Blogathon for Pearlington

Saturday, August 05, 2006

How I Spent August 29, 2005

(Apologies for length)

I live in Hattiesburg, and every time there is a hurricane headed toward Gulfport, directly to my south, my mother calls and insists that I evacuate to Brookhaven. Just looking at the map, you might not understand what’s supposed to be so much safer about Brookhaven. It’s a little farther away from water, but only a little. What the map doesn’t tell you, though, is that during Camille, formerly known as the Mother of all Hurricanes around here, Hattiesburg got a bit of a whipping that Brookhaven did not. Hattiesburg is more likely to feel the effects of hurricanes, though I’ve never felt like Hattiesburg was really in danger before. People from the coast evacuate to Hattiesburg after all. We only have to worry about losing power for a couple of days. No big deal. No need to worry. The only reason to leave here is to miss the possible discomfort of a day or two without cable TV and hot showers.

Still, on August 29, 2005, I was in Brookhaven with my family, not home in Hattiesburg. I didn’t evacuate because of the storm. I went to Brookhaven after work on Friday to spend some time with my nephew who was visiting from Virginia. Max had a flight out from Jackson on Monday. As it turned out, though, we both got stuck at my parents’ house a little longer than anticipated. And as luck would have it, my house in Hattiesburg had no more damage than missing shutters. My parents were not quite so fortunate.

All afternoon Sunday, August 28 my brother in Virginia was calling to beg us to leave Brookhaven and go at least as far as Kosciusko where my mother’s sisters live. Evacuate Brookhaven for a hurricane? Come on. That’s unheard of. Besides, by that time, it was too late. Brookhaven sits right on Interstate 55, one of the main evacuation routes from New Orleans. Traffic was already nearly at a standstill, and the people to the south of us were much more desperate to find a safe place to wait out the storm. Evacuating was just not an option.

My mother and I discussed what we’d need from the store. We had flashlights, radios, batteries. We had some snacks and bread. We had plenty to get through a couple of days, and we decided we didn’t need anything more from town than a couple of bags of ice. If we lost power for more than two days, after all, we would be ready for a hot meal, and we’d just go into town then to go out to eat and get more groceries.

Never in our wildest imaginations would we have considered that downtown Brookhaven would still be without power after several days. Never would we have considered that there would be nowhere to buy groceries or gasoline. It would have never occurred to us to wonder how long it would take for FEMA to show up with ice and supply trucks because it never occurred to us that we would need any help from FEMA.

By Monday morning it was obvious that Katrina was bearing down. This one had not turned like Ivan or any of the others we’d recently dodged. We were scared for what would happen to our coast. We were not scared for what would happen to us. Nothing in our collective experience could have prepared us for what would happen.

My brother kept calling to ask us to take his son somewhere safe. We finally agreed to go to my uncle’s house where there is a basement. My mother and I sat in her den early Monday morning talking about how we didn’t see the need to leave the house, but we decided we would just to make my brother James feel better. We spent Tuesday shoveling insulation away from the furniture in that same room after the ceiling had crashed in.

Only Max packed to go to my uncle’s house for the day. He took a flashlight, a battery-operated TV, and a Nintendo. We all told him repeatedly to leave the Nintendo behind. We kept telling him there was no point in taking it, and he was just cluttering up the car. When we returned to the house that night, though, and found standing water in the room where the Nintendo had been, Max was the first to speak up. “See,” he said, “everything happens for a purpose. There was a reason to save the Nintendo.”

The day at my uncle’s house is a little bit of a blur. I remember that we had a hard time keeping Max in the basement. He didn’t want to miss anything. The more the winds picked up, the more excited he got. At one point, I handed him my cell phone and told him to call his dad and tell him we were okay. Max did call his dad. He said, “You won’t believe it. Trees are snapping off like pencils. They’re coming down everywhere.” Then the cell phone signal went dead.

I also remember that at some point before we lost the phones a neighbor called to say that shingles were flying off the roof at my parents’ house. My 74-year-old parents then got in their car and drove the three miles or so to their house in winds strong enough to break trees like pencils. In fact, they couldn’t get all the way to the house in the car. Trees were already blocking the road. They did all of this just to cover my mother’s dining room furniture with plastic.

As it turned out, my parents managed to navigate through a hurricane without getting hurt, and most of their furniture survived the storm, but the house itself was not as lucky. Shingles came off the roof, the attic filled up with water, and the water seeped down through the walls or in places crashed right down through the ceiling bringing everything in its way with it.

Before the storm was really even over my father was up on the roof nailing tarps in place. The house later had to be gutted, and they spent most of the year living in one room while everything else was being repaired.

We had no real access to information at that time because the power was off, the cell phone towers were down, and the radio towers were down. I remember that I kept saying, “If it’s this bad here, I hate to think what it’s like in the places the hurricane was actually supposed to hit.”

I had no idea.

Even the next day, I had no idea. I drove from Brookhaven to Hattiesburg on Tuesday right after the Monday hurricane. It was nothing short of a nightmare. I still get chills just thinking about it. If I had understood the extent of the damage, I would not have ventured out, but I remember telling my father earlier in the day that I was going to go, but I was going to wait until later in the afternoon so that the roads would be cleared. None of us had any concept of the days, weeks, and months that would go into clearing those roads.

Still, by Tuesday afternoon, an amazing amount had been done considering the number of trees and power lines clogging the roads. It was actually possible, if not advisable to drive from Brookhaven to Hattiesburg. Of course, the path I had to take did not always follow the road, and often it was only possible for one car at a time to go around a particular tree. And when I say often, I mean about every ten feet or so.

Later, I heard someone on National Public Radio talk about flying in a helicopter over Mississippi during this time. She said, “I think everyone in Mississippi must own a chainsaw and a tractor. They were all out there working as hard as they could to clear the roads.” Her perception could not have been far from the truth.

Because the story of what I did on August 29 is tied up with what I’ve done every day since then, I find it impossible to know where to begin or end. That day the winds were more terrible than anything I’d ever seen before. Trees were indeed snapping off like pencils, one right after another. But I was never scared during the hurricane. It never occurred to me that we could be in danger or that people far inland would die in Katrina. That just doesn’t happen. I didn’t know to be afraid of it.

I became afraid afterwards, though, and the first two weeks after Katrina were the real horror story. There was too much damage to understand at once. Every new day in the immediate aftermath was a new nightmare as we began to get more and more of the picture, yet at the same time every day took us that much closer to something resembling normalcy.

It’s a blessing that we could not see the news. This was our own home turf that was in absolute shambles. We couldn’t have handled understanding the extent of the devastation all at once.


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