Thursday, September 01, 2005

Meager spoils of a meager victory

When you have nothing, you’ll wait patiently for anything. For example, I’m going on my third hour in line for water and ice.

My current adventure started at seven this morning. The Southern Gossip Network reported that the National Guard convoy had indeed arrived at the Long Beach Middle School very late last night. And the boys were returning at 8:30AM, with fresh supplies.

After filling the generator for my parents, I slipped out of the house, bound for the Middle School Drop Off Lane. And another day of chasing rumors.

But, lo and behold, WATER! Crates upon crates of bottled water! Just sitting in the dawn sun, available to any who would have them. And only a few truckloads of folks gathered to consume the dwindling pile.

I picked up two cases of bottled water. Other people filled their trunks. One family employed several kids to get at least twelve cases in the cab before driving off. I just shook my head. Shades of New Orleans. But only a few people took too much. The majority of us tried to leave something for other families. They’d need some, too.

Once the cases of water were gone, I actually sat second in line for the rumored re-supply convoy. Everyone had gotten out of our cars and mingled for a while. Sharing the same hope that the worst was past us. Swapping stories of the damage and our efforts over the past four days. I usually saved my story for last: I picked the wrong week to move from Atlanta. Usually left them wide-eyed. Until I’d laugh about it. Then I’d always hear, “Welcome to Mississippi!” Welcome, indeed.

After an hour of chinwagging, a cop drove up. Told us we were in the wrong place if we wanted water and ice. All the trucks had driven to a large supermarket, a mile west of us, and the parking lot was the staging ground for distribution.

And off we fled. A freshly created caravan of sweating, thirsty, desperate survivors. Probably fifty car loads of us descending upon the new location. Eager to get our hands on anything that would help us see another day.

But hopes fell flat when we turned into the parking lot. Yes, there were trailers and cops and National Guardsmen on site, but my position in line had shifted from second to seventieth. And we had to stand in line, rather than drive through. With the heat from the road coming up at us. The heat from the sun baking down on us. The fumes from the diesel engines. The stink of dead fish wafting over the tracks. The reek of stagnant water. This was the first support we’ve received in days, and the crowd was quickly growing to hundreds of desperate, over-heated, anxious survivors.

After yet another hour of wallowing in my own sweat and sharing stories with my neighbors, there was a collective moan from the front. People started to pile into their cars and drive off, empty handed and even more upset. Here’s the clencher, we were, yet again, in the wrong place. Nothing was going to be distributed in the parking lot of the super market. We had to pack up and relocate. Can you guess where? To the Middle School Drop Off Lane, where I was second in line this morning.

And here I sit. Three hours later. Creeping toward the convoy, which truly exists and is truly handing out supplies. I can see the armed troops. I can see the news crews. And the dozens of policemen with their rifles slung and their Kevlar soaking up the sun. Water and ice being lorded over like gold and diamonds.

Everyone silent and staring forward and the line advances. At first people would “walk up” with coolers. But as soon as the people in the back of the line (which now stretches for several miles) started sending their passengers walking (nearly running) to the front of the line, the police put a stop to walk-ups.

I’ve long since stopped my engine. No need to consume the gas. As soon as there is a gap in front of me, I drop the car into neutral, open the door, and Flintstone my way forward, creeping like a spent racehorse.

Then it is my turn. Almost four hours after I sat second in line, I’m finally able to get something for my family. WLOX, the local news crew, puts their cameras almost through my windshield, capturing me thanking the troops and the cops. One man hands me a plastic gallon of water. Another hands me an already-melting bag of ice. And I’m done.

A gallon of water and a bag of ice to split between my parents, my grandparents, and myself. That is what the government sends us after four days of fending for ourselves? It’s going to be a long road to recovery, at this rate.

I take what I’m given and drive home. Or what is left of it. Mom’s disappointed. Dad’s picking up the backyard. I dump half the bag of ice into our toasty ice cooler and leave one of the boxes of bottled water. The rest I’ll take to Grandma.

Then I’ll get in line. And do it all again.

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