Katrina Survivor Describes Clinging to Trees for Hours as Husband Was Swept Away: ‘It Was All Just, Hang On'

Diane Brugger lost her husband, her home and her business to the hurricane.

“It was supposed to be going towards New Orleans,” she said. “We thought we were safe.”

The Bruggers hunkered down on the top floor of Harbour Oaks, the historic inn they owned and had restored into an operating bed and breakfast. Even though Pass Christian sits on the Gulf, Diane Brugger, 69, said their inn was supposed to be 33 feet above sea level, so they figured they would be out of harm’s way, even with the predicted 25-foot storm surge.

As Katrina roared over them, Brugger said they realized they could be in danger.

“We looked out the window on the third floor and we saw the water coming, the cars and floating and everything… and it was like, ‘oh this is serious,’” she said.

On the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, the day Katrina made landfall, the Bruggers thought they had survived the worst of it. A Canadian television station randomly called their home, looking for people to interview about the storm. Tony Brugger told them that the inn had just lost a couple of windows, but he had no idea what was about to happen.

“When the water started coming in the house, we went up to the second floor, and the time the surge came… it was running right underneath the windowsill like a river,” Diane Brugger said.

Katrina had veered away slightly from New Orleans and instead its bull’s eye became Waveland, Mississippi, a town about 10 miles away from Pass Christian. The force from the hurricane, which hit land with sustained winds of 125 miles per hour, spun off tornadoes all over Mississippi, including one that slammed into the Brugger’s inn as Pass Christian flooded with water.

“We were sitting in the bed and the dogs were just going crazy, and the house, you would feel it sort of lift up like a boat and then settle back,” Diane Brugger said. “And I saw a weird acceptance in [Tony’s] eyes that really unnerved me, where he almost was acknowledging that this was it.”

They said nothing in that moment, just looked at each other and held hands, she continued.

“Then when the house went up and it didn’t quite go right back down the way it was supposed to and we got up and then that’s when the walls fell away,” Brugger said. “When the part of the ceiling came down, it caught [Tony’s] head and just took him right under.”

Somehow Diane Brugger survived. She clung onto two trees for six hours until the storm passed.

“The only thing I remember, the trees, there were two together and I had a foot in one, and a foot in the other tree,” she said. “It was all just, hang on.”

Eventually, she was rescued and taken to a hospital.

“When the water went down… all you could see were the roots where I found my oven,” Brugger said.

Tony’s body was recovered the next day. Diane had lost everything -- her husband, her home, her business and her community -- so after Katrina, Brugger moved away to St. Louis.

Two years after Katrina, she returned to Pass Christian and started to rebuild her life and her bed and breakfast on the same spot where the original had once stood. She had her first renter at her new inn in 2008.

“I’m not sorry I moved back,” she said. “To wake up every morning, to look out at that harbor, being on that little front porch, that sunset, it’s a lovely place to live."