By KATIE EUBANKS
Family and faith in the eye of the storm
In December 2004, a young couple and their little girl appeared on the cover of what was then Jackson Christian Family, the predecessor to Mississippi Christian Living. Barbie Bassett, then chief meteorologist at WLBT in Jackson, smiled next to her husband, William, holding their daughter Gracie.
Barbie was three months pregnant in that photo. Soon after it was taken, she suffered a miscarriage.
Nine months later, Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast. Barbie was pregnant again.
It was hot. The power was out as far north as Jackson and beyond. Little Gracie was at William’s parents’ house in Philadelphia, Mississippi. And William, then central Mississippi operations manager with American Medical Response (AMR), was on the coast.
In Jackson, Barbie was keeping TV viewers updated on the hurricane’s progress and the weather here at home.
A troubling fact: “Low pressure systems coming on the coast can wreak havoc on pregnant women,” Barbie says.
Which is why, on August 29, 2005, and in the days thereafter, Barbie experienced Braxton Hicks contractions, “due to the drop in barometric pressure from Katrina’s landfall and movement north,” she says.
Braxton Hicks contractions occur long before “real” ones, but they felt the same to Barbie — and the baby wasn’t due till December. She was afraid she’d lose another child.
“I was trying to hold it together on live TV for hours at a time. I would go lie down on the couch in the director’s office, whenever it would go from a weather story, to a news story and try to stop the contractions.”
Sitting in the WLBT break room with William now in 2019, Barbie remembers one person who encouraged her:
“I remember, of all people, (the late WLBT anchor) Stephanie Bell Flynt — she saw the stress I was dealing with. All I could think of was, ‘I’m going to lose this (baby).’ It was in this room, actually — she put her hands on both my shoulders and said, ‘You have got to pull yourself together.’ It was almost like she was my mom.”
At one point, Barbie and William shared a brief satellite phone call. He asked if she had a recent report on the coastal wind conditions. He also asked how she was doing, as any husband would.
“I told him everything was fine, even though I wasn’t feeling well. I was the last thing he needed to be worried about while he was trying to help evacuate residents and concentrate on his work,” she says.
William has his own stories from those first few days during and after the storm: A great-aunt and her husband holed up in their flooded home and eating canned food by candlelight; a leader from south Florida, which had experienced a “really active” hurricane season the previous year, saying he didn’t know what to do next because Katrina was unprecedented; and, of course, excursions into the chaos.
“At 10 a.m. (the day the storm hit), I got a radio call from one of the fire stations that a patient had walked up during the storm with a lacerated artery in his arm. It was a miracle he got there on foot during 100-mile-per-hour winds,” William recalls.
The fire department kept and treated the man until the winds died down just enough.
Then, “I took another paramedic and an EMT in a 4-wheel-drive Expedition,” William says. “To be honest, it still was not safe to be out. We dodged a light pole or two, a lot of tin and debris. It took us four tries to find a (safe route) we could (take) to the fire station.”
They took the patient to Gulfport Memorial Hospital, near the seaport, where shipping containers had washed ashore like Legos.
The hospital was without power. “I think their generator flooded,” William says. “(But) without missing a beat, under some of the most difficult circumstances you can imagine, the medical staff immediately started working to do emergency surgery on him there in the ER by flashlight.
“People just battled amazing circumstances and obstacles to try to make a difference for somebody.”
Another time, “we turn into one driveway and see a gathering of people in the carport. They come toward us. We’re thinking, they might think we have supplies. We roll the window down, you know, a little bit. We’ve got one foot on the brake and one on the gas in case we need to leave quickly,” William says.
“And the guy says, ‘Hey, do y’all need something to eat? We’ve emptied out the freezer and are cooking everything up. Y’all come get some food.’”
William and his colleague thanked the man but told him they had enough food to last them a few days.
Barbie breaks in: “But isn’t that what Mississippians are known to do (to offer kindness)? Even during the worst of circumstances, they were helping each other.”
She had an opportunity to do that after the storm, too. Pregnant women who’d evacuated the coast were taking shelter at the Mississippi Coliseum and had no idea where they’d give birth.
“When Katrina was no longer a weather story, I walked into the newsroom during a break and answered one of the phones ringing. On the other line was an evacuee who was nine months pregnant,” Barbie says.
The woman was due at any time and was unfamiliar with the hospitals and doctors in the area. “They tell me my house is gone and I have nothing,” she told Barbie.
Two weeks after Katrina hit, Barbie and others put on Jackson’s Biggest Baby Shower at the Ag Museum. More than 80 expectant mothers showed up, met hospital representatives and went home with free diapers, onesies, wipes — even handmade booties, hats and other items knitted by quilting groups.
For the Bassett family, unlike so many others, Hurricane Katrina caused only temporary stress, not tragedy. William spent six weeks on the coast but was able to take a 48-hour leave after 15 days, and another 48-hour leave later. And baby Will Bassett didn’t make his appearance until December 2005.
Weathering it all together
Katrina is just one example of the physical and emotional storms Barbie and William have endured together — not to mention how they’ve helped others in the midst of it all.
Barbie grew up with the weather dictating her life in many ways. The youngest of four children born to Brenda and Harold Dean Wiggs, she was raised on a farm in the small Delta town of Marks, located between Clarksdale and Batesville.
“That’s where my love of meteorology came from,” she says. “The weather controlled everything in our house, from finances to emotions.”
But Barbie’s parents taught her early how to “rely on the Lord through storms,” literal and otherwise, she says.
“I was bullied all through elementary, junior high and high school, mainly for my outer appearance and my faith. … My mom would often share (her snacks) with me because my snacks were taken out of my lunch box (my mom was a teacher in the same school I attended).”
Barbie was always fascinated by how God spoke to His people in the Bible through weather. As a kid, she “wanted to talk about Jesus and Bible, and no one wanted to listen to that,” she says.
“I felt isolated and alone while at school but was always secure with my church friends and family. Most people laughed when I told them I wanted to do the weather on TV, because I didn’t look like anyone who should be on TV!”
Needless to say, she outgrew her awkward stage. In 2000, she won the Mrs. Mississippi International pageant, and made it to the top 15 at the international competition. She has held four state beauty pageant titles and one national title over the years.
Barbie and William met as volunteers in their 20s at Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, an organization they still volunteer with today. She immediately knew she was going to marry William, and four months later she did.
It might’ve been love at first sight — nothing wrong with that! — but Barbie says her favorite thing about William is his wisdom.
“He has, obviously, book smarts, but he’s probably one of the smartest men I know when it comes to life,” she says.
“You talk to anybody and they’ll say you won’t find a finer person to be in the trenches with. And I have seen him work in the trenches with our family. And when I need sage advice — and sometimes when I don’t — he gives it out of abundance and a soft heart. That’s where you get me. The soft heart always wins.”
For William, it’s Barbie’s giving spirit that he loves most.
“She’s a giver — sometimes to a fault. Whether it’s the kids, me, family, social group, team member, she makes time for everyone who asks — often to her own detriment.”
The Bassetts’ third child, Lilly Faith, was born in 2008. All three kids are named after hymns: Gracie, whose full name is Ashley Grace, references “Amazing Grace”; Will’s middle name is Christian, a reference to “I’ll Tell the World I’m a Christian”; and Lilly Faith references “Have Faith in God.”
Gracie and Will are teenagers — and Lilly Faith thinks she is, William adds. Gracie is driving.
“It’s a fun age,” Barbie says of the kids, whom she affectionately dubs “the Bassett hounds” on social media. “People talk about their teenage kids being difficult, but it’s nothing bad, for the most part. I think this is the most fun stage because they all have their different personalities.”
Also, “the teenage years are when you make your memories with your parents,” she says. That’s why she stepped down from full-time work at WLBT in 2013. She now fills in at the station when convenient. She and William homeschool the kids, and he spends most of the rest of his time at the family’s rental properties or tree farm.
For fun, Barbie and William listen to ’80s music. In 2017, they went to see any ’80s band they could “within driving distance,” William says. He often tries to stump her and the kids on artists and songs in the car. Their favorite ’80s concert experience? Journey.
In the eye of the storm
In addition to family, Barbie juggles many endeavors: She’s doing social commerce for a biotech company; she’s starting an online clothing boutique called Cloud 9 (get it?); she’s working on her third book; she speaks at conferences and churches; and at her own church home, Colonial Heights Baptist in Ridgeland, she sings on the praise team and takes care of 2-year-olds.
Much of what she speaks and writes on, of course, is the weather — external and internal. Her book, set to release in 2020, is likely to be called “In the Eye of the Storm.”
“Storms really come to show you what’s next. They come to show God’s presence in your life. Most people see the eye of the storm as the scariest part, but it’s the calmest part. So if you can stay in the eye of the storm, where His mercy and grace reside, you can make it through anything,” she says.
“And storms come to prove we’re legit … Sometimes you don’t know the David in you till Goliath comes.”
A lot has happened since Barbie and William appeared on the cover of Jackson Christian Family in 2004. A child lost. Both of William’s parents “gone on to their eternal healing,” Barbie says. Numerous challenges, big and small.
“(But) if you can just stay there (in the eye of the storm) and not focus on the swirling — because that’s what Satan wants — if you can remain at peace and resolve and stay focused on God’s grace and mercy, you can weather any storm. Because really that’s our whole purpose is to prove how good God is.”