Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Would-be rescue mission

Inching closer. Maybe thirty miles south of Hattiesburg in the dreary little town of Lumberton, MS. Population 2500 according to the one sign still standing next to Highway 11. I hope to pull into Long Beach by nightfall. A questionable goal at this rate.

At Aunt Judy’s house, I said my goodbyes after lunch. Everyone could feel my panic. Couldn’t eat. Couldn’t stop pacing. Kept trying the dead landline. Kept trying the dead cell phones. None of them worked. And I couldn’t stand to listen to the damn radio any more. It didn’t say anything I wanted to hear. The neighbors and the county police both said Highway 49, which leads straight into the guts of Gulfport, MS, was blocked to anyone going south. Aunt Judy and Uncle Terry suggested Highway 11. An old country road. So I did.

And I have been trailing another redneck for the past two hours. Smaller truck. Smaller gun rack. Only four people in the cab. But they’re heading to Biloxi and I’m on their tail like a carpet bagger.

I met these guys at a very-much-closed Shell Station. We had both pulled next to the pumps seconds after spotting the local manager unlocking the front door. Thought he was going to open the store. He didn’t. He was just getting some supplies for himself. But every single pump was occupied and a line had started to form in the street by the time he emerged and told us to leave.

The ‘necks said they had come down from Jackson, MS. Needed to get back to Biloxi, where they lived. Jackson’s power was offline after suffering Katrina's embrace. No gas to be found there, either. The boys had half of a 5 gallon can of fuel to get back to the Coast as well as power their chainsaws. (Of which they had EIGHT.) Said I could buy one and get reimbursed by FEMA. I said I was just trying to find my parents, not carve up trees. And I’ve been following them ever since.

An ugly trip. Rarely more than a half mile of clear road. Probably one out of every five trees along the way have fallen. And there are thousands of them on the ground. By the time I had started my trip, somebody had started the job of clearing at least one usable path. Note I said ONE path. Meaning that many times I was driving into oncoming traffic.

Imagine a pine tree that has peacefully existed for almost a century. Until yesterday. Now, it has fallen across scenic Highway 11, taking all of its limbs and cones and some of its neighbors with it. Earlier today, some generous man with a chainsaw spent a great deal of time carving off an eight foot chunk of this magnificent tree. Now the debris is piled up in one lane. While the other lane is clear. But the pile of remains in front of your lane is higher than your car.

This is your situation: You’re trying to get home to either the smiles or the corpses of your family and in-between you and them, on the one road which leads to them, is this hulking mound of rubbish so thick and unforgiving that you can not see around, over, or through it. Remember, your mother could be neck-deep in a black cocktail of seawater, rain, and raw sewage gasping for a few more toxic breaths in between her prayers that you’ll be there to save her. You can either try your phone and tell her you’ll be a few minutes late, or you can drive blindly into the opposite lane and hope that a semi-full of logs does not plow into you.

Which is what I did. Hundreds of times. Just nosed into the on-coming lane without any notion of what would happen, and held my breath. Not once did I find another vehicle heading toward me. The lane was clear. Every time.

Karma? I dunno. I’ll ponder that one later.

But here is the really odd thing. I’ve been going for a couple of hours and I couldn’t begin to count the number of houses that were damaged in some form or other. When you’re driving and trying to mount a would-be rescue mission, you tend to barely notice the subtle details of a damaged barn door. Especially when you’ve been seeing it every ten minutes. But the one thing I definitely noticed was the complete lack of damage to any of the dozens of churches I’ve passed. They’re untouched. No roof damage. No trees cleaving into the vestibule. No flooding of the pulpits. Pristine, majestic churches greeting me the whole length of the trip.

Another mystery to ponder at a later day.

Hold on, Mom! I’ll be there soon!

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