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In Katrina's shadow, life is back to normal

Published September 3, 2006

The old Mississippi license plates from Katarina Welsh's destroyed Saturn station wagon are in a plastic bag. She found her car gutted and flooded in the parking lot of the barracks at Keesler Air Force Base, where she and her family lived before Hurricane Katrina struck a year ago.

She still has the military-issued MREs meals ready to eat - pound cake, ham and shrimp jambalaya. She still has her FEMA-issued Operation Safe Haven ID badges and one-way plane ticket stubs.

In the living room of their new home in Spring Hill, boxes are still packed. As we sat talking in the kitchen, her husband, Dr. Michael Welsh, walked in from his job as an anesthesiologist at Brooksville Regional and Spring Hill Regional hospitals.

Katarina kept one eye on 2-year-old Lukas as he wandered about the house. The other eye was on the clock - she had to leave at 2 to pick up her 6-year-old son Christian from school.

For the first time in a year, life for the Welsh family is normal again. Two weeks ago, Katarina and her two boys were reunited with Dr. Welsh for the first time since those chaotic days after Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast region of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

At the time Katrina struck, the Welshes lived on Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. Katarina was a homemaker. Her husband, a major in the Air Force, worked in the base hospital.

A year ago, like everyone else, the Welshes were fixated on Katrina as the storm first threatened South Florida, then wobbled westward across the gulf. When an old friend from Tampa called them early that Sunday morning to say that Katrina was now a Category 5 hurricane and was headed toward them, they knew they were in a pickle.

In 2004, Katarina and her boys had tried to evacuate to Meridian, Miss., to escape Hurricane Ivan. They spent 14 hours in the car and another four days holed up without electricity. She didn't want to do that again.

So she decided to stay put. It eased her mind a bit that Keesler Air Force Base had withstood deadly Hurricane Camille in 1969. The Welshes had formerly lived in Largo when Michael was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in the mid '90s, and they experienced some hurricanes, though nothing like what was about to hit.

They secured their house and headed for the base hospital. Dr. Welsh went to work; Katarina and the boys headed for shelter. After the hurricane struck, the bottom floors of the hospital flooded; wind blew out the windows of the top floor.

Mother and sons spent five days cooped up in the base hospital before evacuating to Eglin Air Force Base in Pensacola. Four hours after they reached Florida, folks from the base and the community were bringing them food, clothes and toys.

"I saw the best of people at the worst of times," Katarina said.

Within a week, Katarina and the boys flew to Colorado to stay with her parents; her husband remained at Keesler for another six months before he was reassigned to San Antonio, Texas. No longer on active duty, he has been in Florida since June.

Mom and the boys arrived from Colorado in mid August. Since they've been reunited, Katarina and Michael haven't talked much about what happened a year ago. But the storm's shadow hangs over them. When their son Christian heard about Ernesto, he started asking his parents if they had stored enough food. He put his toys in a plastic bag for safekeeping.

Katarina, 38, still wonders about her old friends from Biloxi. She has two pages with 36 names. Sometimes she picks up her Mississippi telephone books and looks for their numbers, then calls. So far, she has found only three people. Katrina uprooted and scattered everyone else she knew in Biloxi.

But some things even a killer storm can't steal. Katarina still has her names, her mementos, her memories and most importantly, her family, all together again under one roof.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is

[Last modified September 2, 2006, 21:00:49]

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