As Zeta Raged, Mississippi Family Watched Their Home Burn

By Isabelle Taft | November 16, 2020

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. — Whenever Bobby Turgeau talks about the night Hurricane Zeta swept across the Coast, there’s one line he can’t stop repeating: “I did everything wrong.”

That night, Zeta brought 100-mile-per-hour winds and several feet of flood waters to Turgeau’s Bay St. Louis home. But it also brought another danger, one less often associated with hurricanes: fire.

The fire, apparently caused by a power surge as nearby transformers blew during the storm, destroyed the home where he had lived with his wife, Amanda, and 10-year-old daughter, Abagail, for about a decade. The fire killed the family’s four beloved dogs: Sweetpea, Daisy, Pepperann and Rocky.

“It’s like a nightmare you can’t wake up from,” Amanda Turgeau said.

It’s also a nightmare in which they feel alone. Almost two weeks after Zeta, the houses next to theirs are pristine, except for the Turgeaus’ trampoline that was blown into a neighbor’s yard and still sits there, sideways and busted.

But the Turgeaus’ experience is not altogether uncommon. During and after hurricanes, fire chiefs around the Mississippi Coast told the Sun Herald, fires are an underappreciated risk.

Damage to electrical lines and widespread candle and generator use can produce sparks and flames. Hazardous conditions like high winds and flood waters during a storm, and debris and downed power lines afterward, make fighting the fires a task even more difficult than usual.

As power was restored after Zeta, the Coast has seen 15 to 20 major structure fires across agencies, Harrison County Fire Chief Pat Sullivan said. A city on the Coast might expect to see that number in a year, so it’s a large number for such a short period of time.

“It got to the point where we were seeing a structure-type fire every couple of days in Harrison County,” Sullivan said on Monday. “As recently as Saturday night we had another structure fire. Luckily nobody has lost their life or had significant injury from that, thank goodness. But the potential is there.”

Today, the Turgeaus’ house is a pile of blackened rubble and twisted metal. The family is staying with Bobby’s sister and waiting to find out how much money they’ll get from their insurance company to rebuild.

Meanwhile, Bobby keeps replaying the fire in his head, checking through the list of mistakes he feels he made, wishing he could go back in time.

`I Knew I Was In Trouble’

That night, he was home alone. He spent the afternoon building a tool bench, not feeling particularly worried about what he expected to be a minor storm that would hit New Orleans and jog north.

Amanda and Abagail were staying with a friend, because any kind of bad weather makes Amanda nervous. Bobby might have gone with them, but someone had to stay with the dogs.

As the wind howled that evening, Turgeau started to get scared. It seemed like the windows were going to blow in. He sat down on the couch to watch television. Then he heard “a boom,” and everything went pitch black.

Power loss isn’t exactly a surprise during a storm, and Turgeau was prepared. He lit about 15 candles. Then he started smelling smoke, and burning plastic. He walked into his kitchen and saw it filled with smoke.

“That’s when I knew I was in trouble,” he said.

By the time he found the flames on the outside of the house, it was clear that it was consuming not only the siding, but eating further into the home. Bobby ran back inside, wet a towel in the bathroom, and flew it over the flames, trying to extinguish them. It didn’t work.

He ran back inside, grabbed the keys to his Jeep and his wallet. He brought one dog out, and went back to get another. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, but the wind was still howling and there were almost three feet of water on the ground.

The dogs, as panicked as their owner, tried to find refuge in their house. When Bobby tried to go back inside to get them, the smoke was so thick he couldn’t see two feet in front of him. He called 911 and prayed that the dogs would come out.

“I’ve been running through it in my mind for the last week,” he said. “So many things I could have done, and they would have lived. But like I said, I did everything wrong.”

The incident report by the Bay St. Louis Fire Department indicates they got Bobby’s call at 8 p.m. At that point, the report says, “fire personnel were still having strong weather effects from Hurricane Zeta.”

While he was waiting, Bobby called Amanda at 8:08 p.m.

“That was the worst phone call of my life,” she said.

She made the 45-minute drive from where she was staying in Picayune in about 20 minutes.

Fire Fighting In A Storm

The first firefighters arrived at 8:10 p.m., the report says. They noted that one to two feet of water was “surrounding the structure and rising.”

The report indicates they tried to contain the blaze, but high wind speeds made for dangerous conditions.

“Any time you’re fighting fire in 50-, 60-mile-per-hour winds plus, in three to four feet of water, it takes your average firefighting and multiplies it times 100,” said Ronald Avery, Bay St. Louis deputy fire chief.

Avery was at the fire department headquarters as Zeta raged, directing firefighters to rescues. Typically, he said, the department advises that firefighters limit their efforts in winds over 45 miles per hour, when a blaze can quickly shift direction and threaten firefighters’ safety.

Flood waters also present a problem. Trucks can easily get stuck, and then they’re out of commission and unable to respond to other calls.

When a human life is in danger, the department is much more aggressive regardless of the conditions, Avery said. Otherwise, firefighter safety is a top priority during storms.

It’s difficult to fully prepare for the adverse conditions of a major storm.

“You can’t simulate a hurricane,” Avery said. “I don’t know of no school that offers that kind of training.”

To the Turgeaus, watching helplessly as the flames consumed their home, it felt like the firefighters were just standing by.

“I’m screaming, why ain’t you doing anything?” Amanda Turgeau recalled.

“I guess they figured since it couldn’t go no farther, there wasn’t anything to be worried about,” Bobby said.

The firefighters called for help from the Waveland Fire Department; by that time, the report says, flames had covered 40-50% of the house. The firefighters started attacking the blaze. But the flood waters kept rising. The firefighters stopped what they were doing and evacuated “all personnel and equipment” to Mississippi Highway 603. There, they watched as the fire continued to consume the house.

Eventually, the firefighters told the Turgeaus the area wasn’t safe; they expected more power lines to fall. The family left to stay with Amanda’s friend.

Sullivan said he couldn’t speak to this specific event, but that the decision to evacuate from a firefighting mission during a storm wasn’t unusual. He recalled fighting a blaze at a multi-story apartment complex during a hurricane years ago.

“We were able to attack the fire, but it got so bad that we had to pull out and the building burned,” he said.

Soon, there was nothing left to save of the house on Tigris Street. The last firefighters left around 11:30 p.m.

“The fire had receded but was giving off some smoke and visible flames,” the report concludes. “E3 terminated command, cleared the scene, and returned back to service.”

Fire Risk During Recovery

As the morning after Zeta dawned cool and clear, and power crews began their work across the debris-strewn Coast, fire was a quiet danger.

Hundreds of thousands of people were without power, and many used candles during the nights to come. Others relied on generators, which are prone to mechanical issues that can cause fires. Sullivan said at least two fires in Harrison County after Zeta appeared to be related to generators.

And though the restoration of power always comes as a relief, it also carries risks. People tend to forget which appliances were on when the lights went out, and sometimes they pile items onto the stove. A power surge when electricity is restored also can cause an appliance to spark.

John McFarland, director of the southeast Mississippi chapter of the American Red Cross, said that ordinarily, his organization and local disaster response officials hold meetings across the Coast to share information about preparation for storms, including reducing fire risk during and afterward.

“With COVID, we didn’t have any this year,” McFarland said. “I think that hurts.”

Also cut due to COVID-19: home visits to install free smoke alarms. All told, his chapter has installed about 14,000 smoke alarms around the region. This year, there were none.

According to the Red Cross, 39 homes in south Mississippi were destroyed as a result of Zeta, and 146 suffered major damage.

A `Dream Home’ Up In Flames

The house at 10115 Tigris Street was the “dream home” for a family that had already lost one. During Katrina, the couple lived off Lake Pontchartrain in Slidell. When they came back after the storm, half the rented house was flooded and the other half was almost leveled.

“It was a big pile of rubble,” Amanda recalled.

Then, the couple had lived in their car for two weeks before going to stay with family in Florida for a few months. They were young, and didn’t have much. Now, they had a family and a house full of nice things.

“Another storm we didn’t expect,” Bobby said.

Over the years, Bobby had developed a routine. He’d spend one weekend doing something fun with his wife and daughter. The next, he would focus on home renovations. Most recently, he had finished the wooden staircase and deck at the front of the home.

All of that was gone.

The Turgeaus miss their dogs the most. Rocky, a three-year-old rescue, had belonged to their daughter. The dogs were like brothers and sisters to her.

That was the loss that tortured Bobby, that made him feel he had done everything wrong.

“I’m not mad at God,” he said. “I know there’s a reason for everything. I just don’t understand the reason for this. I don’t understand why He couldn’t let me out with the dogs.”

In the yard, small headstones mark the graves of two dogs that had died before the storm, Boudin and Scarlett. A concrete bench next to the graves provided a place to sit and remember the dogs who had been family and best friends.

Something else survived the storm, too. After Katrina, the Turgeaus bought a statue of Jesus Christ from a concrete store in Slidell. It weighed 300 pounds and took three people to lift onto a dolly to transport.

“I bought it to bless every house we ever lived in,” Bobby said.

Poking through the rubble of his home after the storm, the Turgeaus found the statue upright, where it had always stood under the deck.

Standing at his property 10 days after the storm, Bobby looked at the statue.

“I don’t know God’s plan, but knowing that thing ain’t even got ash on it, it’s gonna be alright,” he said.

He took a step closer and bent towards the statue. There was a small piece of something charred on the statue’s shoulder. Bobby Turgeau picked it off and smiled. Still, no burn marks.

About Isabelle Taft

Taft wrote this for the Sun-Herald.

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