Monday, August 29, 2005

Unreal city

Just east of Aunt Judy's house. Heading down HW98. The roads are nearly empty. Only a couple of serious idiots like me braving the storm. Passed by cops, twice.

I wasn't even a mile down the road when I started to regret my decision. Only a couple of hours after Katrina cleaved through Mississippi, and the wind is pulling at my car. Threatening to drag me off the road at times. There are no street lights. Everything slick with mud and leaves. This is pretty damn stupid. I could end up dead myself.

Until I get to Brett Favre's house, I'm prepared for everything that I see. The usual fallen trees and splattered mailboxes. But as I crest a hill, I spot long patches of forest that have been completely leveled. Huge pines snapped in the center. Dozens of them stacked like dominos. Almost perfectly straight lines. Like fire breaks, carved by wind.

Words won't be able to shape the image or inspire the awe of seeing the carnage. The scope of the damaged areas has to be measured in acres. Just staggering to behold.

And then the shift from rural Hattiesburg to urban Hattiesburg. It doesn't seem possible. Huge steel billboards rolled down like the lid on an antique tuna can. The top of them (which should be four stories high) now brushing against the earth. Girders bent in half like sticks of chewing gum. Awnings at gas stations (wide enough to be covering a dozen pumps) have lifted off their steel moorings and flipped onto their sides, resting at bizarre angles. Power poles dangling every which way except upright. Miles of cables detached and orphaned on the road or draping over buildings. A sea of shingles. Layer upon layer of them blanketing everything except roofs. Debris. Debris. Debris.

At first sight you can't make sense of some of this. Until you stare at just one item. And then your brain tries to reverse engineer the damage and decipher the ORIGINAL shape of what you are seeing. Street signs can not look like that. Tree stumps do not look like that. Buildings can not slant like that. It's all unnatural. A wet perversion of reality to be processed and absorbed in seconds as I'm driving by it.

Half way to HW49, the main road which leads due south into the heart of Gulfport, MS, and I'm sliding to a stop as one of the locals finishes butchering a pine which straddles the road. He has a four wheeler and three chainsaws in the back of his truck. He's wearing camouflaged nipple-high waders. And a Ford cap. Looks like he should be hunting ducks instead of clearing the highway. He nods and stops the chainsaw. I let him get in his truck before I pass.

Not even a mile before my next stop. Police this time. Power lines have fallen across the street, hanging right at eye level. Dozens of cables in the way. Maybe they're still lit? The cops don't say anything. Just lean against their cruiser in their mustard colored rain jackets. I turn right, watching the digital compass on my mirror to make sure I'm keeping it on the green S, for South. Three blocks of freedom before I'm stopped by too many trees across this narrow backroad. I have to head back to the cops. But find an alley behind some stores that takes me two bloocks closer to HW49. It's the cleanest stretch of asphalt I've seen today.

Again with Katrina's trail mix: Shingles, tree limbs, and power lines. I'm driving over all of them, whisping, "Come on, come on, come on," to nobody. "You can do this," I say. "You can do this." Lying through my teeth. If I stop, I'll probably realize exactly how stupid this is.

And I'm on HW49. No traffic signals working. Most missing through out the whole length of downtown Hattiesburg. But there's no traffic anyway. I'm alone on the sea of wreckage.

South. South. South. You can do this.

Until I get to Camp Shelby. And the National Guard. Two of them standing in the rain, their dull green vehicles blocking me. One is waving his arms as I approach. The other is mouthing the word, "NO!" to me.

I need to go south.


I have to check on my family.


Is there another way to get to the Coast?


I have to go south.

If you insist, we'll have to detain you.

Detain me?

Yes. Take you into custody and release whenever we get this all cleared up.

Detain me? (I say the syllables slowly to myself: de-tain-me) Okay. This is me, leaving.

Just doin' my job, buddy.

I know. I'm leaving. No detaining needed.

Back to Aunt Judy's. Shingles and tree limbs and power lines. Oh my!

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