On my way back home after working on the ground as part of the NOD’s SNAKE [The Special Needs Assessment 4 Katrina Evacuees] team immediately post-Katrina, I stayed overnight with some friends-of-friends in the Florida panhandle.
I was standing in the kitchen watching dinner being prepared on a heavy iron skillet on the stovetop. My hosts asked me what it was like where I had been and I told them it was hell.
“They got what they deserved. Those damned people been voting the wrong way forever. That’s why the hurricane came.” I replied, “Doesn’t matter who you are or where you live or how you vote. Hurricanes happen.”
That iron skillet flew by my hip on the way to the sink behind me. It shot by in an angry blur. I couldn’t believe it. Just out of the fire of Katrina and now someone was literally throwing the frying pan at me.
Needless to say, dinner was abruptly cancelled and I got the heck out of Pensacola and over to the airport at zero-dark-thirty and couldn’t have been happier when the plane’s tires lifted off the runway and we powered up into the clouds.
In the wake of any disaster there are equal amounts of chaos and order, plans followed and plans abandoned, checklists checked and checklists forever misplaced, lives saved and lives lost, families reunited and families separated, heroism and cowardice, competency and incompetency.
The most vivid memory I have of Mississippi is that of the wind blowing across the gulfside of Biloxi. The air was warm and heavy and reeked of death as it blew through my hair, down my neck and around my ankles. I was enveloped in the sickly sweet and savage stench of the still buried victims of Hurricane Katrina and her tidal wave.
It’s strange how my mind has played tricks with me since encountering that wind.
Somehow that smell — or the memory of it — has become lodged in my brain and that little fragment of hell has freely associated itself with life at home.
Weeks after I had returned home I was loading dishes into the dishwasher and came across a bowl of yogurt that had stayed on the counter too long. Should have smelled like yogurt gone bad. Instead, that wind in Biloxi was blowing through the kitchen. I almost gagged in the sink.
I landed in Pensacola, Florida, rented a car and began driving northwest toward Jackson, Mississippi. Pensacola has been hit by several hurricanes, including Ivan, in the past couple of years and it is difficult to discern which storm caused the damage still very visible as I drove out of town.
It might seem obvious but I was struck by how messy a hurricane is. There were papers and plastic sheeting and aluminum siding everywhere. And broken trees. In some places, the smell of sawdust still hung fresh in the air.
Lots of naked posts bent at strange angles as if looking for the road signs that had self-launched into the air during the passing storm. I got used to the idea that all the landmarks that had been described to me prior to setting out on this adventure were blown away. I kind of guessed as to the location of exits or drove a ways down a road until I encountered a standing route marker so I could verify my route. As I closed on Hattiesburg I noticed one of those large green overhead highway sign panels about a quarter of a mile off the road in a forest.
The trees were snapped off at mid-shaft. The old cliché of ‘snapped like toothpicks’ doesn’t even begin to do justice to seeing entire old-wood forests cut off at the twenty-foot level. Trees that did not snap in two were uprooted entirely. Apparently oak trees have shallow root systems and do not suffer high winds well. So these huge towering oak trees have been ripped right out of the ground and are lying all over lawns, roofs, and cars.
I remembered the ice storm and the snaps that came from limbs breaking off under the weight of the ice. I can only imagine the horrific cacophony that came with the winds of Katrina.
As we approached Biloxi, Gulfport and other towns on the coast, I found myself staring at the ‘debris line’ that was roughly 40 feet up in the trees. Purses, handbags, backpacks, bits of sheets, shoes, plastic bags, all hanging from the branches.
I remember checking a NOAA weather buoy website before Katrina made landfall and seeing a wave height of 46 feet.
When I was in Biloxi surrounded by the debris line I could imagine that churning wall of water as it rushed up from the gulf and into the neighbourhoods. I met a physician who swam to safety from the roof of her home. She lost her home and her practice and now practices medicine in a dentist’s chair in the driveway of her neighbour’s home.
We created a unit of measurement for the response to Katrina. HPSM. Hummers Per Square Mile. HPSM ranged from Extreme in and around Gulfport, Biloxi, and Gautier, Mississippi to Near Zero in and around Bayou La Batre, Alabama.
There were so many humvees on the road in southern Mississippi I was left wondering what they were using for transportation in Iraq.
Mississippi embraced me as if I was her returning son. In the town of Raymond, MS — about a half an hour outside of the state capital of Jackson — we asked the gas station mechanic if there was a good place to get a coffee in town. He walked us over to a coffee shop and introduced us to the owner by saying, “These folks have come a long way to help out.” My extraordinarily smooth espresso allongée was on the house — as were the coffees prepared for my two colleagues.
Near Utica, we were looking for a Jewish camp and couldn’t find it anywhere on the map. We stopped at a gas station/ home-made fried chicken shack and asked for directions. Within minutes, we were under way with an escort out front guiding us to our destination. And so it went all over Mississippi.
That Jewish camp was something to behold. The Henry S. Jacobs Camp had taken in a group of evacuees from New Orleans and while they had moved on, the camp was still in high gear. They had put together a warehouse filled with humanitarian supplies and were shipping tractor trailer loads all over the state to other faith-based shelters and relief distribution centres.
I learned an important lesson about life in Mississippi. People are much more likely to turn to their fellow church-goers or their pastors for help than seeking out assistance from county or state officials. The federal government is a civics lesson long since forgotten.
Someone said it’s not that the South is focused on Jesus Christ but rather that the church provides a social anchor in every town and community.
The inclusive church response to Hurricane Katrina provided a surprising validation of George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative. Another snippet about life, religion, and the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
There was a shortage of gasoline in the days immediately following Katrina’s landfall. In Raymond, the local gas station received several thousand gallons of gasoline and announced it would open for business at 10 a.m. the next morning.
People were lined up in their cars beginning at 8 am. The number of cars was impressive and no one was moving so the local pastor went out and encouraged motorists to leave their cars and come into the church for a special prayer session.
Somewhere between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., someone called the gas station owner and told him cars were lined up for miles so he came in early and opened the pumps. But many motorists had left their cars to go to church.
As the teller of this story told me, “People were honking until the police officer reminded them everyone had gone to church to pray for folks further down South.” The protests disappeared and the gas-line proceeded peacefully.
Be well. Practice big medicine.