“9/2/2005 9:13 a.m. WE ARE sorry for the school, but the shelter was a blessing. We had to bring over 200 people here with no help from any Coast Guard Boats, people died and are still in there house, we had to leave them. We asked the C.G. for help and got NONE. thanks to Micky, McKinley, ERIC, PHIL, Tyrone, Karl B., Cory and J-Roy, Richard, Cedric, Jeff D., Jeff, Ben, Big Greg, Rick, 10th Ward Al, Lance, Boogie Anthony, we saved the whole project.
R.I.P. to the ones we lost.
They left us here to die.”
-Chalkboard on the 3rd Floor of Common Ground Relief Center, Upper 9th Ward, New Orleans. Recorded in observance, 4/06.
On my first day of volunteering I decided to quit smoking. I had run out of cigarettes in Mobile at 6 a.m., and considering my forthcoming leap into giving, I figured it would be as good a time as ever to halt such respiratory disservice.
As we meandered down the 10 between Mobile and my final destination, I found myself staring out the window of the bus. The early morning sunlight forced shadows of branches through the bus, flying by fast enough to seem like a film reel gone awry. We crossed the salt flats of Moss Point and Pascagoula, and as we pushed forward into the tree-lined section of Harrison County’s lone Interstate, I began noticing the trees. At all angles, bent every which way, like a gnarled border to a barren highway.
I figured that Biloxi would be right off the Interstate (at this point in my bus adventure, I’d lost all hope of tracking our route; I was merely existing between cities, stations, and almost familiar companions) but I was wrong. We took an exit to I-110, and began driving south toward the Gulf of Mexico. The shapes of the trees became more and more noticeable; now every once in awhile you could pick out a tire, or a bundle of clothes. But as the meters accumulated and we approached the Biloxi Bay, the ornaments grew larger. Doorways. Yachts. Cars. I must have whispered something godly to myself, or bit my tongue in the company of the two-dozen on the bus ahead and behind me. Then we hit the Bay.
The morning sun coming up from the East glared through my window, reflecting off of the water with that 8 A.M. tenacity all West shore, waterside dwellers must know. I can not truly relate what I saw before me, or what effect that first vision had on my young mind. There was a barely visible wreckage at one end of the Bay, numerous supporting piers and the diagonal shapes of collapsed bridge highway criss-crossing between them; the Route 90 bridge that once connected Biloxi and Ocean Springs. Closest to the 110 bridge on the Biloxi side of the Bay were two casinos. The further, the Boomtown. The nearer, the Imperial Palace. Both seemed like worn-out monoliths; I’d never been to a casino town at that point in my life, but these buildings were old, retired veterans compared to the bright, young glitz I knew them once to be. All lower windows broken. All formerly opulent pedestrian walkways, esplanades for limousines, electronic signs— inoperable.
I closed my fists tightly and checked the zippers on my bag. How did this bridge survive? Later theories about storm surge, water pressure, flood lines, and the way a flooding ocean acts at the edge of a peninsula versus behind it would provide possible explanations. But at that time, crossing that bridge, I thought about Mississippi public works, hoping that this crossing went as safely as those of the cars ahead of us. We finished crossing and took an exit, descending down from the escalated highway, which I could now see transposed an entire neighborhood of flooded, torn apart one-stories, and turned onto Howard Avenue. A few moments later, the bus stop.
Janos was there with his red Subaru to pick me at 8:30 a.m. sharp. As we drove across town, making lefts and rights around flashing traffic cones and military convoys, I relayed the story of my trip. Janos nodded, but his mind was set on getting out to the work site as soon as possible. We pulled into a church, I quickly dropped off my backpack and sleeping bag up a dark staircase, and we were just as soon off to Bowen Street to join the interiors crew.
We meandered in to a one story home, past pairs of eyes wearing long-sleeved t-shirts with dust masks. I remember trying to feign confidence in my gait, while simultaneously familiarizing myself with the tasks each of the men and women had at hand. Some were emptying out kitchen cupboards into gray fifteen-gallon trash bins. Others were at work smashing in the walls of what were once bedrooms. Janos got me a crowbar and quickly introduced me to a six-foot tall woman with dark brown eyes named C.O.. I vaguely recognized her; we took a class together my senior fall at Dartmouth, an English seminar on William Butler Yeats. She nodded toward me and continued her labor at hand; college was far away.
I started working alongside Janos tearing out moist sheetrock, and within the first twenty minutes managed to step on a nail. I limped outside, took off my boot, and spent ten minutes sheepishly peroxiding the sole of my foot, wondering when my last tetanus shot was and hoping no one thought me a newbie slacker. A lanky brunette with a green trucker hat was taking a smoke break near me, and in the heat of my superficial wound I forgot about quitting smoking and bummed an American Spirit. That was how I met Benjammin’ Bates.
Later on, once I got a better sense of the spontaneous society of post-Katrina volunteerism, I began a running joke in my head; if Hurricane Camp was Lord of the Flies, then Jammin’ would be Simon. A tall, bright-eyed, handsome thirty year old with no signs of settlement to betray his age, one would find his lean silhouette during the early hours of autumn dawn, packing up the work truck with the day’s equipment. Shaggy brown curls always unfurling from his trucker hat, Jammin’ had this extraordinary steadfastness and calmness that was very pivotal in shaping my new sense of hard labor ethics. We became friends later, and I have never strayed from my belief that he was the first true leader I met. Loyalty was so paramount, to oneself and to ones reason for being so far from home, and he was the most loyal and one of my truest friends I made in Biloxi in 2005.
The day finished up as we moved from one gut job to another. A gut job in itself is something to be touched on. As a kid I had this computer game called SimCity, where you build a city and put powerplants, airports, and parks in different places to see how it affects your population and development. There were bonus levels where you had to rebuild after disasters, fires, tornadoes, a Godzilla attack… and flooding. I hated playing the flooding levels because I didn’t understand how to stop it…or as a child, why you had to bulldoze everything the flood touched once it was over. Fast-forward to what a flood does to a house. Depending on the current, the direction of the wind and the water, trees puncturing sides of houses, cars carried through porches, a flood will ruin every single thing you own. In a gut job one would enter and assess the property. Beds in the wrong places. Windows shattered in. Refrigerators that needed to be duct-taped closed. Wading through soggy belongings, the remains of a life, of a home. And then putting that all aside and slinging a crowbar, wheel-barrowing stuffed animals and magazines, china sets and antique guns, sheetrock murals, removing everything that made the house more than what it was at its core, and what we revealed it to be at the end of a job: a wooden skeleton. We gutted houses like one would gut a fish… completely.
The gut job itself is a sample representative of the whole; all around me in those first weeks I was struck by the pure mess, mess being the best word I can think of to describe it. Imagine streets with collapsed buildings jutting from left and right into the roadway. Eight to ten foot mounds of trash surrounding you on both sides so walking down a street felt like running a gauntlet of precipitous debris piles. Centralized among all of the wreckage of East Biloxi, in a park I would come to know much better in later months, the Compassion Central lunch tent sat directly in front of the temporary staging ground for the National Guard. A giant white tent, C Central was run by a rotation of religion-minded groups from around the country sweeping in for a day or two, maybe a week if they were particularly motivated, to serve hot dogs, tuna, whatever to whoever, residents, volunteers, etcetera. Camouflaged men and women marched around unnoticed around the giant food lines forming each day at high noon. When we ate lunch that first day, it was hot dogs, and I remember being struck by the simple excitement of the populace for a hot lunch. And then I remember thinking how we chose to be here, but we don’t have to be. Into the fray we descended, and although we were not Mississippi natives, when we came in from our work to eat lunch it all seemed equal footing at those tables underneath that tent, everyone surviving in some sense, everyone needing to eat for the same reason; they were hungry. I can remember trudging down Murray Street, the crossway that runs behind John Henry Beck Park, through the autumn heat, the stagnant dust, and the low heads of my fellow troops. I remember the big orange cooler with the economy-sized Purell hand sanitizer dispenser, and the cool sensation of the gel on my hands.
Lunch was uneventful save for two specific recollections. The first; the water. I can never in my life, through a youth of swim practices, soccer tournaments, and track meets remember just how delicious cold water felt in my throat, feeling it slide down the inside of my body. It was so hot in Mississippi. The second, my first conversation with C.O.. It went something like this:
C.O.: So you’re an 05?
Me: Yeah. I think we had a class together. William Butler Yeats? With Professor Grene?
C.O. (smiling): Oh yes, that class, my last term in good ole’ Hanover. You know… I do remember you. Didn’t you always wear your frat sweatshirt?
Me: Probably, I wore that navy Chi Gam sweatshirt all the time. I remember you always made really good comments. When you talked, you had something to say. But you were very intimidating.
C.O.: I remember you being very pretentious.
C.O.: No, I’m just kidding. Well, sort of.
Janos had a good sense of the day’s events by the time I had arrived, and loyally sheltered me through the rest of the day. We moved on to a gut job on the 300 block of Lee Street, north of Division. Candice, the six-year old daughter of the homeowners at that property, sat on the side of her house and chomped down Red Cross popsicles as we deconstructed her home. At the end of the day we all took a picture with Candice, her older brothers that had helped us wheelbarrow, and her parents.
At the end of the workday we arrived at base camp, the all-purpose room that the Beauvoir United Methodist Church had leased out to HOUSA’s disaster response efforts. The building was sheeted with aluminum and tin on all sides, and was by no means aesthetically pleasing. It was, however, hardy. It survived the storm with little damage besides a need for new gutters.
The discovery of the building, and the consequent leasing of the space to Hands On USA is a story later related to me by T.C., the first walk-on volunteer in the history of the organization. Toshiro Charles Kida came straight from the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert of Utah to the coast, directly following a cross-country bicycle trip from his alma mater Yale to the California coast. As he relates it to me, Hands On U.S.A. actually began in Gulfport, the next town over, with a half-dozen volunteers. It was led by Dave Campbell, financial and motivational figurehead of the organization, and was the second disaster response project of the organization following work in Thailand with the tragic tsunami of December 2004. After a few weeks of work alongside the municipal fire department in that city, the group came to an agreement with the parish of the Beauvoir United Methodist Church, and set up a permanent base camp in their auxiliary building behind the church.
The front door of this building led to an office with a phone, a computer, and a large grid on a white board with the following: 1) the nicknames for different vehicles HOUSA had rented; 2) what type of crew it was used for that day; and 3) who the driver was. There was a smaller notebook kept in the office detailing which crews had what walkie-talkies. A ruddy-cheeked older fellow from Boston named Tom Taylor manned the phones and home base. He affectionately referred to himself as the Den Mother, and would eventually become HODR’s finance and affairs manager the following year.
The vestibule outside the office led into the main room, a space the size of a modest middle-school gymnasium, with a stage used for storage on the south wall, a doorway into a kitchen on the west wall, a hallway leading to bathrooms, about a dozen round, white plastic tables with chairs, and a public computer station in the northeast corner. An alcove on the eastern wall led to the three Methodist church offices that the ministry maintained throughout our stay. There were ratty old felt couches in one corner of the room. There was a nursing station stocked with both traditional medicinal needs for volunteers like bug repellent, ant powder, and condoms, as well as more complicated immediate-response meds for our Street Team doctors and nurses.
In the southeast and southwest corners of the room, alcoves led to both the outside field as well as to staircases up into a wraparound loft walkway. It was here in the loft that the majority of volunteers set down their backpacks, air mattresses, and sleeping bags. Janos found some large abandoned pieces of plywood and created a lean-to apartment of sorts. Here in the loft, real estate was key, and for the first time besides my 2003 travels throughout Central Europe, I was cognizant of privacy and space in the company of complete strangers. Having your own tent set-up inside was an option. For example, there were those with tents set up in that space, and others with specifically positioned boards in order to create “apartments.”
Kate and C.O. specifically acquired wonderful real estate in a corner space, a hideaway built by Ryan and T.C. in late September, complete with carpentry shelves and Christmas lights. They shared the space with Serena, a former collegiate ski star from Burlington; the three of them secluded themselves using large plywood boards that had been formerly used for a Nativity pageant at the church, and in effect each had a space reminiscent of traditionally simple monastic cells. With that sort of privacy they were free to decorate with books, alarm clocks, laptop desks (the electricity came from an extension cord that they had run up from the first floor. This, like many other electrical and proximate nuances, contributed to our building’s less than stellar fire code status,) tack up postcards and pictures, and in general personalize a slice of what was otherwise an extremely non-private spatial situation.
If one chose the door instead of the stairs of those southern alcoves, one would walk out into the heat to the large field behind the church. The field was bordered on three sides by a tall fence; the abandoned Edgewater Golf Course was on the other side, and naturally insulated our green space. Apart from some more overgrown sections of the property on the periphery and in the back corner, the field was monkey green, and flat. A few volunteers, all members or fringe of Team Termite, had pitched tents in the southwest corner of the field around a makeshift firepit. Apart from those few red and yellow marks, the field was green and clear.
In the southwest corner was a denser forested space behind a large mound with three white crosses on it. This space had a clearing in the middle in which the second firepit would eventually emerge in late December. There was also a broken section of the chain-link fence in that back area that led out to Edgewater.
Working around the field back toward the front of the property, the edge of the field ended with the church driveway. Tucked to the right side of the field near the driveway were the trailers we used everyday— one for the Kubota, one for the Skid-Steer, and one rickety thing of reused wood and un-galvanized nails that Marc tacked together for various tools and generators. There was a basketball hoop that the Stutz brothers had bought the organization out of retributive guilt when one night, clad in Depends Diapers, they had a contest as to who could drink the most beer without pissing themselves. The contest ended with naked young adults prancing around the asphalt, slinging urine-filled diapers at each other and making a general mess of disrespecting the community. Next to the basketball hoop were two outdoor showers that ran cold until a few weeks later when our volunteer handyman set up propane feeders. Beside the showers were tool racks stocked with crowbars, axes, snow shovels, Homer’s 5 Gallon Orange Buckets, brooms, dustpans, among other oddities that each had some sort of arbitrary utility to our disaster response work.
The tool racks and showers were in front of the tool shed, with a garage door that opened into a workroom of chainsaws, polesaws (easy to imagine from the name, chainsaws mounted on poles for cutting those hard to reach dead branches hanging in precarious positions alongside homes,) duct tape, oil and gasoline, rope, maintenance equipment, anything at all. The tool shed had a back door that opened up into a space with two washing machines, two dryers, two bathrooms, and a larger enclave filled with Boy Scout paraphernalia from the local troop that had met there bi-weekly before the storm. That space would later become revamped into a social space we called the Spin Cycle, and later still the den of Ice Cream Josh and other freeloaders. In those early days, however, it was simply an underutilized space on base. The tool shed was garnished with blue tarp to cover the hole in the roof where a tree branch had broken in— I eventually helped in the roof shingling effort, but it is important to note that the hole in the tool shed roof was thankfully the only major damage Katrina did to the property.
In November of 2006, from a coffee shop in South Lake Tahoe, I sent an e-mail back to Biloxi and asked CDV to pace off some of the buildings as well as the property on which we lived. By his estimate, the main building was 120’ by 80’, or roughly 9600 square feet. The Spin Cycle (tool shed) is approximately 40’ x 40’. Finally, the property itself is 480’ x 320’, and that’s from the road to the fence. It was large enough to herald a society, microcosmic as it was, and a society would eventually be born in that space and throughout that field as it grew over time.
* * *
The property, the property. Present time, July of 2007, I came home from work one day to see the army tents down. The mold supply tent had departed a few days before. I got out of Astro, flat tan work khakis stepping into the parking lot puddle. Save a few, the tents were gone. The field was spaced potential once again. It had come to life for the months that it had, and then like all things in evolution, had changed. Become what it needed to be.
I mused, moving across the quagmire of sun-mudded watershed and toward my perch of yesteryear, that cheap aluminum blue-branded trailer. The mold trailer… I had suggested and appropriately foreseen its genesis, 2 ½ inch hitch inclusive, to transport generators, angle grinders, and buckets of Kilz through the vacuously hot streets of East Biloxi, day by day. In the spring of 2006 I used to religiously pick up six bottles of beer at Swifty on my way home, usually Molson, sometimes Honey Brown, always bottled. I’d swing my vehicle into the parking lot, take a methodical stroll to the edge of the trailer, throw my beer atop, and climb up myself. I used to sit on the trailer every evening, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, sometimes writing, always musing, waiting for the eventual curious friend of mine to approach and climb up him or herself. Share a beer, imagine a brilliant sunset that we could never truly see behind the tree line on the west side of the church property.
Today they’ve rebuild the Taco Bell sign, which hangs like an awkward, commercial Christmas ornament above Edgewater’s mystical, natural golfing fields. One can now spot this sign easily from atop a trailer, as I did last Friday. I sat and mused of evolution, pondered the ruts in the topography of the lot, the borders I could now see where the too-dry dust ended in the surviving Bermuda grass. ‘This lot is now finite,’ I may have whispered. ‘There is no eternity, no tent atop tent, no organism here; this lot has become a lot once again. My nostalgia has gone the way of the dumpster, shipped on by new employees that I don’t know, that never knew me. It is easy to disregard that which you fail to understand; that’s long division and the rest of it, ain’t it though?’
My friends today drove in and parked, wandering up into the shell of my home. Some, like Marjorie and Kristen Kernan, sat and smoked cigarettes on the brick porch built by Marco and Lawyer Michael last summer. Others simply disappeared. There was no one left to approach. A few minutes more passed by before I climbed down and began my slow walk around the property. That’s where the flip cup tournament happened behind the mound. Up in that tree by the firepit I can still see the shadow of Miami Mike Thompson climbing up past the spiderweb ghosts of Mardi Gras beads. I planted a redbud in that firepit this past winter, but it will never grow if you keep throwing your furtive party debris atop of its climbing leaves, you short-termers you. I ran my guitar-callused fingertips along the boarded up opening to the golf course, where Ryan, John and I had taken an ax like wall-breaking youth before us, to break through, to re-open the Serengeti and not lose the golf course.
Woody’s speed bag, rep clock, and weight bag all sit unused and in some cases, moldy. Luc’s metal sculpture has been torn down, and I fear the house he built with his father may be next. No one even knows anymore that Donnie Fulton laid down those cross-sections of log in the middle of the back of the field, slice by slice, nor does anyone know that there was once a firepit there, a firepit I sat by with Damon Villaronga kicking the can on our mutual friend from Duke until 4 A.M. one March evening, Damon whose cousin Will Warren would become a friend fifteen months later. No, and the army tents are gone too, but those had replaced memories before them, my circle of trust with T.C. and Ryan, where I sat the day Miami and Mark Deubert approached me to buy our beer and sit by our fire, or the shanty cardboard house of Mohawk Alex. The army tents were a land of rugged camaraderie, a spot of comfort and a 40 surrounded by buckets of donated paint, part of donated bicycles, in a donated Israeli army tent. They were adorned with graffiti that I knew, stencils of Howie-personified, Daryl described, and (of course) the goddamn Catfish.
It was all gone, I walked through the spaces that were once full. I paused at the corner of the field to remember way far back, straining to see Marianna passed out at 10 a.m., pant-less and reckless forty-year old that she was, and Ryan, head low, drinking and thinking on a Sunday morning by Jer’s old firepit. It was so long though, and I realized that I have lived through it all like a ridiculous Chingachgook with less to my feathers and weight in my stride.
The open mike tent is gone, as well as the animal rescue tent. This is evolution, where I lived, and in some ways where I was born, but this will not be my death, too. It is, and has always been, a great fear of mine that those of my friends, the heroes scattered around this country, will get stuck in this death. A cigarette burn on seven arms, from a mortgage company in Seattle to a forest in Vermont to a Farmer’s Market in D.C. to a recovery camp in the Philippines, and then the three of us still here, a roofer in Gulfport, an environmentalist in Turkey Creek, and myself, a financial counselor for Katrina Homeowners Grants here in Mississippi. We, and all others, are stronger than evolution; I believe that, in them, and in myself. I remembered the field, our stories, our lives, a hot wet summer and over time, the secret revelations of our own human conditions. This field may be book-ended, but that is no end for us, this us.
I cut a fast line back to Astro, rallied Helicopter along the way, and drove home to my quaint three-bedroom house off Irish Hill Road.
* * *
For the rest of my first week I joined Janos on an alternative mission from the work in East Biloxi. He had found a supply distribution operation at a church in Long Beach on 28th Street, and the two of us spent our afternoons there for the next three days.
Our days, in those beginning weeks, were implicitly flexible. Compared to the difficulties we had found trying to volunteer with the Red Cross, beautifully so. The model was faith-based, and not as in the faith of the church groups, or the Southern Baptists that insisted you take a free Bible along with your bread and butter when you stood in the lunch line at the Salvation Army. This was a nameless faith, human and worldly; the faith that we individuals had taken enough initiative to get ourselves down to the Coast one way or another, in the same way I had faith in taking that Greyhound and leaving D.C. behind. At ground zero with Hands On, there was a faith in our abilities to take initiative, to seek out pockets of need in that maelstrom of heat and destruction. Dave Campbell and Darius never mandated that we follow their leads and hop on the traditional crews, because no matter where one looked, there was something to be done. DC would later reflect on this time period, the beauty of our unwritten tenet of getting things done, seeing need and addressing need immediately. There was no red tape, not yet for us. Help was help, like hope was hope. Janos had found a distribution line project, and began taking both myself and anyone else that wanted to come with out to Long Beach to assist, however we could.
The distribution line I worked was set up in the parking lot of the New Life Church on 28th Street in Long Beach. Donations came through on big tractor-trailers, which we unloaded using the one forklift that that church had acquired and otherwise, by hand. There was a larger olive green army tent out front, and then stretching out from that tent were a few white canopy tents, comparable to the refreshment tent at a kid’s soccer game. Only a few though— for the most part, the volunteers running the distribution line sweated it out in the open heat, from the sun above as well as the radiating blacktop below.
For three straight days I manned different stations along the drive-thru style distribution driveway wrapping around the edges of the parking lot. There was a baby formula and diapers station. There was a cleaning supply station. In terms of non-perishables, there was a canned food section, a dry food section, and a dog food section. There was a toiletries station, and a needy resident might as well have rolled the dice to predict what brand or mix of products they received of staples like shampoo, soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes. For the most part we tried to personalize as best we could with the less common items. An amenity like hair spray, for example, would be held on until a driver came through that (a) asked specifically about hair products or (b) had a look about them that invited me to ask whether they wanted hair spray. Again, however, those sorts of distributive decisions were based on the whims of whoever’s standards dictated that station on that day. There was a semblance of order— no one was throwing exorbitant amounts of children’s books into the trunks of the cars in lieu of food and water. But on a point-by-point basis, we made decisions by asking in a five-second interview what a family needed, and taking a ten second inventory of available products. The level of need in even early October was still that urgent, as urgent as the Army roadblocks to Highway 90 and the two ton bucket facsimile smashed into the side of Colonel Sanders’ smiling face at the intersection of Pass and Lorraine, so urgent as to justify a deregulated operation like that one.
I spent the entirety of the second day manning the water station, the first stop in the bazaar. From this vantage point I could clearly see the extent of the cars in this distribution line, stretching around the pre-placed orange cones, into the side street, and by midday effectively stalling traffic on 28th Street itself. And it sweltered that day, sweat dripped off my face as I monotonously, routinely took the same 5 step walk to the wooden pallets, hoisted three gallons of water to start, placed them in the back of a car before asking the driver how many family members he or she was picking up for. A gallon a head was the going rule, and if they asked for extra you gave them extra. We had a surplus of most basic supplies; it was just an issue of spot-checking need assessment as best we could.
At one point in the midst of that hazy morning, a car pulled up like any other, and I found myself speaking directly to a large-set woman in her mid-40s behind the steering wheel.
“How many in your household?” I asked on the fly, as my co-worker of the moment brought the requisite three gallons toward the back of her vehicle.
“I… four, I belive. Four.” Then she paused and her eyes became large. I stopped my routine and stood, waiting for her to continue.
“I…I’m not poor, you know.”
“That’s fine, ma’am.”
“No, I’m not poor. I’m well off. It’s just…”
I signaled with a single index finger to the man working with me that she needed one more. I didn’t look away.
“I understand, ma’am. We’re just trying to get supplies out to anyone who needs them.”
She looked down, and then up and nodded.
I think about that woman to this day. For starters, I suspect that the same woman I gave water to that day in Long Beach would become, a year and a half later, the counseling manager at the Homeowner’s Grant Assistance Program, where I later worked as a financial counselor. But even before I developed that now resounding suspicion (a suspicion which I would never dream of voicing to this particular woman… what would be the point?) I thought of this encounter. Katrina was the great equalizer. Have you seen the destroyed plantations? Driven through Waveland? I did the majority of my work in the most impoverished neighborhoods, where sling streets and crack dens pervade amongst the heartiest and most versatile of stalwart homeowners. But the storm hit everyone hard. Along the coastline of Waveland today circa August 2007, you can see dozens of sprawling estates, ornate fences bent-over backwards into empty lots with huge concrete patios. Then when you think about it for half a second, you realize they aren’t patios at all— they’re foundations.
One of those first days, Janos and I drove out to Bay St. Louis “just to see.” We took I-10 to the exit to Highway 603, drove past a destroyed gas station and on down the road. There were boats in the trees. We stopped to take pictures in front of a shack on the right side, and all along the hill where the shoulder gave way to a ditch were flipped over cars. Maybe abandoned. Maybe people trying to escape. Janos took pictures of some of the things around us as I thoughtfully walked past these cars, close, feeling the moist ground beneath my boots squish with every step. And then one window was very foggy and I looked closer and thought it might be an arm pressed against it and I jumped back. I thought like in the movies I’d throw up but I didn’t. I didn’t even feel like throwing up. I just jumped back into a puddle and didn’t say anything. When we returned to the car, Janos asked what was wrong and I said there might be bodies in those cars, and he looked and didn’t disagree. Then I said let’s go, and we left.
Getting back to Long Beach, and that first week, it all weighed on me then, but you could sweat and work through the weight. Gallons of water. Gutting houses. And trees, which fell under the jurisdiction of Team Termite, formerly the Lug Nuts, Amy to this day reminds me that in September the tree crew was comprised of members of the Lug Nuts, but I never knew them. I only knew Team Termite.
In retrospect, that assembly line experience was weird even in the context of Katrina-world. The pastor running it believed that he had a duty to help the god-fearing people of Mississippi, whereas god had specifically targeted the people of New Orleans for their sinfulness. Also, I almost passed out from dehydration while passing out water, which is (Alanis, are you listening?) ironic.