MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — As we reflect on the 10-year anniversary of our nation’s worst natural disaster, one of our own shares her story.
WCCO reporter Jennifer Mayerle captured one man’s heartache during Hurricane Katrina, and his determination to keep a promise to his late wife.
Working in Mobile, Alabama at the time, she was sent to chase the storm. Ten years later, Mayerle recalls covering Katrina and a friendship formed.
I started my coverage in Panama City, Florida. As Hurricane Katrina tracked west, so did our crew, reporting live from New Orleans, Louisiana.
We spent a harrowing night in the eye of the storm at a shelter in Pearl River, Louisiana. The morning of Aug. 29, 2005 — with no cell service or a way to reach our station or families — we began the treacherous and unforgettable drive to Biloxi, Mississippi, where we would soon learn the true toll of Katrina’s fury.
Hardy Jackson and his two grandsons walked up to me and WKRG photographer Arnell Hamilton.
Hardy Jackson: I lost my wife.
Jennifer Mayerle: How are you doing, sir?
Jackson: I’m not doing good … we got up in the roof, all the way to the roof, and water came in the house, just opened up, divided.
Mayerle: Who was at your house with you?
Jackson: My wife.
Mayerle: Where is she now?
Jackson: Can’t find her body. She gone.
Mayerle: You can’t find your wife?
Jackson: No … she told me, “You can’t hold me.” She said, “Take care of the kids and the grandkids.”
Mayerle: Where are you guys going?
Jackson: We ain’t got nowhere to go. I’m lost. That’s all I had, that’s all I had.
An article written about Katrina said, “Hardy Jackson’s personal tragedy became a symbol of the suffering endured by victims of Katrina. And millions of Americans witnessed his pain.”
But one thing never wavered: Hardy’s undying love for his wife, Tonette, and his commitment to keep his promise to “take care of the kids and the grandkids.”
Soon after Katrina, musician Frankie Beverly — of Frankie Beverly and MAZE — bought the family a home near Atlanta, Georgia.
I moved there for work a short time later and continued to follow the family’s ups and downs, as Hardy kept his promise while struggling to make ends meet, and when Hardy lost his 32-year-old daughter, Mary, to cancer in 2011.
“It’s hard, you know, to just see your kids just fade away in front of your face, you know. It hurts,” Jackson said.
He continued to raise her two sons, Chris and Deion, the boys who were with him when we first met. And it is a promise he kept after his own lung cancer diagnosis in 2013.
“I say if I go now, at least I did do something right, you know, because I ain’t give up, I ain’t give up,” Jackson said.
He often shared with me what he wanted for his kids and grandkids: a better life, a life without struggle, a life without pain. It is what he always strived to give them.
“I just want to see them with a smile on their face, you know,” Jackson said.
Hardy died in March of 2013. At the end, he knew he made good on that promise to take care of his kids and the grandkids.
It is because of that, Chris and Deion found strength within them to push forward to fulfill their own hopes, and the dreams of their grandparents and mother.
Chris and Deion are the first in their family to graduate from high school. Chris just started at Georgia Gwinnett College.
Hardy Jackson, the man who caught the nation’s attention with his anguish and despair, is proof that through the toughest of times, love can persevere.
I still get emails and messages on social media from people around the world who remember Jackson’s story.