TURKEY CREEK, Miss. — When the eye of Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf of Mississippi with its full wrath, it created 30-foot waves and storm surges. In its aftermath, it also created lore, legend and heroes.
Ten years after Katrina hit, people in Turkey Creek still call Dashawn Thompson “the Storm Walker.” As most people climbed to safety, away from howling winds and water, Thompson did the opposite.
He went out into the storm to look for people who needed help.
On Aug. 29, 2005, Thompson and five other men braved 115-mph winds that snapped trees like toothpicks to rescue 11 people who lived in the historically black community of Turkey Creek.
As Katrina raged, the men fought through the eye of the storm, an eye so big it was almost as wide as Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. They knocked on doors, going from bungalow to cottage to shotgun house, saving neighbors one by one and carrying them to higher ground.
“We would swim up to a window or we would knock on a door. ‘Anybody in there? Ya’ll alright? Y’all want to leave?’ ” Thompson recalled. “We had to go get them because the water pressure was pushing the doors. In some houses, we went through the window. We would guide them and get them in the boat and take them to the church,” that was on higher ground.
Nobody in Turkey Creek died in the storm.
“We had 19 people die in Gulfport in the storm,” said Brent Warr, who was mayor of Gulfport when the storm hit.
“I think we would have had more had they not done what they did in Turkey Creek. They told me the last door they went to, a family was standing with water up to their chest, holding a grandchild over their head. They had to get them out of there and put them in a jon boat. They would put them in the boat and walk them to a big live oak tree at the church.”
A true hero, Warr said, is someone “who has the guts to actually say, ‘I could sit here and save myself or I could put myself in harm’s way and save other people.’ That is a whole other type of hero.”
But Thompson shakes off the label of hero. “People say, ‘You are a hero you saved these people.’ I said, ‘I’m not a hero,’ ” said Thompson, 36, a welder who still lives in Turkey Creek. “I just did what anybody with a heart would do. Even if it is putting your life in danger. I don’t think I did anything special. That is just how I was raised. People might hear my story but there are other stories out there way better than mine.”
Thompson was raised with a bother and a sister in his mother’s house in Turkey Creek, a community of about 150 that was founded in 1866 by emancipated people.
“Turkey Creek is older than the City of Gulfport,” Thompson said. “It got its name because a creek actually runs through it. There used to be a lot of wild turkeys out there before all the development.”
On some of the original Turkey Creek land now sits a Walmart, a shopping strip and an airport. Residents are still upset that their cemetery where ancestors were buried was removed. Most of the residents can connect their lineage to Turkey Creek’s founders.
“In Turkey Creek, everybody pretty much out here is family. Everybody is related to everybody,” Thompson said. “In Turkey Creek, you can leave your doors unlocked because everybody is watching out for everybody. You can walk into anybody’s house and they would ask you if you want something to eat or something to drink or if you need to lie down to take a nap.”
The community revolved around Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church, where on the third Sunday of each month, residents would bring food for fellowship.
“Everybody cooked something — fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, red beans and rice, peach cobbler, collard greens, pound cake,” Thompson said.
People were connected in a real way before Katrina.
That’s why, on the morning the storm hit, Thompson knew who to check on.
In a community where many people were elderly or didn’t have the resources to evacuate, many stayed in their little single-story houses. They had survived Hurricane Camille, which hit in 1969. They had survived other storms, and they were descendants of generations of people who didn’t leave.
“They never ran. Their parents never ran,” Thompson said. “First, you don’t have the finances to run. Then, where are you going to run to? So you have to stick it out and pray about it and hope for the best. I don’t think people thought it was going to be as bad as it was.”
Jeffrey Stewart, 53, a masonry worker, didn’t evacuate. “We never left for a storm,” he said. “We always were on the high line.”
But Katrina fooled many who had survived storms before her.
The morning of Katrina, Thompson was in his mother’s house when he saw the storm approaching.
“My mom wanted us to stay in,” he recalled. “I went outside.”
That is when the roof of a neighbor’s home blew off.
“I see his roof. I go get him,” Thompson said. “I walked him down the street to a neighbor’s house.”
Jerry Darden, 54, a retired Gulfport City water department supervisor, recalls that morning, and Thompson coming for him.
“I didn’t evacuate because I was on call 24 hours. I had to remember the meter and the water lines,” Darden recalled. “I was drinking my coffee that morning and it was a good cup of coffee. [Thompson] said, ‘Man, those people are going to drown in the lake. The door of my utility room slapped open. I said, ‘I better go now.’ ”
Thompson recalls that when Darden’s roof blew off, it hit a gas line.
Thompson came back to his mother’s house and his mother told him that his Aunt Ercill Idom’s house was taking on water. He walked his aunt and his uncle, Oliver Idom, to Thompson’s mother’s house on Rippy Road, which is on higher ground.
There he met up with Joshua McLaurin, now 41, a shipbuilder. McLaurin is married to Thompson’s cousin.
“I asked Josh whether anybody was still down there,” in the lower part of Turkey Creek, Thompson recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Let’s go check on them and see.’ ”
As they waded through the neighborhood, they found an abandoned boat.
“It was just sitting there,” Thompson said. “I flipped it over and grabbed it. It needed a plug and we took a stick and plugged it in the boat so water would stop coming in.”
They tied a rope to the boat and held the rope as they swam from house to house.
“We couldn’t stand up,” Thompson said. “We actually had to swim.”
At one house, an elderly woman was standing on her car in a carport with five children.
McLaurin recalled, “We kept going further and further back,” pulling people through the water and into the boat. “At one house, we got to a man who was hanging on a column. We got him and put him in the boat. You couldn’t see the roof of his house.”
As the waves churned the waters like a washing machine, they kept knocking on doors, breaking windows and swimming into houses to save people, making sure everybody in Turkey Creek was accounted for.
Long after Katrina, the storm walker has become legend, and the historically black community founded by emancipated people who built it into a self-sufficient place now is known also as “Turkey Creek, the black town where nobody died in Katrina.”