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Cover Story

November 21, 2005
Volume 83, Number 47
p. 22

More Than Just Maintenance

The storm that damaged William L. Strayham's DuPont job site also wiped out his Mississippi home

Marc Reisch

DuPont Photo

Distribution Point Strayham (left) and volunteer Tom Willis in Biloxi, Miss., at relief site.

We were preparing for a Category 2 hurricane. We’ve done it many times over 25 years. It’s nothing unusual,” says William L. Strayham, a mechanical maintenance team manager at DuPont’s DeLisle, Miss., titanium dioxide plant.

Little did he know that Hurricane Katrina would be different. The eye of the storm came over the DuPont plant and damaged it so badly in late August that full operations won’t resume until January. The fierce storm also wiped away Strayham’s home on Biloxi Bay, leaving just a slab of concrete where a house once stood.

A 26-year veteran at the DuPont site, Strayham knows the drill. At level 1, workers secure loose metal and trash cans—anything that can become airborne during a hurricane. At level 2, workers secure portable machinery and overhead doors. At level 3, a hurricane team shuts down the plant and all nonessential personnel are relieved from duty while a small team stays behind and rides out the storm.

Strayham had done his part securing the plant, and as the facility’s managers implemented their level 3 plan, Strayham, his wife, and three children evacuated to the town of Meridian, Miss., 75 miles away, to avoid the worst of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath.

Immediately after the storm, Strayham and his wife headed back to Biloxi while his three children, 18 to 24, stayed behind in Meridian with his brother’s family. “We could only drive to within two miles of our house. We had to walk the rest of the way,” he says.

The walk prepared him for what he would find when he got to his own property. The storm surge wiped the area clean, leaving behind only concrete rubble and bricks. The first two nights, the couple found shelter with friends. Conditions were harsh. There was no water and no power to be had.

Through the cell phones they had with them, Strayham and his wife received offers of assistance from friends, but “we thought we didn’t need their help. It hadn’t sunk in how complete our loss was,” he said. But then he realized how much help he and his neighbors would need if they were going to rebuild. He was overwhelmed by the response of those willing to help.

A friend of a friend helped arrange a generous shipment. Mossy Oak, a camouflage garment manufacturer in Northern Mississippi, sent two trailer truck loads of freezers, generators, water, food, tents, and other items. “It was more than we needed ourselves. We offered the supplies to neighbors.” And after they gave excess supplies away, more truckloads of supplies continued to come in from Mossy Oak and others.

Strayham says he learned that the DuPont plant was down “and devastated just as we were.” When company officials heard what he was doing in Biloxi, they told him not to come back to work just yet. They not only sent in supplies for him to distribute, but also a 31-foot travel trailer for Strayham and his family to live in.

With a roof over his head again, Strayham, a former homeowners association president, soccer coach, and community organizer, says he put in place an orderly distribution center to get supplies to his neighbors. His brother-in-law, owner of a rental business, sent in large tents, which Strayham and his children, who had rejoined him, set up in their driveway.

Over three weeks, Strayham and his family received, unloaded, and distributed three truckloads of relief shipments a day from their home site. Between 300 and 500 people daily came to get the supplies they needed to rebuild their lives at what he laughingly refers to as “WilMart” in deference to the big-box retailer nearby. “We worked from daylight to well past dark to distribute stuff,” he says.

After three weeks, Strayham says he went back to work at the DuPont plant but continued to help distribute supplies to neighbors part-time. When the local WalMart reopened, Stayham says he donated remaining supplies to government distribution points. For the three weeks that he distributed supplies to neighbors, he says, “he never missed one hour of pay” from DuPont.

His personal loss extends to his office at the DuPont plant, which at one time was under 8 feet of water. Family memorabilia that he thought might have survived at the office were lost to him as well. But he is optimistic. “We lost all we had,” Strayham says. “But we were safe, healthy, and could help other people.

“It has been an emotional time. It wasn’t losing the house or seeing the destruction that affected me most,” he says. “It is seeing what people were giving and doing. That was just overwhelming. People sent in hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of food and equipment.”

And he will stay and rebuild his home, he says. “It’s a pretty location, and that is a good reason to rebuild. Maybe I can get a good 30 years,” he says wistfully before his voice trails off. He means that he hopes it will be at least 30 years before such a powerful storm comes through and wipes the slate clean again.



Jack Stocker, University of New Orleans
Ulrike Diebold and Larry Byers, Tulane University
Jerry Merchant, PPG
Eric Broussard, Xavier University
Cheryl Stevens, Xavier University, and Ed Stevens, University of New Orleans
Saundra Y. McGuire, Isiah M. Warner, and Luigi G. Marzilli, Louisiana State University
William L. Strayham, DuPont
N. Dale Ledford, University of Southern Mississippi
Gerald R. Ehrman, DuPont
Bruce C. Gibb, University of New Orleans
Nitsa and Zeev Rosenzweig’s group, University of New Orleans

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