Katrina Up Close: Lexmark Exec Recounts Relief Mission

The director of U.S. product and solutions marketing for the company describes six days on the Gulf Coast helping friends and family around his childhood home recover from the wrath of Hurricane Katrina.

Scott Campbell, Contributor

September 8, 2005

11 Min Read

Mark Barnett left Lexington, Ky., on the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 30, in a 2005 Nissan pickup truck loaded down with five generators, 45 extra gallons of fuel, 24 bags of ice, 14 gallons of drinking water, nine extension cords and a desire to make a difference.

Barnett, director of U.S. product and solutions marketing at Lexmark, spent six days on the Gulf Coast helping friends and family around his childhood home of Brookhaven, Miss., recover from the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. His supplies brought power back to several homes of the sick and the elderly, many of whom broke down in tears they were so thankful for the help.

“The experience is something very difficult to put into words,” Barnett wrote in an e-mail to CRN. “What I saw was absolutely devastating, but at the same time I witnessed the best humanity has to offer.”

There are a number of enduring images Barnett won’t soon forget: abandoned cars littering an interstate highway, a young man stepping from his truck with a machine gun, police officers on patrol at gas stations with mile-long lines of cars and the good will of hundreds of volunteers.

Barnett made the 700-mile journey in about 10 hours and shared his experience in e-mails back home to Lexmark co-workers. The following material is culled from those messages as well as e-mails to CRN. His story illustrates the struggles still facing thousands of residents in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama as well as the help that’s on the way.

He arrived in Brookhaven, Miss., around 4:30 a.m. and immediately started setting up the generators he brought with him to several homes. Luckily, his parents’ house, his brother Paul’s house and two other homes had limited electricity, which provided some creature comforts: lights, a fan, fresh water, and a DSL modem to connect to the outside world.

“We can't run the stove, nor the air conditioner. We're still working on that problem,” Barnett wrote in his first e-mail last week. “First things first, Paul and I are leaving in a few minutes to deliver and set up a generator for a lady on dialysis. She has no electricity, so it is a dire situation. After that, it’s off to the next-door neighbors to set up another generator we need to save her freezer and get the refrigerator running. She is a widow, living alone. Not a good time, to be sure.”

On the way, Barnett observed the surreal state of a region he once knew so differently. “There is virtually no gas to be had. I pulled off in Jackson [Miss.], where I spotted one station open. There were five police cars there, as they were directing what was probably 75 or so cars in a line waiting. There are cars all along the interstate that have run out of fuel. Even where the pumps are dry or the electricity is off, people are camped out in their cars waiting,” he said.

He had stopped several times for gas on the way down and still had half a tank when he arrived in Brookhaven. The 45 extra gallons he brought were reserved to run the generators, he said.

“When we arrived in Brookhaven, it was not as bad as I had envisioned. On the main boulevard, there are actually lights. There is moderate damage to buildings. Most of the damage is to signage. Whether store signs or street signs, they are bent and broken,” Barnett wrote. “In the early [morning], there was a line outside Wal-Mart with people waiting for it to open at 6 a.m. The shelves are bare of food. There is a Save-A-Lot grocery next door. We thought the store was closed, as the shelves were empty.”

Barnett’s optimism stopped when he reached the neighborhoods of Brookhaven, a small rural community of less than 10,000, about 40 miles from the Louisiana state line off Interstate 55.

“When you get in the neighborhoods, it is a completely different story. Huge trees are down. Many homes are damaged or destroyed. Power lines are laying broken everywhere. You have to be very careful where you step, and you must drive very slowly and carefully. It's a bit hairy,” he said. “Many streets are impassable. Getting to my folks house was like driving through a rat maze. When we are done with delivering essential services today, we will turn attention toward cleanup. It's a good thing I brought the food. Paul has 18 refugees at his house, including Paul Schmidt [a public-sector account manager at Lexmark] and his family.” Despite the circumstances, most people are in a good mood and seek to comfort each other, Barnett reported. “They are, of course, concerned about family and friends. Most of the 18 [refugees] are now homeless. It is inspirational to see the way these folks are facing such adversity. Where do they get the strength? It brings tears to my eyes to just think about it,” he wrote.

Still, he added, “There is very good news. Everyone is healthy. There are solid roofs overhead. Everyone is clothed, and bellies are full. I guess it just doesn't get any better. And to top it off, the sun is shining.”

Barnett fell asleep Wednesday with his notebook PC in his lap and a promise to his parents that he would refuel the generators to keep them going through the night. But he awoke with a start and to a deafening silence. “The generators had run out of fuel. I rushed outside, refueled and thankfully had no problems restarting them,” he said.

Later on Thursday, the fourth day after Katrina struck, Barnett sent a second e-mail. The first signs of outside help appeared as more than 300 electricians arrived in Brookhaven to begin the long process of rebuilding the town. “They have made a huge difference. Trucks are everywhere. The sound of chainsaws is in the air. It is a glorious sound,” he wrote.

But Barnett and his family found they still were able to reach many people before the rescue crews. Later that day, he retrieved two of his generators from homes where electricity was restored and redeployed them, including one at the home of an elderly widow whose food had spoiled.

“I also provided ice. To say she was grateful was an understatement. She had her first glass of cold water in four days,” he said. “After a bit of rewiring at the junction box, the generator was hooked up and the house was alive again. The stove worked, so she could again cook. The refrigerator and freezer worked, so she can stock food. The fans worked, so she can cool off.”

The woman had been told by public officials that she would be one of the last in town to have electricity restored because of the severe damage around her house, which means she may not have electricity for more than two weeks, Barnett said. “The lack of electricity for many is causing severe hardship. Food is spoiling. There is no drinking water. Many people in this rural community rely on well water. You need electricity for the pumps. The heat is punishing. The young, old and infirm are struggling,” he wrote.

Barnett and another man, the brother-in-law of Lexmark’s Schmidt, then climbed to the woman’s roof with a chainsaw to cut down a large branch of an oak tree that fell on the house. “It was good work, and I am better for it,” Barnett said. “My brother Paul took the other generator and set it up for a lady who has a severe respiratory problem. She uses a machine to assist with her breathing. The generator was a life saver for her.”

That afternoon, Barnett heard that power had been restored to another house where he had set up a generator. That allowed him to redeploy a third machine. “This one went to a household where a mother and son live. The mother has a brain tumor, and the son recently had a severe car accident and is bed-ridden. Can you think of a better use?” he wrote.

Barnett’s brother Paul drove to Jackson, Miss., where he had arranged to buy an industrial ice machine. They installed the machine in Paul’s car dealership and gave away ice to anyone who needed it.

Meanwhile, crews cleared trees from the streets, including a small highway running through town. Barnett asked one man how long it would be before electricity was restored along the route. “We were told it would be several days. The primary holdback: They are out of telephone poles and are waiting for more to be shipped in,” he said. “Wow! Who would have thought about that?” By Thursday, local fuel supplies also were running out, and people’s nerves began to fray as the trying conditions in the steamy state began to take their toll.

“What few stations have fuel now have lines stretching well over a mile,” Barnett wrote. “Police are stationed at the pumps. Even with that, there has been violence right here in little ol’ Brookhaven, Miss. I don't know the details, but apparently there was gun play this morning over fuel. I don't think anyone was hurt, but fear has been put into this community,” Barnett wrote.

People were becoming desperate, he added. “People can't get to work because of lack of fuel. Any optional expense is cut. This further reduces the work available. As each moment passes, the majority of the population find themselves virtually unemployed. It has created a very real sense of despair and fear,” he said. “I see people arming themselves. I watched a 21-year-old boy step from a truck with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. As I watched, he loaded 30 rounds into the clip. He fired a quick, three-round burst to test the weapon. I could only think of Baghdad. What is the world coming to?”

Barnett spent much of the afternoon delivering fuel for generators. “Many of the people we have provided for simply don't have the ability to refuel. So we shuttle back and forth, keeping them up and running,” he wrote. “I have seen quite a few refugee buses today. They are coming to an old armory here, where makeshift cots are setup. I don't know if it is a stopover or a permanent stop. The buses just keep coming. I saw one today surrounded by three fire trucks, two police cars and one ambulance. You have to wonder what happened. It can't be good.”

Later that night, when Barnett returned to his parents’ house, he saw an American Red Cross van turning around in one driveway and flickering lights in the upstairs window of a neighbor. It brought relief and the first step toward resuming a more normal life.

“Then a street lamp flickered to life. Electricity had returned! I rushed into the house, shouting for joy,” he said. “We called [Paul Schmidt’s] brother-in-law, who came over and rewired the junction box to put us back on the grid. As I type this, we have full electricity. The air conditioners are running, and life is wonderful.”

The next morning, Barnett packed up and began the long drive home to Lexington, but not before one final stop near New Orleans to deliver a generator, fuel, ice and fresh water to John O’Sullivan, a solutions architect for Lexmark.

“I have a pass from the Mississippi legislature designating me as an ‘aid mission.’ This should allow me to pass through the roadblocks,” Barnett wrote before leaving. “I will admit, I am a bit apprehensive in light of the news from New Orleans. But if nothing else, perhaps I can offer some a ride out of the nightmare they are currently living.”

He closed the second e-mail by writing, “Thank you for keeping the people of Mississippi and Louisiana in your hearts and prayers. Thank you also for your generosity in helping them to recover. They need help more than you can imagine. Take care. Good Night. Mark Barnett.”

This week, Barnett said he planned to return to Mississippi on Friday with a truckload of supplies from the Red Cross.

“I spoke with them [Wednesday], and they are in need of many of the basics: wash cloths, towels, sheets, pillowcases, soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes, etc. I am collecting this week and will be on my way,” he wrote in an e-mail to CRN. “In the meantime, friends at Lexmark have arranged for a large drive in coordination with the local United Way. So many people are mobilized. It is great to see everyone working together for the common good.”

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