, told her sister, Tracy Tinguee, to move with her mother, grandmother, husband and daughter from New Orleans to Wichita. After all, she thought, they were more likely to receive help in Wichita than in a place like Houston that was overrun with refugees. So they, along with hundreds of other evacuees, drove themselves.

“But the response was not good at all,” Johnson said. Their mom was a 91-year-old double amputee and Tinguee didn’t think organizations were doing enough to support her.

It wasn’t until Tinguee called The Eagle, and it published an article, that Johnson said her family received attention.

“I’ve been in contact with some of my other friends and relatives in other states, and they’re really getting open arms,” Tinguee told The Eagle then. “I don’t feel that way here.”

That soon changed. The home health agency at Via Christi went above and beyond to bring their mother special equipment, Johnson said. An anonymous donor provided Tinguee with furniture that fit her family’s unique needs, and Jackson Elementary hired her to teach.

But all these years later, Johnson said, she felt guilty about having told her family to come to Wichita.

“I have mixed feelings,” Johnson said. “I would not say, ‘Oh it was inspirational,’ because I feel like you had to really reach out and ask for it, it wasn’t that everybody came together.”

Tinguee was always more of a big-city New Orleans girl, Johnson said, and returned there soon after the school year ended.

In most ways, though, the storm brought Johnson closer to her family. Her other sisters evacuated to Dallas and stayed there. Dallas is where Johnson’s husband is from, so now they can go back and see both of their families over the holidays.

Plus, she said, the storm helped her realize that her then boyfriend, Milan Johnson, was marriage material, as he offered up his home to her family.

She and Milan Johnson married last year in Dallas.

No place like home

The Bargers, another family who sought refuge in Wichita, loved it so much that they return to Kansas when a hurricane threatens.

“You know how people have their little summer houses,” said Barbara Barger, the family matriarch. “That’s what I feel when I go” to Wichita.

Her oldest son, Josh, had been working as a youth pastor in Wichita for several years. When the storm hit, he invited them to stay with him.

A week after the storm, Barbara came with her mother, husband, daughter and granddaughters. A month later, her sister came with her husband, daughter and their grandkids. Wichita residents donated houses and furniture for them to live in both times.

Barbara’s youngest son, Brandon, remembers his principal and teachers giving them their home phone numbers and being driven by a local lawyer to the mall and told to pick out whatever he wanted. He started choosing some cheap clothing, and the lawyer told him to pick what he really wanted.

One of Barbara’s favorite memories over the nine months in Wichita is of snow. “I woke up everybody and said, ‘You gotta come see this. Doesn’t this look like a Christmas card?’ And we still laugh about how people were sliding all over the place in their cars and just keep going like it’s no big deal.”

It wasn’t always easy on Josh, though, who was used to living a single life and now had to ferry around family members on his lunch break, she said.

And Brandon wanted to move back to Slidell, La., so he could rejoin his football team for his senior year of high school. “He kept saying, ‘Ma, I wanna go home,’” Barbara said. “And I said, ‘There is no home.’”

Barbara had returned to Louisiana a few days after the storm and, with a few other family members, climbed over fallen trees and around broken power lines to get to their house in Slidell. It was dusk, but it felt much darker without power.

“It looked like a bomb went off, it looked like a tsunami, it didn’t look like a plain hurricane,” Barbara said.

Several trees had fallen through the roof, the floor was covered in mud, and her new furniture was tossed about. She salvaged some jewelry and a box of moldy photographs that had been hidden at the top of a closet. And that was it.

But it was home, and she and her husband returned for a week at a time whenever they could and stayed in Barbara’s mother’s RV that miraculously was not only undamaged but had power.

When an opportunity arose to buy a mobile home that they could move into right away, Barbara brought her family home.

The new mobile home, filled with furniture donated in Wichita, was small. Several family members that had fit into her old home now had to find their own places to live. They scattered to different towns and neighborhoods surrounding New Orleans.

“This is my home, but I still don’t feel home,” said Barbara about life in her mobile home in Covington, La. “It’s hard to explain. I still don’t feel home because we’re all separated now.”

Brandon finished his football season at Salmen High School on a team with only 25 of its original 75 players. They lost every game, even though they had been projected a contender for state before the storm. He now works as a building inspector. Several of his current projects are schools that were destroyed during Katrina and, a decade later, are still being rebuilt.

Charity

A few months after the storm, Wichita residents Terry and Cynthia Owens moved to Pass Christian, Miss., just west of Gulfport, to help salvage homes.

They were living out of a mobile home and looking for a place where people might be receptive to the gospel. So they accepted a pastor’s invitation to manage the base camp at Pass Christian, where Bible college students volunteered for a week at a time.

The couple lived for four months on the rock slab that, before the storm, had been a fully functional commercial center, but after the storm, became a small volunteer village. They slept in tents, used outhouses and showered on a bus.

During the week, the student volunteers tore out cabinets, drywall and appliances, spending about two days on every house. The young folks paid a lot of money to fly out for the volunteer trips, Terry said, so the Owenses tried to make sure they had enough work to feel like they had made a difference.

And on Sunday, they all attended church, where locals asked where they were from and gave them a standing ovation.

Because the locals had been so busy just surviving and trying to put things back to normal, Terry noticed, many of them hadn’t stopped to tell their stories. So before ripping apart the house, the volunteers would just sit and listen. “People would go on for an hour or more of really being able to let it all go,” Terry said. “Sometimes they would begin to weep.”

A few of the locals snatched up supplies, but most were more like one gentleman they remembered, who tried on a winter coat he liked but returned it because, he said, “I think there is somebody that can probably use it more than me.”

Bunners Part 2

Robert Bunner finally got through to his daughter, Asia, and told her mom he was coming to bring her back to McPherson, where he was living at the time.

If the roads only allowed him to get within 30 miles of Asia, he thought, he could hike to her in eight hours. He worried about her getting bit by bacteria-filled mosquitoes. He only stopped driving in Memphis to let his mom, who was traveling with him, rest.

Voices on the radio spewed news about the missing people. When he stopped to get gas, the station had a $15 limit, which would not take them far enough in his gas-guzzling truck. So he told the lady about Asia, and she let him fill up not only his truck but all of the spare gas cans that friends had donated to him for the trip.

Meanwhile, Asia was eating “astronaut food” and watching cars float down the street. Her mom’s throat hurt after brushing her teeth with tap water, Asia said, because bacteria had made it toxic.

She was splashing barefoot on a street corner in a puddle of floodwater when Bunner pulled up in his truck. She hadn’t seen her dad in months and didn’t realize he would be able to make it to her so soon. She jogged along the side of his truck back to her mom’s house where they salvaged a Barbie computer that had been high up on her dresser and squeezed the saltwater out of her clothes.

She returned to McPherson with her dad, and they now live in Wichita. “My dad has been there for me my whole life,” Asia said.

Bunner said divine intervention kept his daughter safe.

“I don’t know how I would’ve lived with a scenario where she was missing and I never see or hear from her again,” Bunner said. “That’s a scenario that a lot of people had to deal with and are still dealing with.”

Reach Oliver Morrison at 316-268-6499 or omorrison@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ORMorrison.

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