A Gulfport, MS, Resident's Journal:
Eight Days of Hurricane Katrina
by David Biagini,
resident of Gulfport, MS, and Ephrata, PA
(See photos on Excerpts-4)
SUNDAY, AUGUST 28 - ANTICIPATING KATRINA
Our family began the day by attending 8:30 am Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Biloxi as a family, including our girls who usually attend 6 PM Mass & CYO, figuring both would be cancelled due to impending storm. Father Dominick wasn’t certain what to do at the end of Mass, but someone noted that City of Biloxi had instituted a 6 pm curfew so Father said, “then Mass is cancelled.” We then went to have breakfast but Waffle House, IHOP, McDonalds, Krispy Kreme were already closed. Cracker Barrel was open until noon, and we had a great breakfast – the place was packed. Little did we know it would be our last good meal for some time.
The day was sunny and hot as usual. I read the Sun Herald’s front page warnings about Hurricane Katrina’s Category 5 strength and probable path directly at New Orleans and possibly at the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Local officials were urging voluntary evacuation; Mayor Nagin of New Orleans was on CNN warning his residents that “this is not a drill. Evacuate now.” We debated whether to go to the brick Three Rivers Elementary School shelter across the street or to a brick house about three or four miles north…a friend Debbie invited us to their daughter April’s house which was built by her husband, Mark – the same guy who was to build an addition to our house. In fact, we packed our floor plans of the room in our bags to show him while we waited out the storm. Again, little did we know that an addition would be the last thing we would plan in just a few hours.
We packed during the day, again debating whether clothes for just the overnight or perhaps an extra night might be necessary. After all, the schools were to be closed for two days – Monday for the hurricane, and Tuesday while everything got back to normal. It occurred to me to email my clients, staff, and some friends about the situation in case I may not be able to communicate with them for a few days. I also tried to do all of my Monday office work on Sunday in case we lost power on Monday because of the storm…two decisions I would appreciate later. I made some last minute preparations to the yard, moving all lawn furniture under the deck and Beth’s swing into some shubbery. Cushions were brought inside and I taped the screen door shut when we left. However, I did not board up the windows and I forgot to tape shut the door on the shed…two mistakes I would regret later. We thought that since we had removed any “projectiles” from the yards that the windows would be safe. As a little test of the storm’s power, I went into the creek and hoisted a three-foot section of a telephone pole onto the creek bank. It was near “Biagini Bridge” which is shown on my CD cover and since I didn’t want it to damage the bridge (it was laying in the creek just upstream), so I rolled it into a corner where I had constructed a two-foot high concrete ramp from the bank to the wooden plywood bridge. I wedged it into the corner so it had no room to move except straight up over the ramp which would take a tremendous force as I had a hard time even lifting the damn thing out of the creek (with one eye on the bank and one eye in search for poisonous water mocassins).
We finally got ready to roll around 7 pm. David’s 9th birthday was August 29 so Beth and I had bought a few presents for him and the girls baked a chocolate chip cake so at least he’d have a little fun. We also brought a great gift from my rich brother Ray that he had mailed to his godson the day before – some sort of Nintendo thing that David wanted. He kept being melodramatic throughout the day, complaining that tomorrow was going to be the worst birthday of his life (all nine years of it). Turns out, he was right.
I’m really uncomfortable around strangers so I still was pushing to go to the shelter and only if the storm got bad. I argued that since it was across the street, we could also come back to the house when we desired. But I was informed that when you go to a shelter you CANNOT leave until the Civil Defense people allow you to go. That was bad enough. Then I was told that the only people who go to shelters are those who can’t go anywhere else and there’d be maybe 50 screaming kids all night…that was enough for me. On to April’s house we went, passing by the school which had about 100 cars in its parking lot.
Eric and April greeted us warmly as we unloaded both cars. They must have thought we planned to stay for a week. We brought food, a cooler, clothes, David’s presents, my laptop and printer, my briefcase (it goes wherever I go, including vacations), sleeping bags, etc. April’s parents, Debbie and Mark, were there as was Debbie’s mother. Their house was 90% brick with vaulted ceilings, a big fireplace, ceramic tile floors, a pool table room and an outdoor above-ground pool on about three nicely landscaped acres. The subdivision had even bigger brick houses up and down the street. They said a big wig from Mississippi Power lived directly behind them. Although I still felt that our family of FIVE was crashing in on their family, it sure beat staying at a shelter.
We had sandwiches and light refreshments Sunday night. We showed Mark our floor plans and discussed some options. We checked the news and learned that this monster Hurricane Katrina was heading north-northwest at about 13 miles an hour and was still about 200 miles off-shore. The worrisome part was that it was retaining its Category 5 winds of 175 miles an hour and its eye was about 35 miles wide…unprecedented in strength and size in history. Unless things drastically changed, the eye appeared to be heading west of us and directly at New Orleans although the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast was under a hurricane warning. In fact, the right upper quadrant of a hurricane is its worst side as that area gets the brunt of the northwest feeder bands of wind and rain, and we were squarely within that quadrant. It was just a question of how big the storm’s outer bands would reach…if the eye hit New Orleans, we might be far enough east just to suffer the fringes of the storm as the Coast had experienced with all of the hurricanes for the past 30 years. New Orleans had been ordered to evacuate and many apparently did, but there were reports that many had no way of leaving so the City set up massive shelters at the Superdome and Convention Center, which they had done in the past. Beth’s family had individually decided upon their own evacuation plans. My brother-in-law Robby went from his trailer to his aunt’s old wood frame house about 100 yards away (I guess that’s an evacuation) and my brother-in-law Jiggs and sister-in-law Sara hunkered down in a below-ground storm shelter on Jiggs’ property which is adjacent to ours. Robby’s family went to Florida which wound up being a good thing for us. My other brother-in-law, Skipper, apparently stayed in his brick house in Biloxi but a few miles north of the railroad tracks which wound up being the debris line of the storm.
I remember that night…we all went to the narrow but protected front porch and noticed that the winds had picked up but everything was relatively calm and quiet. Our family then squeezed into the nursery (April was seven months pregnant) for the night in sleeping bags on the floor. I had my two daughters on either side of me (with one arm around each one) while Beth had David with her. It was kind of exciting because we knew this hurricane was billed to be of historic proportions. We were worried about our Fleetwood deluxe “pre-manufactured house”…Beth and I kept trying to remember if it was built to withstand Category 4 or Category 5 hurricanes. But all parents know that you can’t let your kids see your concern or else you frighten them. So we all went to sleep resigned to an early morning wake-up call from Katrina.
MONDAY, AUGUST 29 – HURRICANE KATRINA CRASHES ASHORE
At about 7 am, the wake-up call arrived. But it actually was just the opposite – the power went out. We knew that the hurricane was upon us.
It’s funny how you react to a sudden loss of power. The first reaction is, well, is going to come right back on? Was it just a gliche? In this case, power was to be gone not just for seconds or minutes, but for days and perhaps weeks.
We had been warned by the good folks at the Weather Channel that the storm would most likely hit Monday afternoon, but here it was only a little after 7 am and the rain was coming down in sheets and the winds were whipping. Eric and Mark hooked up a generator – a new necessity of life to be introduced to me – and played with the TV until they could get local channel WLOX with just an antenna as the cable had deserted with the power. That’s when our worst fears were confirmed…due to a pressure system (I don’t remember or care if it was high or low) from Texas, the eye of Hurricane Katrina made a last-minute detour from its northwest track to New Orleans, veered east and came ashore in Bay St. Louis, MS, which is about 15 miles west of Gulfport, putting us directly within that deadly northeast quadrant. Worst, it apparently made landfall as a Category 5 and then decreased its wind only 15 mph to 160 mph, making it a Category 4. I had never experienced any hurricane before, let alone a high Category 4. One pot of coffee was made for the seven adults (I needed the whole pot for myself but I kept my mouth shut) and we went outside on the porch to see what was happening. The winds were definitely stronger, the rain was now in sheets and blowing – yes – northwest. Leaves were flying off tree limbs which were flying off trees. And it was only 7:45 am.
David awoke and we all wished him a Happy Birthday and got out his presents to make everything appear to be normal. He loved Ray’s gift and we had supplemented it with a few video games. What they were I have no idea…the last video game I played was PacMan. But it kept him occupied all day, hurricane or no hurricane. Kim and Cally kept busy on their cell phones with their boyfriends, and I actually prepared payroll and called my offices and ADP during the day. Work is my therapy whenever I’m stressed, which is always.
Meanwhile, we started hearing the rain pound the shingles and the siding of the house and kept going out on the porch. The scene deteriorated rapidly. Flashing broke from Eric’s house and landed in his front yard. The house across the street had about 25 huge pine trees – huge in height but skinny and most vulnerable to bending and breaking, which they did. We watched three or four bend, bend, bend and finally succumb to the whipping wind and rain, which had become almost horizontal.
Unlike most hurricanes which apparently move through an area quickly, Katrina was so large that it continued to slam into our area for hours. We tried to hide our tension by playing chinese checkers with David and the girls, but every time we went outside the scene got uglier. Shingles were now fleeing the rooves of these expensive, expansive homes. The siding of another house across the street flew off, exposing the insulation and frame. The shed in the property behind us disintegrated as if an Iraq IED hit it. All types of trees were splitting or losing large branches, and Eric noticed water starting to seep in a corner of his house where shingles had been lost. We started talking about moving into the center hallway of the house for more protection. The angry sky had turned black, spewing thick currents of white rain that reminded me of a snow blizzard up North. And for hour and hour, it did not stop. I had brought binoculars but they don’t cut through sheets of rain too well. I could barely see the pine trees straining to stay alive under the torrents of water. I finally gave up and went inside and just layed down, weary and worried but safe. If Katrina had battered these beautiful brick homes and their companion sheds, what could we expect to find at our property with the pre-manufactured house, shed and five acres of forest and trees?
I must have dozed off because around 7 pm, some 11 ½ hours after Hurricane Katrina had awakened us, Beth woke me up again and said, “The storm just stopped. Mark is taking his truck to see what happened where we live. Let’s go.” Beth, Debbie, and I piled into the truck as Mark slid behind the wheel and started barreling down the long driveway which led, unbeknown to us, into The Twilight Zone.
Mark had no choice but to slow down as soon as he turned left onto the road as the power line had fallen across the road atop several trees that had done the same. Veering left and right, he maneuvered around the “debris” (actually a technical storm term) and kept moving forward like the Confederate Army in Gettysburg (see what living down South will do to you?). Meanwhile, we gazed at the bruising the beautiful homes had taken…siding down, trees down, fences down, rooves exposed, insulation scattered, sheds flattened. And the roads were much worse…street signs toppled, power lines and transformers toppled, utility poles splintered, and trees everywhere except where they were supposed to be. Mark finally had to slow down because a truck had stopped in front of him. The driver had a chain saw and was actually cutting trees as he drove forward, clearing a path like a snowplow in a Northeast winter storm. He advised Mark to take an alternate route so we headed off in another direction that had already benefitted from another good Samaritan packing a chain saw.
Realizing that Hurricane Katrina had spared not any block or even a side of any street (unlike a tornado, for instance), we eventually swung onto Highway 49, the major north-south corridor near our homes, and it looked like a bomb had hit it. The operative phrase from the four of us was “Oh my God!” although I used a couple of “Holy (fill in your own blank)!” To me, a Hollywood producer who wanted to portray utter devastation had been hired to create this scene. Windows were blown out of buildings, a huge steel telecommunications tower was leaning way more than that one in Pisa, rooves were either blown off or pounded into the store rooms below them, billboards had been stripped of their bills and were down to their boards, virtually no store had a free standing marquee sign, and utility poles and their wires were tangled, awful messes. One sick game was to guess what each twisted pile of metal used to be and from where it came. Another was to discover to where all of the traffic lights disappeared. We had only traveled a mile or so on Highway 49 before we turned onto Duckworth Road. We all knew that just ahead, Katrina’s visit to our homes awaited us.
Duckworth Road is about two miles long and passes by Twin Drive, a genuine Mississippi dirt road along which are Robby’s and Mark’s houses. Twin Drive makes the moon’s surface look smooth. But before we got to the “road”, Mark dodged more transformers, trees, and power lines and pulled into a driveway blocked by tree branches that fronted the little wooden house owned by Robby’s aunt. Robby came out, beer in hand, and said everything was OK, so we headed by foot to Mark’s and Robby’s houses which were a few hundred yards to the rear. We walked through a black family’s back yard as they stood inspecting their damage and one of their male youth watched us while holding a gun to his side. “Now there’s a reverse Southern stereotype,” I whispered to Beth.
Robby and Mark exchanged short pleasantries with their neighbors and we continued our trek, climbing over, under and around fallen tree trunks and branches. At one point, I lost my bearings and said, “Which way? We need to find the road.” Mark replied, “We’re ON the road.” I looked down and kicked some branches aside. Mark was right, so I made sure I followed him the rest of the way and kept my mouth shut.
We first reached his house, which he built himself a few years ago. He had lost a lot of shingles and seemed to have some water damage. He had boarded up his windows and front door, but once he removed the plywood from the front of the door, he couldn’t get it open. He explained that the force of the hurricane had dislodged the door slightly from its frame, despite the plywood. Since I hadn’t boarded up my door at all, I figured, it probably dislodged entirely from the whole house. Mark had also built a two-story shed next to the house but its front was missing. “You hadn’t finished it yet?” I asked. “The front is on the ground, Dave,” he replied. Another stupid remark, dammit.
Next up was Robby’s house, an old double wide trailer to which they had constructed a two-bedroom addition. Well, until today. The roof was ripped off and the back porch was gone. A big trampoline in the back yard wound up wedged into bushes in Mark’s yard. “You’re going to have a hard time moving my trampoline back onto my property,” Robby told Mark with a straight face.
During a pause on our journey back, Debbie offered us each a bottle of water and I couldn’t resist. “I prefer mine strawberry kiwi flavored, please,” I also said with a straight face. “Just a little levity to break the tension.” (One of my favorite Honeymooners’ lines)
Actually, the tension was mounting for Beth and me as we got back into the truck and headed down Duckworth Road. As Mark made the right onto Three Rivers Road, we peered past the forest on our right to see if our house was still there while Mark swerved to miss a transformer that hung from stretched wires precariously in the middle of the street.
Coming from Duckworth Road, you first see our house from the back. At first sight, the rear of the house seemed OK, and the deck which Robby built was still intact. I noticed the chimney stack was laying in the back yard which was much more visible than usual because the buffer of tall trees along the road were now horizontal. Mark pulled into the right side of the driveway as a 50-foot pine tree on Jiggs’ side of the fence had been pushed down to about 10 feet above the ground on our side of the fence. More trees were littered throughout the land: pine trees, pecan trees, oak trees…even our blueberry tree (which never produced one blueberry, so the hell with it). As we walked toward the house, the first thing we noticed was that it was bottomless…all of the vinyl skirting was gone, but that is apparently a given in hurricanes. The next thing we saw was a large oak branch lodged through our front window and into our green leather sofa inside. While Mark and I secured the window, Beth and Debbie reported that the door to our shed had buckled and the interior and the power equipment was drenched. Not many shingles to the house seemed to be missing, and the siding – which was a popular target in the fancy brick houses where we had stayed – was totally intact except for one hole that must have been hit by a branch. Beth went inside and reported that the laundry room had taken on some water, probably due to the rain down the chimney hole because the ceiling did not appear to have water damage.
I looked across the fence and saw that Jiggs’ complex of double-wide trailers and metal buildings for his “Specialty Hose” industry had taken a much more severe hit; his wood privacy fence no longer afforded any privacy, and a huge pine tree had taken a dive into his pond. Beth’s sister Sara and husband Mike lived in an old double-wide trailer in the back and half of its roof had torn off. But while observing the destruction across the fence, we noticed the most remarkable damage to our land. During the summer, we had cleared the area around a huge, majestic oak tree on the highest point of our land along the far west property line. The tree had a limb span of 60 feet or so, and its trunk had to be 10 feet wide. Our plan was to build a picnic grove with the tree as a centerpiece. Hurricane Katrina literally crashed that party…she somehow yanked this monster of a tree up out of the ground, creating a deep cavern, and knocked it over the property line into our neighbor’s property. “He’s going to have a hard time moving our tree back onto our property,” I thought. Perhaps just a little levity to break the tension, but I really didn’t find the humor in the loss of a 100-year-old water oak tree and the upcoming clean-up job to somehow remove it.
All in all, while our land had been shredded, our “pre-manufactured” house had fared remarkably well just as Fleetwood had said it would. Our family and house were safe, so we were relieved and thankful. We headed back to Eric’s in the eerily dark night, an omen of the darkness that would engulf us for the next several days as Southern Mississippi reeled from the worst natural catastrophe in the history of the United States.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 30 – SPIRALING DOWNWARD
We woke up early without a wake-up call this time, eager to get started on the re-building process. While the kids stared at the battered landscape as we slowly drove the four miles back to our house, I tried to spin a “camp-out” attitude that would feature cook-outs and candles and flashlights and all of that outdoor crap. Once home, we took a quick inventory of the damage both inside and on the outside of the house, which seemed more of a nuisance than structural. I explained to the three kids how we needed to work as a team to clean up the land, and for a couple of hours they actually were productive as they picked up the smaller branches in the west area of the property and formed our first burn pile (for a later date as Harrison County was under a burn ban since there was no water). Using a 16” bar chainsaw as the 20” would not start (naturally), I cut pine tree branches that semi-blocked the driveway but soon ran out of bar/chain oil which rendered the chainsaw useless (another pre-hurricane mistake I made). That left me with pruning shears, an ax, and a 12-inch bow saw which are great for exercise but lousy for productivity. I wouldn’t do well in the Amish society.
I worked outside about nine hours without suntan lotion, until dusk, and fit in a private inspection of the land on the north side of our creek. I’m glad I did it alone so the kids wouldn’t see my disappointment. My two little plywood/cement bridges over the creek survived, but the maze of paths that took me six years to carve through the forest were once again part of the new forest created by Katrina. I didn’t have the heart to linger along the creek like I used to enjoy during work breaks. I realized that no chain saw could repair this damage, so I exited quickly to concentrate on the upper area.
During the day, ominous indications of the downward spiral became evident: my brother-in-law Mike came over, beer in hand, and gave me a quick, sad tour of his ravaged mobile home. The roof had been ripped and the ceiling was buckling. The smell of mildew already permeated the inside. He said, “I have nowhere to go,” a lament to be repeated all over the Coast. Shortly thereafter, a Coast Electric power truck stopped in front of our house and a couple of large men got out to attend to the downed wires and transformer that partially blocked Three Rivers Road. “Great, they’re already restoring the power,” I thought. WRONG! The objective wasn’t restoration but safety – the repair crew simply cut our power line, cable line, and three phone lines from the pole and then shoved the pole, and with it our connections to and communications with modern life, into the ditch.
While the electric crew blocked the road, a line of cars formed. I joked with a couple of drivers, “you can turn around in my driveway for 50 cents.” People still had a sense of humor early on; we learned later that a brother shot and killed his sister in Hattiesburg while arguing over a bag of ice so I made sure not to joke with strangers anymore. An American Red Cross truck was in the line, trying to get to the elementary school with bottles of water. The driver saw me working and offered to bring me back water, but she never did although I didn’t really mind. We finished the day on a positive note by straightening, with two loads of rich creek soil, my little palm tree which had been uprooted and narrowly escaped the fallen pine tree near the driveway. Beth and I then kept up the campout illusion with a cookout amid candles and flashlights at dusk, grilling as much hamburger we could eat as Beth had loaded the freezer just before the storm but had not anticipated a prolonged loss of power.
On the other hand, you could read between the lines that things were seriously awry with the recovery from this storm. What if an ambulance was trying to get to Three Rivers Road Elementary School/shelter? Obviously, even the people in charge could not communicate with each other, and the order of the day was just to clear the roads, not restore power or communications. Even our water which did not depend upon an electric well pump – we are one of the few properties in our area hooked into the underground Gulfport water system – did not work. The infrastructure must have been devastated but the schools were still sheltering people so as long as houses were lost and lives were in danger, all other priorities did not matter. We heard President Bush made some kind of short visit here, but where was the government’s rescue cavalry? Beth had driven as far as the Alabama state line, about 60 miles, and failed to find gasoline, food, or any open stores..or National Guard. It was TOO quiet and we needed relief supplies and loud recovery work to pierce the silence, not rhetoric.
The final and most serious setback, in my opinion, for the country, for Louisiana, and for the Mississippi Gulf Coast, was a cell phone call conversation that informed us that the levees outside New Orleans had broken and the city was flooded. From that point on, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which had been crushed with a 160-mph winds, rain, AND floods from the coastal 32-foot tidal waves, which still had people stranded on rooftops or trapped beneath rubble, which had no power or phone service anywhere, which had lost entire hospitals from what we heard, and was baking in daily 95-degree heat with a 26-mile coastline littered with tons of spoiled, toxic seafood and chicken, virtually disappeared from the media spotlight that now shifted its focus on the horror that had engulfed the sexier, bawdier Big Easy.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 31 – THE DESCENT DEEPENS
I woke up around 6 am because the generator Jiggs had lent us the night before ran out of gas and the wonderful Missisippi hot and humid weather had taken over. I went out and put some gasoline into the generator, which takes about five gallons to run eight hours, before the rest of the family woke up from the couches and sleeping bags we had arranged on the floor in the living room with two fans to cool us.
Just then, Jiggs arrived with a new generator which was delivered to him for us by Robby’s daughter and husband, who happened to be in Florida when the hurricane hit. They bought generators for themselves and us while in Florida, which was most fortunate as desperate people in Mississippi were apparently assaulting each other while stealing generators. Jiggs couldn’t resist telling Beth about our conversation the night before while he was installing his temporary generator for us. I was holding the flashlight, complaining about how Mississippi had become a third-world country, when out of nowhere a huge beetle – about five times the size of a normal one – landed on my chest. “What the hell is this?” I yelled as a pushed it off me. Jiggs smashed it with his foot (but couldn’t kill it) as I vented. “That looks like the thing that dude in ‘Silence of the Lambs’ stuffed down the throats of his victims. That’s not third world, that’s prehistoric! What’s next, a dinosaur coming down Three Rivers Road?” I must have spiced it up with a few expletives, because Jiggs told Beth, “You should have heard your husband. He was ‘f’ing this and ‘f’ing that all over the place.”
“I have one more ‘f’ word,” I replied. “For sale.”
While we ran the generator the night before, we tuned into the one TV channel we could get without cable. WLOX was providing 24-hour storm coverage with Nightline thrown in for national news. The reports were actually scary: power might not be restored for at least two weeks; don’t drink the water if you have it; the Coast was obliterated; the casino boats had been shoved around the coast and would not re-open for months; Highway 90 which runs along the coast was actually uplifted and torn apart; the storm surge reached up to the railroad tracks a few miles from the shore and the waves had reached 32 feet in height; Biloxi lost 50% of its tax base in one day; both Senator Trent Lott and Congressman Gene Taylor lost their homes and Taylor was urging everyone to “leave the state immediately”…except he didn’t tell us where we should go, for how long, and when to come back. Gulfport’s new Mayor, who had been a men’s clothing store owner until a few months ago and never had held elected office, was conspicously absent, as were any government rescue squads. Relief organizations were setting up sites for bottled water and ice; everything else you take for granted – food, gasoline, toiletries, chain saws, electricity, newspapers, garbage removal, mail, telephone, internet, school – could wait…indefinitely.
That was the hardest part for me. If God wanted me to experience my personal hell, this was it. I’m used to being in charge, in anticipating problems, and usually resolving them by simply working harder and longer. That formula wouldn’t work this time. Try to think of how much you can accomplish without electricity, without water, without a telephone, without information from the media, without mail, without gasoline, without stores, without supermarkets or groceries. Then imagine that your dilemma has been overshadowed by the life-and-death misery that had enveloped the people of drowned New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. While Jiggs and Mike drove to Baton Rouge to get some supplies and gasoline for our generators and Beth went on a run to check out how her family members’ houses fared, I was reduced to walking around the yard picking up more skirting and branches and creating more burn piles. Beth returned to tell us that our niece Suzanne had walked into a corpse on a sidewalk in Biloxi.
Dinner was scrumptious hamburger helper and cold beverages from the ice chest. The camping thing had tired quickly. We switched on the generator at night and watched the news which was our only source of information. WLOX was showing video of the Coast from the sky but all of it looked like piles of surreal splinters. The video was horrifying…we watched an interview with a distraught man in Biloxi who had tried to hold onto his wife while the waters flooded their house. She told him to let her go and save the kids. She was swept away and never seen again. We just sat, stunned and silent. Even though we were in the war zone, we didn’t know what the rest of the country knew because the area south of the railroad tracks had been cordoned off and we couldn’t call each other locally…and you couldn’t risk the gas consumption, anyway, since no gas stations were open. Of all the cell phones operated by our family – two teenage daughters included - only my cell phone worked (I’ll always be a Cingular One customer because of Katrina) but even then I could make only one or two long distance calls per day before the system overloaded or the battery went dead (no electricity to re-charge it, remember?). Every once in a while I could check emails on the phone, and I never realized how much the prayers and concern of my friends and clients would mean to me. I got choked up reading them, but they inspired me to find a way out of this hellhole.
Meanwhile, ABC had already turned its cameras to New Orleans with just a nod towards the Mississippi Gulf Coast. New Orleans was a sea of misery and lawlessness…the Superdome and Convention Center were run by despicable gangs who reportedly raped girls in the bathrooms. Where in the hell was the security? These places had been used as storm shelters before so you would think the experts knew what to expect and how to handle it. In both New Orleans and Mississippi, people were buried alive, people were missing, people were stranded. Our family was safe, thank God. But as I laid down on top of my sleeping bag wedged between the girls and a few feet from the fan, I was beginning to worry that a return to normal life was drifting farther, not closer, and I couldn’t stop it.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 1 – FRUSTRATION MOUNTS
The day began earlier than expected because I had to get up at 2:35 am to re-gas the generator. This Yankee hurricane rookie wouldn’t realize until the next night that you have to push the choke all the way in after you turn the ignition switch or else you get too rich of a gas mixture – and a crucially stupid waste of gas. I had used some of the dislodged skirting to shield the generator from the road…we heard that generators were targeted by looters and Three Rivers Road is heavily traveled. This ain’t New Orleans, but we’re taking no chances.
Another day of no chain saw, so I got my blue tarp from Jiggs and spent about eight hours in the merciless Mississippi sun patching the roof with inadequate staples (another item I had failed to stock in advance of the storm); I would need to get roofing nails somewhere to finish the job. As if proving his sense of humor, God had the heavens open at one point and it rained for about 15 minutes. Actually, brief but powerful rain showers are a daily occurrence in south Mississippi – it gets so damn hot and humid that the skies simply can’t hold back the moisture. And unlike the weather up north, after a downpour in Mississippi the temperature and humidity shoot right back up to further torture you. Of course, I was on the roof when the rains came but I had actually gotten weary of watching the electric repair trucks and Bell South repair trucks pass by on Three Rivers Road all day long, leaving us languishing in the 19th century. So it gave me an excuse to get off the roof and into the bathroom for another lovely sponge bath by flashlight.
I made my usual one daily phone call to the office and the staff seems to be holding the fort very well. I got a rather insensitive email from a member of one of my client organizations demanding that I quickly insert the email addresses of the Chamber members into its website membership directory so that she could communicate with them without having to make phone calls. Let’s see, how about if I go out to the utility pole and string up the freaking dead wire and then flag down the freaking cable guy to re-hook our cable, and then I’ll quit worrying about running out of freaking food and jump on the freaking internet so I can log in freaking email addresses so this poor soul won’t be inconvenienced with having to dial phone numbers for her freaking solicitations. Will that do?
Overreaction, yes, but tempers are getting short down here. Mayor Nagin is screaming over in New Orleans for the feds “to get off their asses…and get down here to fix this goddamn disgrace.” We know what he means. This here is Gilligan’s Island without Maryann and Ginger. We’re stranded, but it’s not funny.
There was one pleasant surprise…City of Gulfport tap water had begun to trickle through the faucets. The water pressure was weak, but at least we could flush toilets without dumping buckets of water from the bath tubs and for that small convenience we were grateful. I immediately jumped into the shower…the water was cold, but a cold shower is better than none (even when you don’t need one, hee hee). The only problem was that we weren’t to let the water into our ears or eyes because the treatment plants were not functioning and we could get infected. Nothing is easy.
We’re also learning that the government response to this catastrophe is another catastrophe. Congressman Taylor said on TV that he tried to get relief workers here but they refused until the National Guard arrived and protected them because of the shootings in New Orleans of relief workers by more thugs. Taylor said, “Mississippi isn’t New Orleans” to no avail. The TV news also announced that FEMA would be open for claims at the Gulfport Waterpark which is about 10 miles away, so Beth and her mother drove over today. Guess what? No FEMA, and another waste of gas.
And by the way, where IS the National Guard? We’re hearing that the Mississippi National Guard is returning from Iraq to help. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is home to Seabees, the Keesler Air Force Base, Coast Guard and other military operations, but we have to wait for National Guard to come half way around the world before anything happens here? It’s still too quiet here…no helicopters, no bulldozers, no convoys…there are no traffic lights and no one is directing traffic so that great Southern tradition of being polite at four-way intersections is coming in real handy (can you imagine no traffic lights at intersections in New York City?). The only sounds you hear are private citizens with chain saws and the only active relief organizations are private – mainly, the American Red Cross and churches. We heard that about $90 million had been raised from American corporations and citizens which was very encouraging and generous…where it was going we had no idea. We also heard that foreign countries were contributing, which made the US government’s slow response all the more confusing. Some politicians were apparently starting the blame game. FEMA, probably deservedly, was at the top of the blame list. I watched ABC’s Nightline during which Ted Koppel made the FEMA Director Mike Brown look like a fool. Shockingly, Brown didn’t seem to know what was going on in New Orleans which he was supposed to be saving. “Don’t you people watch television? We’ve been reporting it for three days,” Koppel said.
Meanwhile, some politicians were also playing another game using race cards. You would have thought that no one knew that New Orleans was heavily populated with poor black people before the hurricane when arrangements could have been made to bus, train, or ship them out (New Orleans has all three). Of course, the race mongers weren’t mentioning that no relief was coming to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, either, which has – had – many well-to-do homes owned by all races. We aren’t privy to much national news, but I’m betting that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are already on their way to New Orleans, but will avoid Mississippi.
But I can’t be worried about politics. Hell, I have don’t even know what going on with my Pittsburgh sports teams (did the Steelers finally sign Hines Ward?), and there is still no power or telephone or drinkable water in sight. They’re actually saying it may be weeks before we get power and phone even though I see the repair trucks all day long up and down Three Rivers Road. And gasoline lines are three hours long (before they run out) to fuel the generators. We’re down to five spare gallons, after when that’s gone we get to bake both day and night. Why not sleep outside you say? Remember the pre-historic bugs? ‘Nuff said.
I sat at the table, in the dark, resolving that I was going to get some answers tomorrow. Then I went to get something to eat for dinner and the cupboard was almost bare; oh well, there’s always canned soup. With a frustrated stomach and brain, I started up the generator and headed for another night on the floor with the fan.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 2 – DANCING WITH DESPAIR
The deafening silence ended this morning. At 7 am, big-ass helicopters whirled directly overhead and continued until dusk, sometimes two at a time, always heading one way and returning the same way, I guess to evacuate people on the Coast. The United States government had finally awakened.
Encouraged that maybe the tide was turning, I decided to try to make some headway on some issues with my limited cell phone service. The girls want to know what we’re going to do about school, since that topic hasn’t merited any media attention yet. President Bush, who is coming to Mississippi today, is saying that Texas will accept children into their schools, so maybe we can get them up to a school up north. We have a residence in Lancaster County, PA; my mother has offered her house outside Pittsburgh, PA, to us; and my daughter Leona is in New Jersey so we have three possibilities everyone is checking out. While people are still sheltered in the schools here that haven’t been damaged (they’re all built of brick so most of them survived the storm), Southern Mississippi schools have other priorities.
So I dialed my mother and held my breath to see if the call would connect at 7:15 am. It did, but in a few minutes I had second thoughts because I lost my composure. My mother had relayed our request to her local public school superintendent’s office about enrolling our kids. She said they were sympathetic and nice, and even did a little research and called her back promptly. Seems all we had to do is get the kids’ school records, immunization and other health records, and birth certificates and they could be enrolled. I listened silently, then tried in vain to hide my anger in my response. “Tell your superintendent that we don’t know if the school office still exists, and if it does, we don’t know if the records exist. Tell your superintendent that even if the school office and records do exist, we can’t call them because we don’t have telephone service and we can’t drive there because there is no gasoline. Tell your superintendent that we don’t know if our doctor is alive, we don’t know if his office is still there, and we can’t drive or phone him. And tell your superintendent that as long as people are stranded or buried alive, no one gives a s--- about our kids’ records.”
I could tell that my 80-year-old mother was holding back tears at my nightmare, which upset me more because I was causing her pain. I tried to speak but couldn’t. I think the combination of anger, frustration, and despair had finally overcome me. Mom managed to say, “It’ll get better. You have to hang in there.” I managed a weak “It’s hard. Just because others are suffering more doesn’t mean I suffer less.” I know that sounds selfish, but it’s true.
I got lucky again when I called the Ephrata, PA, school district which includes our Pennsylvania residence. But I never got my answer as their answering machine cheerfully stated that the district was enjoying an extended Labor Day holiday weekend. Holiday weekend? Oh yeah, I used to enjoy those. Leona had more success in New Jersey, but now we hear on TV the schools here are shooting for an October 3 opening, which is to be confirmed at a press conference on Monday. We decided the kids might as well stay here rather than travel 1300 miles each way to different school districts.
I have a flight from Gulfport to Philadelphia through Atlanta next Wednesday, so I called Delta Airlines with a few simple questions. Question One: can you tell me if the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport is still there? Not on her computer screen, so no, she couldn’t tell me. Question Two: can you tell me if Delta is flying out of Gulfport next Wednesday? Not on her computer screen, but she did know that there were no flights today. Question Three: can you tell me when you might know whether the airport is there or whether you will fly from Gulfport next Wednesday? Not on her computer screen, so I am to call back every day until next Wednesday. My closing statement: “Well, thank you for nothing, ma’am.” Her reply, which I’m sure WAS on her computer screen: “May I reserve you a rent-a-car or a hotel room for your trip?” To that I said, “You mean for the trip that you can’t tell me exists from the airport which you also can’t tell me exists?” Then I hung up.
Beth called our insurance company and got a claim number. However, in order to get in touch with us, the insurance company asked for our telephone number instead of telling us when they’d be here. Since we’ve heard it may be weeks before we get phone service, we’re guessing they don’t plan on following up for a while.
That would be the last call of the day our system would allow. It would also be the first day in about 20 years that I was unable to communicate with any of my three offices in New Jersey by phone, fax, or email.
With no phone, no power, no office work, and lousy work tools, what do you do? In the immortal words of the Delta House frat brothers in Animal House: “Road Trip!” I decided to drive over to the airport and see first-hand what was going on, to take a few photos of the damage along the way, and try to get my roofing nails and a spark plug to fix one chain saw (it didn’t) at the local Ace Hardware store if by chance it was open.
On the way to the airport, I passed by a gasoline line and counted 164 cars. Beth told me later that she went there as well but they had run out of gas after about 80 cars. Lucky it wasn’t in New Orleans. She also went to one of the few bank branches that opened and waited in line for two hours to withdraw some cash, which is all any business will accept. The airport scene was eerie: a parking lot full of cars, but no people, no guards, no nothing…anywhere. The airport was undergoing an expansion project so much of it appeared to be wide open with or without the hurricane. I parked right in front and was tempted to walk through the front door and step onto a plane. Was this place open, temporarily closed, or closed indefinitely? I drove around twice to try to find someone…on the second attempt, a lady wearing a TransAir shirt came out of her car in the employee parking lot and tried to help me. She said all planes that were flying at Gulfport-Biloxi Airport were carrying relief supplies but maybe the airport would be open by next Wednesday.
On my way to Ace Hardware I noticed two 18-wheeler trucks resting against warehouses only on their passenger side wheels. The hurricane had lifted them halfway off the ground, even up here. Ace Hardware is located in what used to be a shopping center, and when it too looked deserted when I pulled up. I asked the guy sitting outside the dark store if it was open. “What do you need?” he asked. “A spark plug and roofing nails,” I said. “Then I’m open,” he said, adding that everything everyone wanted was already sold out.
On the way back home I noticed that a Baptist church that was under construction escaped the hurricane. This was the same church that was flattened by a tornado several months ago, except that the first version looked like a warehouse, not a church. This one was much prettier. I figured God liked this one.
The other outstanding sights I noticed: the American Red Cross had set up its impressive headquarters of rescue trucks and supplies in the industrial area of town, but the Sears outlet store of appliances and lawn equipment was still boarded up which doesn’t inspire too much confidence, does it? The best sight of all was a huge convoy of National Guard jeeps and trucks rumbling down Seaway Drive. I even saw two National Guardsmen patrolling a major intersection. Yes, the calvary had finally arrived.
As I neared our house, I found several Coast Electric trucks parked in our driveway. They were repairing the poles! But something was wrong. Our cable, telephone, and electric wires were still on the ground. “Are you going to include our wires?” I asked the foreman. “I don’t know,” he said, which translated means “Hell, no.” They apparently were re-hooking only the undamaged lines, so my damaged lines, and our connections to modern life, still lay in the ditch. Right next door, Jiggs was back at full strength, and we were still with nothing. I should have kicked the bastards out of my driveway.
Our evening routine of generator-powered TV news produced the information that President Bush was in Mississippi again today and brought his whole Cabinet. Our new mayor finally appeared on the news but seemed to be star-struck – he sounded like he wanted to ask Bush for his autograph instead tough questions. The Congress had passed a $10.8 billion aid package for our area, Presidents Bush and Clinton had now raised about $105 million, and there were several live aid concerts to help us. I thought it was interesting that the National Guard who were in Iraq were comparing our rebuilding process unfavorably to Iraq’s after our invasion there. And I thought I heard the American Red Cross say that they had distributed more meals here than with any catastrophe in their history. Somehow the sleeping bag on the floor with the fan felt a little better this evening, knowing that the mighty United States Government had finally become fully engaged in this battle.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 3 – THE EMOTIONAL ROLL-A-COASTER
Woke up at 6:30 am to find two of Cally’s friends sleeping on our floor. Apparently, they had house damage or are bums, neither of which concerns me at this time. I just wanted to get something accomplished today. I started by moving the trash cans to the front since today was normally pick-up day. Hey, if they’re bragging on the news how everything is getting back to normal, let’s see the BFI truck doing its job. Since no one can communicate anyway, the neighbors must have thought I knew something because soon after nearly everyone stuck their blue trash cans along the road. Of course, no BFI truck ever came by.
My mother called around 7 am and surprise, the call went through…the first call I received since the hurricane hit. Unlike yesterday, we generally had an upbeat conversation. Enboldened, I tried to make a few calls but was quickly brought back to local reality…the system was busy, but still a better sign than yesterday’s “No Service.” In fact, later I tried Beth’s cell phone as she ventured into Alabama for gas and food and after several back-and-forth attempts, we connected.
The little things had to be taken care of today that could become big things which means one thing in the South: duct tape! The front screen door was already pulling out of its frame thanks to my lovely children, so I stuck a white trash concoction of wood and duct tape across the middle to serve as a brace to push against and duct-taped the ripped side of the screen to the frame. I pulled out a long plastic pipe and duct-taped it to the dryer vent hose so that the hot air could flow outside the house instead of beneath it. I duct-taped a little insulation that had fallen from its original duct tape beneath the house. Beth and Kim went on the gas and food hunt to Alabama and returned about eight hours later with 15 gallons of gasoline (at $2.90 per gallon) and loads of food from Wal-Mart – but no red meat of which they had run out. Beth brought a rich fudge brownie cake which replaced all the three pounds I had lost working outside this week.
Cally was to clean the house so I used another gallon of gas so she could run the vacuum cleaner. Trouble is, she forgot that she could only plug in the power cord from the vacuum to one power source hooked to the generator so she couldn’t reach very far. Our rugs looked like a clean asterik.
With the heat index around 105 degrees again, I worked outside like a poor Amish farmer, using only a small bow saw, ax, and pruning shears to cut massive tree trunks and branches. I skipped the tree trunks as a lost cause and concentrated on the branches. I found that an ax works somewhat as well as a chain saw, and provides exercise. Trouble is that after a few hard swings, I had no energy to continue. So I let my mind think of how miserable things were, how frustrated I was, and VOILA! I managed a few more swings with the ax. To pace myself and with my cell phone working sporadically, I talked to my sister in Pennsylvania for an hour who demanded that I pack up and permanently leave Mississippi.
All day long, helicopters continued to fly back and forth overhead, probably four per hour. I don’t know if President Bush was so embarrassed by the federal incompetence during his visit to the Coast yesterday or what (we don’t get much national news), but something had definitely changed. The local news reported last night that 161 people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast already had died and more bodies were to be recovered. I hoped at least some people now were being saved.
The low point of the day was listening to Jiggs’ kids and guests splashing and laughing in their outdoor pool, hearing the humming of their household AC, and seeing Jiggs and Mike already re-install their business sign out by the road while I struggled with my primitive powerless tools not 50 yards away. I was on a ladder just staring at our dark, hot house in front of me while the pool party clamored behind me and I thought, “When this is over, I’m taking the family on a vacation and spending every dollar I can!” Just then, as if God heard me, a white repair truck pulled up in our driveway. David came running from the house and I jumped off the ladder, dropped the shears, and strode hurriedly towards the truck. I guessed it was Bell South but it turned out to be Coastal Electric. The driver saw me coming and swung open his door as I arrived. He looked tired and sweaty. I said, “I am glad to see you. Are you here to hook us up?” He nodded. “It’s a slow process,” he said apologetically.
I told him about the pool party next to the third-world property I owned but he looked like he had heard enough sob stories for the day. Meanwhile, a sub-contractor with a cherry picker pulled up so I knew we were in business. I quickly shut up and said, “Let me get out of your way.” He thanked me (was that an insult?) and directed the helpers on what to do. Having learned about staged public relations from the New Orleans refugees, I went inside and got Cally and David to come out. “You stay here and look as sad as you can until they fix the wires,” I instructed. “In fact, sit on the trunk of my car so they can’t miss you.” I plopped David on the trunk and checked their sorry faces for effect. I stood there too (I didn’t frown, though) in case they looked too obvious. Hey, desperate times demand desperate actions.
The truck had arrived at 6 pm and by 6:30 pm, they were done. The Coastal Electric rep told me we should be running in a few minutes. I had the same feeling when our pediatrician in the delivery room had just announced that our baby was on its way out. The rep checked our meter, then gave us the OK. I went inside with the kids and had them stand at attention while I ceremoniously flipped the switch to our living room ceiling fan and light. However, nothing happened! Then I pulled the starter cords to both but again, nothing happened! Damn it, run out there and stop those Coastal Electric bastards before they leave, I thought. But then it occurred to me that Beth probably shut off the main circuit breaker before the storm. I went to the box and flipped it – and on came the electricity! We bathed in the air conditioning and light just like the kids next door in their pool. Cally and David went around the house closing the windows (can’t let the “bought air” out as Southerners say) and I happily yanked my white trash brace from the front screen door and replaced the glass storm door. Beth and Kim arrived just then with the 15 gallons of gas which we decided would be used as a reserve for our cars – imagine that – instead of the generator.
After I took my first hot shower a week, we ate Wal Mart chicken wings and fudge brownies. We still couldn’t drink the water, make a phone call, watch anything but Channel 13 on TV, read a newspaper, clear the trees, get local gas, eat at a restaurant, mail a letter, or get rid of our garbage, but we had electricity, air conditioning, lights, laundry equipment, and our septic system. Even the news that night reported that mail and garbage service should resume on Monday. Civilization in Mississippi was coming back!
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 4 – THE SUPPORT OF FRIENDS
Being a cradle Roman Catholic, I have missed Sunday Mass maybe five times in my entire life. Nevertheless, Mass rarely holds memorable experiences for me, but I’ll remember the one today at our little country church in Biloxi for a long time. First, people milled outside the entrance door when we arrived and an older lady hugged me and said, “You’re OK!” with real sincerity. Inside, there were no lights, no music and no electricity; the windows and doors were open wide. I wondered if the staff had anticipated the intrusive love bugs and dragon flies and mosquitos like we get at our house when the screen door doesn’t close fast enough, but I saw none during the entire Mass. Divine intervention, perhaps? Maybe that’s why our church, little but made of brick, escaped much damage.
Father Dominick Fullard, who is a rising star in the diocese, kept things informal and quick – just how I like my Mass. The congregation laughed when the lector automatically lowered the microphone to mouth level…as if it worked without electricity. For his part, Father delivered a sermon/pep talk that we needed. He asked if anyone knew of any parishioner who didn’t make it through the hurricane. One woman did die; others were missing. Still, our parish relatively “blessed”, he said. He reminded us that only when we measure life in terms of material things and not spiritual that the hurricane tragedy can demoralize us. In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Peter “the devil” for doing just that. I hadn’t looked at our suffering in that way, and I concentrated on the large crucified Christ on the altar and thought what unspeakable suffering he endured that he didn’t deserve.
Father invited everyone to hug each other instead of shake hands during the “Sign of Peace” and it was a touching scene. A guy from our Knights of Columbus hugged me and said, “Glad you’re OK, Dave.” I said, “You too, my friend” even though I didn’t even know his name.
At the end of Mass, Father said a church in Seattle adopted us and was taking up a second collection to help us. He then invited everyone to the church’s little social hall where they had coffee ready and a room full of supplies received from some non-profit organizations via a tractor-trailer the day before. He said we should all take something either for ourselves or for someone else. “Some of us think charity means welfare and we refuse it,” he said. “Charity means love. Let people love you today, and take something.”
The supplies were awesome…everything from Atkins Low Carb Bars to 5-gallon bottled water to baby formula and clothes. Knowing that even strangers cared about us really lifted my spirit. I left by telling Father that I appreciated his sermon; he replied that he appreciated we came to Mass under difficult circumstances.
Feeling better, I wanted to buy breakfast with the family after Mass but again, nothing was close to being open. On the way home, we gasped at a new fancy Baptist church whose beautiful two-story glass atrium had been destroyed…this hurricane spared no denomination. Once at home, we found a Sun Herald newspaper dropped on our driveway – about ¼ the size of a regular Sunday newspaper and the first delivery since the hurricane. Then another Knight stopped by to check on us. We gave Ron and his wife some Hershey’s candy we had been holding for them since our June trip to Lancaster County and also lent him our generator until their house got its electricity back. I went inside, got a Delta Airlines rep on the phone who efficiently re-booked my September 7 flight from Gulfport to Mobile, about 60 miles away. She said Gulfport would be closed at least through September 10. She didn’t even ask me to rent a car or hotel room and I thanked her for her competency. Mass definitely had an immediate effect on me.
But reality in the war zone soon returned. Realizing that I couldn’t delay anymore a full inspection of the land I loved on the north side of the creek, I brought the family with me to tour our undeveloped land. For nearly every day I lived in Gulfport since 1999, I devoted some portion (and usually 10-15 hours every weekend) to pruning branches, sawing trees, whacking weeds, trimming hedges, cutting grass and carving a number of pathways through the forest…something like a country version of the maze in The Shining movie. I had even constructed two bridges over the creek that ran diagonally through the land. These three acres still were far from done, but I was finally gaining the upper hand. Until August 29. What we saw nauseated me: my meandering but neat paths were obliterated with fallen trees – some split in half, some twisted, some criss-crossed, some with roots yanked 15 feet high and perpendicular to the ground, some hanging upside down. Maybe as a cruel joke, Katrina spared my two bridges. As I shook my head at the destruction, I thought how I had to deal with poisonous water moccasins, frogs, turtles, armadillos, bees, rabbits (not so much the animal but the ubiquitous “deposits” they leave behind) and huge banana spiders for the past six years, and now the area looked way worse than when I started. Katrina had shadow-boxed with our house but saved her knockout punch for our land. She also effectively ended my land-clearing career as I have decided that the next piece of equipment to be used across the creek will be a very large bulldozer.
Needing to accomplish SOMETHING, I spent the rest of the day with my Amish tools in the western part of our property using an ax, pruning shears, and bow saw to clean up the land and pile up branches and small trees. At one point, I was on top of a six-foot ladder cutting a limb when the ladder toppled beneath me, but I safely jumped to the ground. My brother-in-law Jiggs apparently had been watching me and immediately applauded. I wasn’t in the mood to take a bow. Later, Beth and I walked over to the Bell South headquarters across the street to ask when they might re-attach our cut phone lines since their repair trucks went by them about 9000 times every day. Naturally, they told us to call their repair phone number instead. And, as yet another reminder that we’re in the middle of a war zone, Bell South informed us that they could probably pause and re-attach our phone service no later than November 14. And, not to forget, we were the lucky ones on the Coast.
It turns out that Bell South came by on Monday, September 5, not November 14, and repaired our telephone lines. The final piece of the puzzle, Cable One, reported on TV that they then re-connect their customers but we’re still waiting. A rather tasteless ad in the Sun Herald, I thought, was a full-page ad by a satellite TV provider encouraging people to learn from the hurricane and switch their cable service to satellite television.
We went to the National Guard distribution point and received a few of those MRE’s (Meals-Ready-to-Eat). A friend of mine said MRE stood for “Meals Rejected by Ethiopians.” Actually, we were grateful to receive the MRE, which are good enough for the troops in Iraq. I got a spaghetti and meat sauce packet in which you place this little rectangular tray into a plastic bag with water and it somehow transforms into a hot, delicious Italian dinner…complete with a tiny bottle of tabasco sauce and a dinner mint. I didn’t try it but I understand I have 50 years before its expiration date.
And while the nation debates why the New Orleans levees broke or whether race was a factor in the slow government response or whether the federal budget deficit might deepen in order to bail out the three affected states of our union, I wonder about the immediate future of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The casino and the entertainment industies were obliterated, taking with them our important tourist industry. The ages-old seafood industry is wiped out. Stores, office buildings, churches, and houses are gone. When the schools re-open is anyone’s guess, as is the number of students and teachers lost to relocation or worse, to death. We hear about over 300 deaths in Mississippi and another 600 in New Orleans, and that’s before all of the missing people are accounted for. We hear that 400,000 people are out of work, and a quarter of a million residents have relocated around the country.
As I looked out of my Delta airplane window over Alabama on September 13, I thought about how Hurricane Katrina had routed our community and changed the rest of our lives in just 12 hours. Our internal family debate was whether to stay or permanently leave. While a hurricane of this magnitude has struck the Gulf Coast only once in the last 35 years, it could hit again next month as could a spin-off tornado. Nor’easters wreak havoc up north, yes, but usually your roof doesn’t blow off or you lose power and water for weeks (when I left, portions of the Coast were nowhere near being restored).
The sustaining element to me through this horror is easy to identify: the generosity of the American people. People usually know that Mississippi ranks last among the 50 states in most quality-of-life categories (I like to joke that our license plate motto should be “It Could Be Worse – We Could Be 51st”). But I bet most people would be surprised to learn that Mississippi ranks first in the country for charity donations per capita. It’s a poor state, but it is a generous state and I am proud of them. When Ellen DeGeneres said during one telethon, “Let’s show the Gulf Coast people that they have friends all around the country,” it touched me just like the emails I received or when I walked into our church social hall and saw the boxes of clothes, food, and bottled water. The massive outpouring of supplies and dollars reaffirmed my love for this country, and even our allies overseas apparently came through. And even though it was late, when our government finally cranked up those helicopters, the National Guard convoys and the FEMA machinery, the firepower was impressive.
I uncharacteristically (I hope) made several stupid mental mistakes when I landed in Philadelphia. My unattended cell phone was stolen at Philadelphia airport and I had to buy a duplicate train ticket at the Philadelphia Amtrak station because I misplaced mine only minutes later. When I walked into a client’s Board meeting the next day in New Jersey, one Board member told me that it was obvious that I could be suffering from post-traumatic shock, whatever that is. But life goes on, and for me, Hurricane Katrina’s legacy has taught me a new appreciation for the everyday things we Americans take for granted.