Hurricane Katrina changed Stephen Miles’ life. But Miles, the director of agronomy at The Preserve near Biloxi, Mississippi, did not let one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history change his life for the worse.
Ten years ago, only a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall Aug. 29, 2005, Miles’ life was in upheaval. The storm destroyed his home, which he had only recently purchased in a quiet neighborhood about 1,300 feet from the Gulf of Mexico, leaving only a concrete slab. Miles was also only six months into his first job as a superintendent, growing in The Preserve, an 18-hole private course designed by Jerry Pate. Katrina’s devastation on the area left the course’s completion in doubt.
The Gulf Coast of Mississippi was obliterated. Hurricane-force winds lasted more than 17 hours, generating 11 tornadoes and a 28-foot storm surge that flooded up to 12 miles inland. Fifty-five-foot high sea waves pushed casino barges, boats and debris into towns. More than 230 people died and the region suffered billions of dollars in damages.
“To us, Hurricane Katrina was like a bomb going off,” Miles says.
Miles was out of town in Alabama when Katrina hit to attend a family wedding. When he left Mississippi for the wedding, Katrina had been forecast to hit Georgia. That forecast changed, of course.
Miles and other Mississippians were allowed to return home three days after the storm. When Miles got to Biloxi, he felt like he was in a black and white movie.
“There was no color anywhere. The needles were blown off all the pine trees,” he says.
Miles learned that a 27-foot storm surge had smashed his house, along with even bigger sea waves. He saw barges on top of buildings and other destruction that literally made his jaw drop.
Miles was only 30 at the time. He had a wife and young daughter. With his home and possessions destroyed and his livelihood in jeopardy, Miles had to reach deep for strength and determination he perhaps didn’t know existed.
“You just react to it,” Miles says. “You don’t have time to think about it or get down on it. You just go into survival mode.”
Or golf course superintendent mode. Miles says his life in the storm’s aftermath much like he would a project on a golf course. He set goals and defined steps to reach those goals. He also relied heavily on his Christian faith.
For Miles, it was about relentless focus.
“You tune out everything else around you,” he says. “You let nothing get in your way.”
Miles first order of business was the safety and well being of his wife and 1-year-old daughter, who stayed with his mother in law in Alabama. Miles also began the tedious process of working with his insurance company to receive a claim for losing his home.
And then there was The Preserve. Miles never considered not going back to work there to finish the course, even though the area had been hammered. The questions were whether the course had been damaged beyond repair and if there was a plan to restart the project and finish it.
Although the course is located 7 miles inland, it was heavily impacted by the catastrophe.
“We had driftwood and other debris on the course from the storm surge,” Miles says. “We also had about 500 trees down.”
With the power out, generators were brought in to get the pump station back up and running so the remaining sprigs on a few greens and the driving range could be irrigated.
Miles worked at the course during the week, living in a recreational vehicle while there. He went to Alabama on the weekends to be with his family. This itinerary went on for several months.
It was a difficult time – and not something Miles wants to go through again – but he learned a lot about himself.
“I learned that I will step up if I’m confronted with a difficult situation,” he says. “I’m not going to crawl in a hole and say, ‘Woe is me,’ and ask, ‘Why did this happen to me.’ “
When The Preserve was completed and opened, it was honored with several best new course awards. Today, the course is doing well, thanks in big part to its conditioning. Miles is back in a home in Mobile, Alabama, with his family. Life is going well for him.
Hurricane Katrina changed Miles’ life, but not for the worse.
Not even close.