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A University of Wisconsin-Stout student knows what it’s like to be in the shoes of thousands of Gulf Coast residents, who are nervously watching the approach of tropical storm Isaac.
Isaac is expected to strengthen and become a hurricane before hitting land Tuesday somewhere near New Orleans.
The whole scenario sounds eerily familiar to Troy Nelson. Seven years ago almost to the day, Nelson and his family listened to weather forecasts and wondered what to do as Hurricane Katrina, a much bigger storm than Isaac, approached on the same path.
They lived in Pass Christian, Miss., a few hundred yards from the coast.
When deadly Katrina roared ashore Monday morning, Aug. 29, 2005, in Pass Christian with 125 mph winds and a storm surge nearly 28 feet high, it took with it 8,000 structures — the vast majority in the city, including the Nelson home.
Officially, Katrina was a category 3 hurricane when it hit. Figuratively, it was many times stronger. It washed Nelson and his family about 1,000 miles inland, all the way to Wisconsin.
Katrina is the reason Nelson, a Gulf Coast kid, ended up going to college in west-central Wisconsin, but it’s also responsible for teaching him some valuable life lessons: Move forward, make the most of life’s opportunities and don’t get too attached to things.
“A house is where you put your stuff. A home is where your family is. Stuff can be replaced,” Nelson said.
Nelson, a senior, has made the most of his new life. He is incoming president of the Stout Student Association, the governing body for students, and reigning homecoming king.
Majoring in hotel, restaurant and tourism management, he is excited about the year ahead, which begins with classes Wednesday, Sept. 5, and about his future. “I love UW-Stout so much I don’t want to leave,” he said.
Nelson’s turbid past, however, never is far from his thoughts. He, his parents and his brother were some of the lucky ones in 2005 — they survived.
When the Aug. 26, 2005, school week ended at Pass Christian High School in Pass Christian, Miss., Nelson, a freshman, was excited about the possibility of a long weekend. Katrina was approaching in the Gulf of Mexico, a teacher told his class, meaning school could be canceled that coming Monday.
Nelson didn’t worry too much about the storm. People in Pass Christian, a city of 4,600 between Biloxi, Miss., and New Orleans, had ridden out tropical storms and minor hurricanes many times in the past, he said.
This storm would be different. Nelson would never see his teachers or classmates again.
“My dad woke me up Sunday morning and said, ‘Pack your bags. We’ve got to get out of here,’ ” Nelson said.
Katrina was headed straight for them. They left hurriedly, joining thousands of other people on the clogged freeways and leaving behind many personal belongings because they thought they’d be back in a few days.
Nelson took video of his family leaving home for what would be the last time, as well as video throughout their ordeal. Some of his video wound up on national TV, on Fox News.
The Nelson family went to a storm shelter about 25 miles north of Pass Christian. After a few days there, they realized it was a worst-case scenario. “An aunt said she saw our neighborhood on Fox News and not a building was standing,” Nelson said.
When they realized their home, neighborhood, places of work, schools and city were in ruins, they had no other choice but to find another place to live.
They headed north to Wisconsin to stay with Nelson’s grandparents in Beloit. Nelson and his father, Rick, made one trip back — two weeks after the storm — to Pass Christian to salvage what they could. “That’s when it hit me,” he said, referring to when he saw the destruction.
Their neighborhood was so flattened that at first they didn’t recognize their home site. Nelson and his brother had a small fishing boat; it was found in a tree. Another, larger, family boat was found on railroad tracks a half-mile away. He found a fishing reel, some broken pieces of family china and such in the mud but little else.
“It was Marshall Law down there, soldiers with guns. Razor wire was blocking off the neighborhood. It smelled awful,” Nelson said.
Government help had been slow to arrive. “They forgot about people like us. All the aid went to New Orleans,” Nelson said.
Resettled in Wisconsin
Eventually, Nelson’s parents found jobs in Baraboo, and Nelson enrolled in high school there.
He worked for several summers in nearby Wisconsin Dells at Kalahari Resorts and Convention Center, where he heard about UW-Stout’s popular hotel, restaurant and tourism program from several UW-Stout students working there.
In his sophomore year at UW-Stout, he became actively involved with the Stout Student Association and other campus groups. “I just kept building on that. I strive to be active, get involved and do the best I can at everything I try,” he said.
Some of his immediate goals with SSA are to rebuild the organization’s website; involve more students; help the campus become more sustainable; get out a large student vote for the presidential election; and re-emphasize student compliance with the tobacco-free campus policy.
Seven years removed from Hurricane Katrina, Nelson has found a new home in Wisconsin and in Menomonie, the latter which he says is “awesome because it has everything you need within walking distance.”
The Gulf Coast of Mississippi still is home to him, however. He would love to return there someday to live, he said, maybe even to rebuild on his family’s home site. If he did so the house would look a little different: new rules require that it would have to be 15 feet off the ground, he said, to help prevent another disaster as big as Katrina.
Katrina caused $81.2 billion in damage, the costliest disaster in U.S. history, and killed more than 1,800 people.