Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Katrina
A Journal, Revisited

Kathy Rhodes


Monday, August 29, 2005, The Day Of. I had a sinking feeling Katrina would toggle east and hit the Mississippi coast. Hurricanes always seem to change course at the last minute. A Category 5 storm was barreling toward the same coastline Camille ravaged in 1969.

Early morning, I watched CNN track Katrina as she made landfall at 6:10 near Grand Isle, east of New Orleans, with sustained winds of 140 mph, a Cat 4 hurricane. Then I went to work, assured the worst was over and the storm would weaken as she moved north over land.

My older son, his wife, and three dogs live in Flowood, Mississippi, a suburb east of Jackson, about two hundred miles inland, and I knew they’d get some wind and rain. My family land is east and north of Jackson, near the Alabama line. I worried about my tall pines and hardwoods. I had just contracted to cut timber in a few months.

About eleven, my son called from his Jeep Wrangler. He occasionally calls me as he does his errands, making efficient use of idle driving time. “I’m going to get Nicole. Most of the businesses here are shutting down early and sending their employees home. It’s going to be worse than we thought. We’re supposed to get 100-mile-an-hour winds.”

They’d left Nicole’s car parked in a safe place. She has a brand new vanilla PT Cruiser with a black convertible top. He had recently spiffed up his Jeep with new big tires and a lift, and afterward, he and a few friends drove it through someone’s pond just because, so a hurricane shouldn't be much of a challenge for it.

At noon, I went home—in the next state up from my son—checked my yard for loose items that might blow away and decided against going to Publix to buy bottled water and candles. After all, I still had a disaster box prepared after Nine Eleven.

My son called again around one. “My office is closed, too. I’m on my way home. Nicole just called and said our doorbell is ringing nonstop—from wind pushing against it. Listen. Can you hear the wind through the phone? It’s awful. Oh, shit! Oh, no. Something hit my windshield. Damn, it’s cracked.”

“How far are you from home?”

“Quarter of a mile.”

“Get there. Hurry.”

I sat glued to CNN, watching the radar track Katrina as she moved up through Biloxi and Gulfport, Picayune, Laurel, then Jackson.

Mid afternoon, after the worst of the winds, my son called again from his Jeep. He’s always got to be out in the middle of things. “We lost power. I’m out looking for ice. I just bought groceries for the month—can’t lose all that. Got to have ice. I have driven from one side of this city to the other and haven’t seen anyone with power. And every gas station is closed."

“Just don’t open the refrigerator door. It’ll be okay.”

“You don’t understand. It’s going to be down for a while,” he said, spitting emphasis on DOWN and WHILE, then his voice lowered. “I can't believe this—in Flowood there are two police cars at every intersection. With their lights flashing. There’s definitely a police presence here.”

“They’ll deploy the National Guard. That’s the first thing that happens in a disaster. The Guard will patrol the streets and keep people from looting. They’ll hand out water and ice. You’ll be fine.” I remembered the problems my parents had during the Great Ice Storm of ’94. The entire Mississippi Delta was without power for eleven days. Every store was closed, and people ran out of water and food and flashlight batteries and candles. The Guard was there johnny-on-the-spot and eventually opened Kroger, allowing residents to go in, ten people at a time, and buy things they needed.

“You don’t understand. Much of the Mississippi Guard is in Iraq!” he snapped.

Oh God. A homeland disaster and no homeland defense ready to roll.

“There’s one city block in Flowood that has power, and my office is on it. So is the police station. I can take my groceries to the office. We have a full kitchen there, so I can cook and eat there, too.”

He was trained in survival and always kept emergency supplies on hand. I thought of all the times we’d laughed and made fun of him for doing so. I knew he’d make it.

Now, Katrina was headed up Interstate 55, toward me, fast on her way to becoming Tennessee’s first tropical storm. I went to bed and waited for her to come blowing through. At 2 a.m. the sound awoke me. Winds pushing the trees in the backyard—tall, old trees that had been there for decades. I was afraid one might fall on the house, so I moved downstairs to the couch in the front living room, and the dog settled against my leg, sensing my anxiety and nervous in her own right about the noise outside. We both kept our eyes on the front windows.

Rain swept in sheets across the yard and front island and the street beyond. It shimmered white under the glow of the streetlamp. The Japanese maple slammed and scratched against the window. The river birch banged against the chimney on the side of the house. The power flickered, the UPS on my computer screeched, and I dashed upstairs and shut the system down. I flipped on the TV to get a weather update and heard BREAKING NEWS that a levee had broken on Lake Pontchartrain and water was pouring into the streets, a death knell for the city of New Orleans. A doomsday scenario. Oh God.

My cheeks stung and my eyes burned wet as I played flashbacks in my mind of trips to New Orleans, that hot, humid old city of character. Strong coffee, beignets, eggs Benedict, old bricks, iron fences, cemeteries above ground, artsy-craftsy people on Jackson Square, music in dark dives. I thought of the picture we shot of my dad on Bourbon Street in front of one of those dives, standing beside a poster of a mostly naked woman, with a bottle in a brown bag under his arm. We threatened to show it to the deacons at church. I remembered my youth group’s trip down there, riding slowly through the French Quarter in our long green bus with First Baptist Church written on the side, before disembarking and walking though the streets of sin. I bought a little gold crucifix there and was told that Baptists don’t wear necklaces with Jesus hanging on the cross; we wear empty crosses. All the memories, the laughs, the fun, all the history, everything, now in water, under water. Gone.

The worst of the storm passed, and I went back to sleep.

Tuesday, August 30, The Day After. Jackson’s The Clarion-Ledger said: “The eye of Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane, hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast about 9 a.m. Monday with 125-mph winds. Around the state, the storm knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, flooded casinos, shut down major highways and even wiped out an amusement park…Nearly half of those living in Mississippi slept in the dark Monday night…Most major highways and evacuation routes throughout south Mississippi still were impassable Monday night…Although Katrina’s winds weren’t as forceful as Camille’s, the hurricane caused waves to swell higher than Camille’s, reaching 28 feet on the Gulf Coast. As a result, some boats crashed into buildings, and others wound up on the Coast’s busiest thoroughfare, U.S. 90, which was seven feet under water.”

Mississippi got the eastern wall, the worst of the storm. I couldn’t bear to think about all the destruction. The sandy Gulf shores where my family vacationed when I was a child. The beautiful coastal highway with beaches on the water side and old historic homes and quaint diners on the other. I played in the Gulf waters, collected shells, ate seafood. As an adult, I took my babies there and let them step out in the gentle waves. The waters were always so peaceful, so beautiful, and the sand and palm trees and sea touching sky were such a cool and calming contrast to my hot Delta home of black dirt and white cotton, just a few hours away. I remembered after Camille, we couldn’t swim in those waters for a few years—bodies were still washing up. Silent sobs bubbled up from my chest.

I stopped in Walgreen’s shortly after noon to pick up a prescription for my husband and to get some moisturizer for myself. My cell phone rang. It was my son. He hemmed and hawed and blew out hard. “Mama, it’s bad. It’s really bad here. It’s absolutely unreal. In central Mississippi, 85% of us are without power...the entire cities of Brandon, Pearl, Raymond, Byram, Clinton, Richland, Ridgeland, 95% of Flowood, 90% of Jackson, and 40% of Madison. We're not expecting to have power restored until September 10, Entergy's official target date for Flowood/Brandon. We have no communication with the outside world. No television news. Most radio stations lost their towers. No telephones. All but three cell phone towers in the area are gone.”

I lost connection with him three times during the conversation.

“No grocery stores. No hospitals. No gas stations. The one gas station that was open on this side of town ran out of fuel and food and ice this morning. No way to get food or water or Advil, and I have a migraine today, of all days. We can't drink the water. We're under a boil-water notice for the foreseeable future. Every stoplight is now a 4-way stop, making driving a pain in the ass. The heat index today is 107.”

I sat down Indian-chief style in the aisle in front of the Oil of Olay and let it all sink in. Probably half the state south of Jackson was in the same boat.

“For now, we have power here at my office, but it comes and goes,” he continued. “All of our food is in the freezer here, too. We have four big water bottles from the cooler that will last us a while. After that, we will have to use boiled water from the swimming pool. I also have purification tablets—remember how everyone always made fun of me for keeping those in my hunting gear? We have four propane bottles and a handful of candles, along with four or five flashlights.”

I’d never heard notes of despair in his voice before. I took in a few ragged, shallow breaths.

“No one was expecting the storm to be this bad. All of our Entergy crews were pre-positioned in the south and only returned this afternoon. It looks like a war zone here. And the National Guard in Jackson is shorthanded. We do have an 8 p.m. – 8 a.m. curfew for the entire Metro area. The few radio stations that are operating are using the emergency broadcast system to distribute notices and alerts.”

Alas, Babylon, I thought. This is the title of a book that tells how people in a small town cope with nuclear war and its aftermath and how, though numbed by catastrophe, they are driven to go on living. I read it as a teenager, and much later, my children read the cleaned-up version as required reading for school. The title became our secret emergency code in a crisis. I got the message that this disaster was one of unprecedented proportions.

“Getting gas is going to be a problem,” my son continued. “I saw a tanker truck on Highway 80 this morning being escorted by Army Humvees and a black SWAT team truck. They stopped all traffic to let it pass. The radio stations are telling everyone to stop driving around because the tri-county area—Rankin, Hinds, and Madison—is running out of fuel for emergency and utility vehicles. It's becoming a real crisis fuel-wise.”

He and Nicole and their three dogs slept at his office that night, along with a dozen co-workers and friends. They all cooked and ate together.

Wednesday, August 31, Day 3, A Day of Reality. Headlines of The Tennessean: NEW ORLEANS LIES IN RUINS. I choked up when I picked the paper up off the driveway. HUNDREDS, IF NOT THOUSANDS, ARE DEAD.

A bit of good news came early afternoon from my son: “Our power is back on. Trucks from Florida came, unannounced, lined up and down Lakeland Drive starting at 9 a.m., and we were back up by noon.”

Then a bit of bad news. “The Gulf Coast is destroyed. Pass Christian is gone.”

I’d heard on the news that several small Mississippi towns along the coast were wiped out. I’d heard that nothing was standing between the railroad and the beach. That’s a good little distance. I wondered about Gulfshore, the state Baptist camp at Pass Christian. Camille wiped out the old camp a few weeks after my boyfriend was there as a counselor with kids from his church, and they built a new one that was supposed to be hurricane-proof. My guess is that it wasn’t built to withstand a Cat 4.

I was full of the horror of devastation—people whose lives are literally gone. Not only do they not have homes and cars, but they have no identity, no records, no proof of ownership of anything. They are wiped out. It’s incomprehensible. My compassion for them took over my body. I couldn’t stand any more, couldn’t watch the tragic unfolding news on CNN any longer.

About 9:15 my son called from his Jeep. “I’m out looking for gasoline,” he said. “I’ve been to three stations, and they are all out of fuel. They have police tape around them.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. Try a few more places and then go home, I guess. Oh my God, there goes a tanker. Hold on.”

I held the phone tighter, figuring he was making a U-Turn on Lakeland Drive.

“Hot dog!” he said. “I’m going to follow him and see where he goes. He’s got four police cars and two National Guard Humvees escorting him. Damn, I got a red light.”

“Did the tanker stop?”

“No, they don’t have to stop.”

My cell phone rang, and it was my other son. I sat in a wicker chair in the bedroom with two phones on speakerphone on my lap.

“Where’d he go, where’d he go,” the older one mumbled as I caught the younger one up with what was going on. “There he is! Hang on!”

I heard a squeal of tires.

“I’m in, I’m in,” he said. “I got lucky. Two cars pulled in before me, then I pulled into the station, and then the police blocked it off."

The tanker was at the back of a BP on Lakeland, about a half mile west of Airport Road, ready to supply the station. Within a few minutes, cars were lined up about five miles down the road, two lanes deep.

“Stay in your car,” the manager told him. It would take fifteen minutes for the tanker to pump fuel. “A policeman will tell you when you can get out and fill up.” How much is the gas, my son asked. “$2.71,” the manager said.

“A CNN satellite truck just got sent to the back of the line,” my son laughed. “People will be here long after midnight. I'm really lucky.”

I went to bed thinking things were going to be better tomorrow.

Thursday, September 1, Day 4, A Day of Sobering Reality. New Orleans is in a state of lawlessness. Looting is widespread. Some of the search and rescue efforts have been abandoned due to the violence in the streets. Shots were fired at an army helicopter attempting to evacuate refugees. Refugees…I’ve never heard that word used about people in the United States. Dead bodies are in the streets and on the sidewalks and in the floodwaters. The pictures I’m seeing on TV tell me that this is some Third World country, far, far away.

The White House says help is on the way.

But by now, I’d lost hope. As I watched CNN’s coverage, reality sank in. Those thousands of people left behind in New Orleans were not going to be saved. Come hell and high water and nobody was coming to help. One old woman died in her wheelchair, and they just pushed her up against the building and threw a blue-and-red-plaid blanket over her. Another was dead on the ground beside her, mummied in a white sheet. One woman with reddish-colored hair and skin like my own mother’s kept blotting her face with a red bandana, holding up two fingers, saying “two days, no food, no water, two days.”

When it got to be too much, I pushed one red button with POWER on it, and all those people were gone, and I was left in stinging silence. I took the dog for a walk and felt a wave of guilt because my skies were blue and my life was in order.

I grieved for the Mississippi Gulf Coast towns—Biloxi, Gulfport, Long Beach, Pass Christian. My sons’s friend’s brother lives in Pass Christian, four blocks from the sandy beach. Now, he has beachfront property. That much land has been lost. The coastline is forever changed.

With each passing day, I was getting a little more nervous about cousins in Meridian and Philadelphia. Over two hundred miles inland, they were hit with the eastern wall of the storm, a Category 1, and I hadn’t heard anything from them.

An e-mail came from a cousin in Florida, who has been through a few hurricanes himself. His grandfather was a brother to my grandfather, and they lived on adjoining land in Kemper County. My cousin still has immediate family inland, and his brother lost his home. “No one from the coast to Macon [about 250 miles] has any power, phone or water service…Many of the doctors and hospitals in Orlando wanted to give me money and supplies to take with me to our relatives, but officials in Mississippi said that I could not travel there due to the conditions and unavailability of gas.”

Gasoline at my BP station on the corner of Moore’s Lane and Mallory Lane in Brentwood went from $2.55 at the beginning of the week to $3.29 by Friday.

My son called with a bit of news that made my stomach flip flop. “Haley Barbour [governor] is calling a press conference this afternoon or tomorrow. He’s going to announce that emergency vehicles only will be able to get gas. In other words, after today, gas will no longer be available to non-emergency vehicles. No word on how long that will last.”

“What will you do?”

“I don’t know. I guess ride a bike.”

“Do you have a bike?”

“No.”

I sense that our lives have changed. The impact of this event is just now beginning to come to light. There’s no way to know the full implications of Katrina. It is a national tragedy that will be with us forever.

“It’s getting worse here each day,” my son lamented. “It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse. People are getting desperate. Only a few banks are open, and the lines are blocks long. People are pushing their cars to gas stations—even professionals—landscaping companies, trucks with company logos on them.”

“What are service companies going to do when there is no gasoline?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

I didn't want to know. I couldn’t stand to think about how much worse it could get. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. My husband is in the service business; his company could not exist without gasoline. What would we do?

Friday, September 2, Day 5. Help finally got to the hell and high water, and evacuations began in New Orleans. It was reportedly the largest displacement of people since the Civil War. Back then, during the last shots of a battle before the fall of Atlanta, the Confederacy’s most important center of war supplies, the city was evacuated—141 years ago, to this very day.

CNN showed footage of people boarding buses to be evacuated from New Orleans. One scene ripped my heart out. Officials wouldn’t let a seven-year-old boy take his little white Maltese-looking dog with him. The child threw up.

It was a punch in the gut to watch. Snowball, such a tiny thing, stood up on his hind legs with his front left paw on the glass door of the bus, looking in for his boy, his family. His right leg was in a submissive bent, and he was panting hard. Dogs pant when they are hot, which surely he was, and dogs pant when they are nervous and scared out of their minds, which surely he was. A policeman picked him up and moved him to the side of the road. Snowball was being left behind. Used to the security and stability of family and home, he was left to fend for himself in the post-apocalyptic remains of a city.

Snowball is a symbol of this whole tragedy. People and pets torn apart, snatched away from their lives, stripped bare of all they had and were, like when my son was a child and would absentmindedly put his thumb and pointer finger at the top of a frond of my potted fern and pull downward like a zipper, ripping leaves, sending them floating helplessly in the air, dropping at random.

Where is Snowball? That’s all I wanted to know.

I wept.

Perhaps crying for a little Maltese let me deal with the tragedy without experiencing paralyzing grief over the human suffering side of the disaster. People, herded like animals, and animals abandoned. Parched, starving, dying. Snowball represented the normalcy that had existed in someone’s life. I drew my cocker spaniel close and rubbed my face against her newly bathed and perfumed hair and told her I loved her. I felt guilty for being able to do that. I thought if we could get Snowball back to his owner, we’d all start to get better.

Saturday, September 3, Day 6. My son volunteered at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds, a shelter for displaced people and lost dogs. The Fairgrounds had two big barns, 40,000 square feet each, set up for pets. One barn housed pets from flooded New Orleans, and the other housed animals from a humane shelter on the Mississippi coast, next to a pumping station that failed, and all the dogs had been covered with sewage.

“I wonder if Snowball is there,” he said.

“Ask about him, get him if he is.”

“All of the shelters here are filling up,” he continued. “The population of Jackson has doubled. There are people everywhere, and half the city is still without power. Practically every church in Jackson is full of refugees. You see them in the grocery stores, in Target, in line for gas—pushing their out-of-state vehicles down the line.”

My chest burned with compassion. We are all one tornado away from the same fate.

“This is all so gut-wrenching,” he said. “I've watched tragedies on television my whole life. It's so incredibly different when it's in your backyard. As desperate as people are here in Jackson, all of the suffering in New Orleans and the Mississippi coast is just two hours away. It's right down the road. These are people I know. We have three clients in Biloxi. Many of our clients have family down there. The elected officials we see plastered all over the news are ones I voted for and support. Haley Barbour helped us get in the door on a big project last year. Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck's husband is a client of ours. The director of MEMA helped me find a HazMat suit for a commercial we did. The Mississippi National Guardsmen flying helicopters over New Orleans all live right here in Jackson and are under the command of Nicole’s uncle. One of them lives right next door to us.”

He choked up, sniffled, went on. The grief in his words gripped me like cold fingers.

“We've stayed at the Beau Rivage. Friends of ours have a huge, old home overlooking the Gulf in Biloxi. It's gone. We've visited New Orleans countless times in the past two years. We've stayed at the W Hotel, where there are now gun battles. I've walked along the riverfront and up and down Bourbon and Canal and Poydras. We went to a nightclub in the warehouse district that was a few doors down from the building that burned. I've been to a football game at the Superdome. We parked in that rear lot that you see on television with all of the National Guard trucks driving through the water. The C-130's and C-17's that are flying supplies into New Orleans are taking off less than a mile from my office. I hear them take off and land all day long. I hear the Black Hawks staging, grouping up, and flying away south. I'm telling you, it's so very different when it's personal.”

Sunday, September 4, Day 7. It’s my birthday. My birthday has a way of wiggling in between disasters—one week before Nine Eleven and one week after Katrina.

Someone in a Yahoo writers’ group who lives near Meridian, where my favorite childhood cousin lives, posted an e-mail. “I am just now getting back to work since the storm hit. As far inland as we are [200 miles], we were dealt winds 75-95 mph for a solid 5-6 hours…Our entire community looks like a war zone.”

It turns out that my favorite childhood cousin from Meridian is okay, but her husband lost all his work equipment when a tree fell on his trailer.”

I got a long e-mail from my son, with no mention of my birthday. “We spent all day yesterday at the animal shelter and will probably go back today as well. The American Humane Society, working under the authority of FEMA, is in charge now. PetSmart has about fifteen mobile clinics on site. There are also humane societies from Tennessee, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Maryland, Florida, and Virginia with trucks and personnel here. We spent the morning offloading medical/vet supplies. I was in charge of moving supplies from the rear warehouse to the front mobile clinics. In the afternoon, my crew built 48 pens to house the new shipment of dogs expected today. One of the directors of the humane society asked if I had ever done this before. I told her ‘no, I just come from a naturally bossy family.’”

I winced.

“There are twelve rows of pens to a barn, and after today, two barns will be full of evacuated dogs,” he continued. “About one-third of them have owners sheltered here in Jackson. The rest are ownerless, some evacuated from coastal shelters, and the rest picked up by rescue personnel. There are hundreds of dogs. In addition, we have three pigs (pets, not bacon), a goat, several horses, a room full of birds, hamsters, and guinea pigs, and then about a hundred cats. The cats get to stay in refrigerated trucks.”

I smiled, knowing my cat-loving friends would appreciate that.

“We have to line each pen with wire—so many of these dogs are toy breeds and wiggle out between the bars. We also have to line the top with wire so the larger ones can't jump out. Then we fill the bottom with cedar chips. FEMA ran out of cedar chips yesterday, so we had to use regular wood chips. Each dog gets his own water and food bowl, his own toys, and his own leash—all of these items are being donated from across the country. Each dog is checked out by the vets and has a medical history chart on his pen. When the volunteers aren't busy with something else, they walk or play with the dogs. Each dog gets walked at least three to four times daily. Each walk is about a quarter of a mile.”

It takes a village.

Monday, September 5, Day 8. Finally, I heard from my cousin in Philadelphia, northwest of Meridian. “We were without power from Monday around 12 p.m. until Saturday evening around 4. We have a lot of trees down, some of the power substations were wiped out, it was a Category 1 when it hit us. My window screens are bent from the force of the wind. I actually had stuff flying around the house after we lost power and I opened my windows. We were terrified as tree after tree just cracked like toothpicks against the wind!”

Tree after tree just cracked like toothpicks…Tree after tree just cracked like toothpicks… Tree after tree just cracked like toothpicks…her words reverberated in my head. I thought of my timberland near where she lives. My trees. My tall pines, my hardwoods, my old family land.

“I am still in shock,” my cousin said. “I have never seen anything like this before—the gas situation, our coast gone, I am just reeling from it all. All those places we used to go on the coast, they are just gone.”

My son told me, based on what he saw on the local news, that Biloxi now sits on a small island about three miles out in the gulf. The news showed before and after maps of the coastline.

He has a friend who lives in Biloxi and e-mailed, “I finally made my way back to home roots on The Point in Biloxi and found everything gone. Not just a little messed up or filled with water, but leveled. The sight of seeing my childhood home and neighborhood totally destroyed brought me to my knees…Yesterday morning we found two more bodies in the subdivision next to mine, and we have a half dozen or so houses still to check.”

I heard on TV that the body recovery team arrived in New Orleans with 25,000 body bags.

I just want to know where Snowball is.

I just want some reassurance.

© Kathy Rhodes

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012