Wednesday, August 31, 2005

My friend, The Cop

My friend, The Cop, brings over an extra pistol. He tells me to keep it close. 9MM. Extra clip of hollow points.

He says the police did a number on a local gang who was sending thugs across the tracks (ie: going "South Of Railroad") at night to loot from the remains of abandoned homes. After a god-aweful beatdown, one gang member was sent home, as a gruesome example. His partners were also pulped, but they 're in the County locked-up. Maybe they'll have a chance at bail if the judge returns in the coming weeks.

In the meanwhile, The Cop tells me that the gang will either take the hint (ie: cut out the looting) or there is going to be an all out war. I may need some extra firepower. Just fire first and ask questions later, he tells me.

I put the gun next to Dad. It may accidently get used if I wake tonight, chasing the ghosts of Katrina.

The falcon cannot hear the falconer

A thin ghost of a breeze drifting through the window. Under cloudless skies. We’re in the Drop Off Lane at Long Beach Middle School. Sitting in our parked cars.

I’m in the back seat of my Red Line. Legs dangling through the open door. My left toes dipping into a rain puddle. The water is oily, but cold. I can almost sleep. Almost.

They’re on the way, right now, Mellisa yells, her cell glued to her ear.

She likes to scream updates to us. Even though we’re five feet in front of Jason’s car.

These mythical supply trucks have been on their way for the past two hours. First they were hung up on HWY-49. Now they are supposedly trapped under some low-hanging power lines, on 28th Street. She gets regular updates, from "her source."

Somehow Mel thinks she has a direct connection to FEMA. Her Sprint cellphone is able to call other Sprint people. And she loves to talk. The phone has nearly grown into the side of her head.

Her recent FEMA rumor has kept us sitting like this for almost three hours. The promise of ice and water is hard to resist, though. And we are the twenty third car in line, if relief arrives tonight. Thanks to the Southern Gossip Network founded by my cellphone wielding sister-in-law, the line is full of people she has “let in on her secret.”

Fortunately, there is a cop at the front of the line, lending some creditability to the theory that a convoy of National Guardsmen is bringing trucks of supplies to this location. His patrol car is idling and the light bar bathes the gathered masses in shades of red and blue.

This is the end of the second day after Katrina. No serious “relief” in sight. And we’re chasing rumors like a sinner chasing salvation. Desperate for anything we can get.

I’ll give this luncacy another hour. We need these supplies. Need the relief. Need to know that life will improve. And we need to be sure the rest of the world knows we are still here, fighting for survival each day. Without looting, without turning upon one another. Thankful for whatever help we receive.

In the meanwhile, a relevant snippet from Yeats’ Slounching Toward Bethlehem:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Through this thickening haze of sleep, I think I hear the falconer.

Then came Katrina

Mellisa, Jason, Dad, and I drive to the remains ofGlenda’s house. Mounting our own miniature cleanup mission. God only knows how much it will cost her to restore the place. But if we can somehow ease the suffering, it will make one person’s life a little more tolerable.

Dad volunteered to go. He knows Glenda doesn’t have anyone else. She’d do it for him if the roles reversed. So he joined the adventure.

Jason didn’t want to go. But I told him we’d get it done sooner. It would be less work with three people.

Mel asked to tag along because she is paranoid that Jay will get hurt without her. They’re almost newlyweds by my measure, so the umbilicus doesn’t reach very far.

We wade through the back roads of post-apocalyptic Gulfport. 28th street packed with Disaster Tourists and debris and cleanup crews and convoys of linemen. Additional power poles have fallen across the road, forcing a detour through a soggy graveyard. (Thankfully, nobody has floated up through to the surface.)

Highway 49 now patrolled by National Guardsmen instead of beleaguered policemen. We thank them as we drive past. They nod and signal us through. Each of them wearing long sleeves and thick camouflage pants. They’ve got to be dying on their feet as they manage traffic on the balmy August streets. Hour after hour. With no shade and the taste of exhaust on every breath. Did they have any idea what they were signing up for?

Mel and Jason Oh-My-God their throats raw as they get a first hand look at the damage outside of Long Beach. They hadn’t seen any serious flood damage. Hadn’t seen store fronts strewn across roadways for miles. Hadn’t seen trees twisted around themselves to the point of detonation. Their first look at anything other than missing shingles and fallen trees. I’d seen it yesterday. Dad saw it in 1969.

Then the unbelievable: an open gas station. In the guts of Bayou View (which had become Lake Bayou View during Katrina’s stay) we pass the bombed out remains of a BP. Only one pump is working. Hooked to a rusted brown generator. Operated by a three hundred pound sweaty man in overalls. He is an angel. A Southern cherub bringing sweet sweet gasoline! With twenty hungry parishioners in line at his feet.

I nearly skid the car to a halt in the middle of the street. Jason and Mel try to figure out who will drive while I’m pulling out our tools and telling Dad that we’re only two blocks from Glenda’s house. We can get started while Jason fills the two empty gas cans we had brought on the off chance that we’d find just such a gold mine. The last five gallons Dad has at home will only last us through the night. Two more will buy us a couple of days of power for the refrigerator and a couple of hours under the fans.

Two blocks seem like twenty when the sun is squatting on your back. But we talk about the prize we’ll bring home tonight and I discuss the finer art of spotting flood damage as we walk.

Dad and I are already sweating when we get to the front door. He’s seen the water marks on the outside of the houses and knows it isn’t going to be nice inside. But neither of us are braced for the smell. Nor the heat. It’s a sauna in Glenda’s house. A rancid, sweltering sauna. Reaking of kitty litter, bayou mud, sewage and moldy dry wall.

The plan is to move half of the furniture, scrap the carpet underneath, move the other half of the furniture, and scrap the last of the carpet. But our plan didn’t include moving saturated mattresses. And we didn’t factor in the weight of drawers filled with water and drown clothes. Thank god there are only three carpeted rooms to strip. If it were the whole house, it would take us all night.

We clear just the first half of the first room and we’re both out of breath. Both tired. Even with all the windows open, the house is every bit as hot as the roof was this morning. We’re sweating constantly. The heat saps us. Constricting. Lungs full of napalm. Oppressive.

And the carpet is soaked. Tougher to cut. Heavier to lift. I make the initial incision then lean into it. Pulling with my arms. Pushing with my back. Holding the slippery material tight, while Dad tries to saw through it. Only five feet through a ten foot stretch, the first length we’ve tried to cut, and we’re ready to quit. Pouring sweat like a faucet. Panting like slow Southern dogs.

Dad says he’s done. I tell him to cut harder and we’ll be done quicker. So he cuts harder.

Two more feet. I say I’m done. Dad says to pull harder and we’ll be done sooner. So I pull harder.

We finish the room like that. One of us trying to quit. The other not quiting. Then we trade places. Trade rolls. Dad pushing me past my limit. I push him past his. And it is just the first room, of three.

He doesn’t like it, but I make Dad load me up with the freed rolls of carpet when everything is cut. I won’t let carry any of it. He’s damn near sixty. I’m almost half his age. And, prior to Katrina, I’d spend hours in the gym each week trying to get a workout like this. The secret is to get the weight of the drown carpet onto one hip. Then I’m walking and sweating and carrying the scraps out to the growing mound in the front yard. The water from the rolls drenches me, soaking my shorts. And my purple, deeply lacerated shin. It’s cold. Refreshing. And since it is cooling me down, I fool myself into believing the wound won’t get infected from the filth.

The second room is worse than the first. Bigger. More drawers. Larger ones. The drawers below my knee are still flooded. So heavy with water that the handles snap off when we try to pull them out to empty them. Which means we have to move the whole thing, flooded or not.

Then repeat the process of shifting the furniture, scrapping the carpet, and hauling off the pieces. It’s grueling. We keep jabbering: almost done, almost done. Sweating and cursing and not quiting. I want to give up. He won’t let me. He wants to give up. I won’t let him. It’s a constant conversation between each length of carpet. But it helps pass the time.

When we finish the second room, it has been two hours, and we’re nearly exhausted. Don’t even talk anymore. Just catch our breath and discover Dad drank the six pack of water and I drank the six pack of Power Aide. In two hours, neither of us have peed once. We're utterly dehydrated. And to my surprise, when I step on Glenda's rusting bathroom scale, I've lost 10 pounds in three day.

The third room will have to wait. We’re nearly dead on our feet. But, Jason is no where to be found.

So we decide mop and scrape the quarter inch pond that has taken up residence in the front room. We take turns between a broom and a squeegee. One of us pushes the water toward the door, the other knocks it outside. After thirty minutes, we’ve stopped panting and almost stopped sweating. The front is mostly dry. And we have no idea if/when Jason will drive up with the car.

Nothing else to do and we’re either stupid or gluttons (or both) because we eyeball the refrigerator. It is flat on its back. Like a white coffin. And somehow, we think we should right it. Might as well? Jason’s probably lost, and Glenda won’t be able to get this sucker back on its feet.

Being longer of leg, longer of arm, and thicker of skull, I shimmy between the fridge and the wall. Suddenly finding myself almost ankle deep in a field of broken glass. Wine bottles? Oil bottles? Decorative crap? I dunno. It is all sharp and crunchy. And I’m so damn stupid that I feel my way through the jagged, sewage-crusted shards and grip the edge of the fridge.

On three? I ask

Yep. Dad’s on one side, more of a coach at this point.

One. This is so stupid, I think.

Two. I’m gonna blow a disk, I think.

Three! Dumb dumb dumb!

I push down with my legs, into the mound of glass, pull up with my arms and push with my sun-blistered back. Howling at the top of my lungs as the fridge creeps up, inch by inch. Daddy’s yelling GOOO! GOOO! It’s moving. Half way. And my spine is still in one piece. Almost there. I keep howling like kamikaze on his flight down. Dad’s chanting. And it goes up. Onto its feet!

Then the bastard spills its guts. Onto the dry floor. Throws up a stomach full of spoiled milk, pickle juice, Tabasco sauce, bayou funk, rotten spaghetti, curdled yogurt, ten different kinds of wine, and god-knows-what else. And I’m running outside, crying god’s name and covering my face and my dry heaves with the top of my sweat-soaked shirt.

The fumes fade. We mop for another hour. Sweating the whole time. Cursing the whole time. Glad to get everything past us. Just one room left to do tomorrow, as Jason arrives to survey all our handy work.

He sat in the air-conditioned car for three hours. But they found the Holy Grail: gasoline. Ten gallons of liquid gold.

Well worth the wait.

And as we leave, I find Liam’s fishbowl in the ruined field of broken glass. Still intact after battling Katrina and supporting my weight and my fight with the fridge. But Jupiter is gone. A deep blue betafish with one bright red spot on his side. Liam’s first pet. Not a sign of him.

Gone with the flood, I’ll lie to Liam. That’s right, son, Jupiter escaped. To live with his friends in the bays and bayous of Gulfport. He escaped to tell the other fish about the sweet, young boy who kept him safe and kept him fed.

Then came Katrina.


Injury Du Jour: We finish the roof as the first cool drops of rain grace us. Then I step through a loose beam on my father’s wooden deck. My leg goes down several inches before the piece I’ve dislodged slams backwards into my shin. An explosive pinch from a hydrolic vice. The world explodes into a white glare. I’m trapped and hovering on one leg. Unable to scream. Unable to breathe. Hanging in space for a year-long three seconds before I collapse into a kneeling position. And pry my leg free from the embrace.

My hand barely covers the wound. Almost down to the bone. Except for a bit of red red meat still clinging in front. I’m rolling on my back on the searing deck. Cursing silently. Mouthing profanities unfit for writing. A deep purple bruise already spreading to most of my lower right leg. One knee clasped almost to my chest. Blood sluicing into my sock and around my calf.

I half-hobble and half-crawl into the house. Yelling for Mother. Again. But, I don't think a wet towel will fix this one.

Clouds brewing on the horizon

Mother’s battery-powered radio brings grim news: It is supposed to rain today. And not just a little drizzle. Full blown Southern Mississippi thunder storms. Which means if we do not put something on my father’s roof, there is going to be more water damage done to the house. Insult added to injury.

Hate to do it, but I wake Dad. He was snoring blissfully. Doesn’t like my rude interruption. Until I tell him about the forecast.

Oh, hell, he says. Go get your brother.

Jason is with Mel, at her mother’s house. One block north. I zig-zag the car past now-familiar mounds of debris, drive up to their house and yell through the open window screen: Jay-aaay, come out and play-aaay.” (a’ la The Warriors from 1979.) But nobody takes the bait. Of course it is early, Jason likes to stay up late, and he doesn’t have any kids, so there is a strong chance he is recumbent somewhere, snoring.

The front door is unlocked. I walk right into the living room. Cases of bottled water litter the floor. Mel is sleeping in one recliner. Jason in the other. His head is cast back and his mouth gapes, snoring mildly in the hot August air. He looks like my father, with a moustache. But without all the wrinkles, minus two hundred years of sun tanning.

Jason, I say.

He keeps snoring.


More of the same.


Mel wakes up. Looks at me. Looks at Jason. Looks at me. Rubs her eyes and stretches.

Jason, she says.

What? he asks. Waking up at the sound of her voice. Rubbing his eyes and stretching.

I need your help, I say. It’s going to rain in a couple of hours. We need to put some plastic on Dad’s roof.

He’s wearing what he wore yesterday. Jeans and a white t-shirt, stained yellow at the arm pits. Rubs his eyes some more and follows me out the door.

Be careful, Mel says as she rolls back to sleep.

Laundry list: hammers, roofing nails, plastic. That’s all we need for the repairs. And that is about all we have. Not including pieces of the neighbor’s wooden fence, which we pluck out of his yard and plan to use to anchor the edges of the plastic sheeting.

It isn’t bad for the first ten or twenty minutes, but the remains of the roof quickly start to heat up and I’m guessing it is somewhere in the neighborhood of 110 degrees while we’re working. The humidity doesn’t help. The lack of sleep doesn’t help. And it isn’t long before I’m literally drenched in sweat. Head to toe. My shirt is soaked. My hair is wet. My socks are wet. The sweat drips down the front of my shorts and leaves streaks like I’ve pissed myself. And the sun shoots through the cloudless sky to lump some more redness onto my neck.

I picked the wrong week to move to The Coast.

We get half of the exposed wood covered when my body decides to revolt. I don’t feel tired. I really WANT to wrap this up and take a break, but my right hand is not holding the nails correctly. I keep dropping them. They’re skidding down the roof and I’m not able to catch any of them. And when I do convince my fingers to hold one correctly, I can’t get the other hand to swing the hammer correctly. I hit my thumb, but it doesn’t hurt. Hardly any force behind it. Then I notice I’m hunching over, my head hanging down. Panting. Almost gasping for air as sweat rolls into my eyes. The world really isn't in focus right now. It's kinda grey and blurry at the edges. With black dots swirling around my head. Probably a plague of locust come to finish me.

What are you doing? Jason asks.

I don’t know.

Are you okay?

I don’t know.

Jon! Can you hear me?

I don’t know.


But I don’t hear the rest. I’m staring at my hands, like they’re new and I can return them if I kept the receipt. These bastard don’t work, I’d tell the guy who sold them to me. I want some new ones.

Then Jason’s lifting me onto my feet, one arm over his shoulder, taking the hammer away from me. Letting more nails roll down the roof. I’m just looking at him and trying to figure out why the hell I can’t talk and how we’re going to get down from here.

We tip-toe to the ladder. My sweat contributing to his. Moving slowly like two old men. Careful not to follow the nails tumbling to the ground. My legs work, if nothing else. So I can shimmy down the ladder.

And my mother is there. With cold bottles of water. And Gator Aide. Saying something that I don't hear. And Dad's jabbering at me. Just the sound of the ocean in my ears. I sit down and swallow orage Gator Aide. Rub the cold plastic on my face.

After I drink an entire bottle, I can hear again. My hands reboot and come back online. I'm able to focus my eyes and say polysyllabic words.

Nobody wants me to go back on the roof. But there are clouds brewing on the horizon. Dark ones. I imagine I can hear their thunder. And the neighbors who were looking at us like we were crazy for putting up plastic so early in the morning now scramble to get ladders and sheeting of their own.

We go back on our roof. But Mom has a new trick. Cold towels. She soaks some of them in the water from the bottom of the coolers and drapes them over our necks. Micro air conditioning.

I start to recover my senses. The nails are going in correctly, now. There’s actually a little less sweat pouring out of me. Not much longer, we'll be done. And it is almost time for lunch.

Nothing like complete physical exhaustion to work up an appetite.

Third night of bliss

For the third night, I didn’t sleep. If I did, it was only in brief patches. There was no bed available, so I slept on the floor. With two fans blowing increasingly hot air on across me. It didn’t help. I kept sweating and rolling around the floor and sweating and trying to relax and sweating and hearing the high pitched whine of the generator and sweating and jolting awake after a few seconds thinking: Where am I? Where are the kids? And every two hours we had to refill the ancient generator. I’d be awake seconds after it shut off. I’d be awake when my father would stumble outside to refuel it. I’d be awake when it would howl back to life. I’d be awake for hours as it rattled the boards of the deck just outside the window. And the night and the hot darkness never seemed to end.

My back is sunburned, nearly blistered. I’m sore from all the cleanup efforts yesterday. I even sport blisters between my thumb and forefinger from raking for hours. And my head feels like somebody is repeatedly stabbing me in the eye with a long sewing needle.

The hurricane was lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The eye

I’m about to crash. Mentally and physically. Everyone is alive. But the Gulf Coast is shattered. So much to absorb that it is overwhelming if you try to grasp it all at once. We have no source for clean water. No source for food. No power. No lines of communications. And there are dire predictions of cholera epidemic. But everyone is alive. Everyone: Jason, Mel, my parents, my grand parents, my wife, and my children. Everything else can be fixed or replaced, eventually. At least that is what I keep telling myself.

Before dinner, I get The Grand Tour. My father’s roof is nearly-shingleless and scraped to its wooden bones in most places. The metal, "wind-resistant" carport crumpled. From twelve feet tall down to four. And instead of protecting the cars, it has become something of a rain shelter when we sit outside. Dad's ceilings are tattooed brown from exposure to leaks. One of the large stains in the living room looks like a relief of Christ stretched resplendent on the cross. (Maybe I can sell it on eBay?) Several windows on their enclosed porch imploded. And only scraps of his gutters remain. Like dangling scabs.

Outside, three trees from opposing yards have fallen across Dad’s property. Two of them fell together and combined to flatten the three thousand dollar green house that my mother received for Christmas last year. Within sight, I’d say that three out of every four trees have collapsed. Seventy five percent loss.

I try to butcher a few of the smaller limbs with my cordless saw. But I don’t have the energy. It’s all fading. Fast. With Judy’s clean up and the trip and the discovery of Glenda’s house and my would-be new house all under my wing, I just can’t do today.

The crash threatens. My left wrist is throbbing. I smell steaks on the grill. My mother asks if I want more tea. I can smell the sweat which has soaked my clothes all day. I'm getting blind spots in my vision. I need to sit down. And a flashback rifles through my head: Cindy and the kids and Glenda huddled in the unlit bathroom of Judy’s house. Every pillow known to man is on top of them. The kids in the bathtub, under layers and layers of blankets, asking what is going on. And Cindy yelling for me to join them. There’s a tornado outside. And I was too numb to realize what she was saying. And I couldn’t stop pacing. Close the door, Jon! Cindy and Glenda trying to calm the children while I’m walking in and out of the bathroom in a daze. The wind drowned out their screams. And I just stood there.

Then my mother hugs me. Breaks the spell. I’m glad you’re here, she says. We don’t talk about the phone call. I don’t tell her about my lone prayer. Or my tears.

Everyone is alive.

And the Gulf Coast is shattered.

I’m in the eye of a new storm.

In the wake of Katrina

I find my parents. So anti-climatic that I’m almost mad.

Driving onto their street. Fewer trees down that other cities. Fewer power lines on the ground. No signs of a flood. And I’m pulling into their yard. Roofing shingles neatly piled next to the road. Dad has raked all the leaves into a separate pile. They’ve cleared all the limbs from the front, too.

The car port has crumpled and my parents are sitting under the remains of it, sipping beer.

I’m out of the car and running to my mother. She’s alive. Wearing a tank top. And sweating.

“You want some steak, honey?”

“You’re alive!” I hug her. Kiss her cheek. Tastes of salt. And sun screen.

Dad joins the mash. “We were about to grill some ribeyes that were in the freezer. And we have hot water. You can take a shower after we eat.”

“You’re alive!” And I’m hugging them both. We say nothing for a very long time. The three of us together, in the wake of Katrina.

The horror

I take the back roads through the remains of Gulfport.

Mentally numb after the first thirty times I whisper, “Oh my God.”

Katrina hated trees. As I drive parallel to the beach, less than a mile from the unseen shoreline, I think maybe every other tree is gone or going to come down. A full fifty percent of them devastated by the storm. Some are snapped. Some are uprooted. Some are leaning at brutal angles. Some appear to have simply exploded like organic grenades. Their trunks fragmented outward, spraying debris for ten yards. How do oak trees explode?

For those trees left standing, it looks like winter. No leaves to be found on anything. Nothing green remains. Not even the grass. Brown and dying, if it was touched by sea water. A twisted, macabre reality. Everywhere I look.

I catch the abrupt and all-too-apparent smell of death as I drive along Railroad Street, still parallel to the beach. Rancid meat co-mingling with the scent of leaking gas mains. Like somebody vomited on an outhouse in the middle of August. I pray it is only dead fish.

But at the corner of Hewes & Railroad, I see an unmarked white van surrounded by cops and several men in sterile white jumpsuits. They all have filtered-masks over the face. Jumpsuit Guys have yellow gloves and odd boots. Two of them cradle a black plastic bag between them. The weight of it has them hunched toward each other, straining and sweating in their costumes.

I know what is in those bags. I can see a stack of empty ones in the back of the van. And four occupied bags next to the empties.

And then I realize I can see the beach. I shouldn’t, though. It is three or four blocks south, past Highway 90 and then a hundred yards to the shore. I shouldn’t be able to see the water because of all the houses in the way. But there’s white sand and calm water clearly in view. And few, if any houses obstruct it. Hundreds of homes wiped from the face of the earth. Hundreds of families. Maybe thousands of lives. All in plain view from this one intersection.

No one to hear my whispered cry: The horror! The horror!

And I’m driving ever Westward. Toward my own Heart Of Darkness.

Damp treasure

Glenda lives less than a mile from my would-be new house. Past Liam’s new school: Bayou View Elementary. It probably flooded, but had few trees on it. Looks like the only ones which hit the building landed on or near Liam’s classroom. I think I’ll spare him that bit of information. He’ll worry too much. Like his mother.

Weaving through the path of felled trees, I find Glenda’s cul de sac. She is the only one who left. Everyone else stayed. “We survived Camille.”

Katrina flooded the entire block. Here’s the secret to telling: look for the heaping pile of soaked carpet in the front yard and then look for the water line on the walls. When the flood begins to recede, it leaves a very visible mark at its highest point. By the looks of it, there was at least three feet of water covering Tally Ho Circle.

David & Ricky meet me at their door. (They are her neighbors and I have to borrow their key to Glenda’s house.) But they’re hugging me before I can say anything. Three extremely sweaty men in a post-apocalyptic embrace.

I picked the wrong week to move.

Their house was filled with antiques and theatre collectables. David had an odd lust for the New York World’s Fair. His collection spans several display cabinets. They’re all off the ground now, and most of the available table space is littered with objects he has been collecting for decades. His hardwoods are ruined. His CD collection is drying in the sun. Fans are blowing across his tiled floor.

Ricky goes back to wiping water off a jar of pickles he salvaged from the fridge. David sorts his CDs and tells me Glenda’s place is going to be just as bad. Reminds me not to drink the water. And suggests a tetanus shot in my near future.

Glenda’s place is worse. Water line up to my knees. A quarter inch of nasty, stank funk coats the floor. Mixed with cat litter. Sofas and chairs rest where the receding water set them. The dining room table floated counter-clockwise. Magazines fattened by the bayou cling to the baseboards. The tub has become a swamp. I can’t see the bottom of it and I’m sure as hell not going to reach in there and check the drain. The carpets slurp with each step. Tybalt sitting on Cindy’s old bed, his tail twitching lazily. No sign of Kramer. The children’s clothes floated into the hallway. Two of Cindy’s purses full of water and muck. Our wedding pictures under water for hours, still wet as I cradle them to my chest. They’re cool against my skin. Cindy was so beautiful, angelic and smiling. Her long neck and thin wrists as we cut the cake.

Liam’s baseball glove: flooded. Cindy will never let him touch it again. One of Meg’s teddy bears, drowned. Cindy will never let her hold it again. And the Aerosmith poster from the 70s that I bought her one Christmas: buckled and warped as it dried.

That’s all I can take. I put the album onto a dry patch of bed. Maybe Cindy can save what Katrina ruined.

I’ll leave a note that I was here, and come back tomorrow to start Glenda’s cleanup. Or tonight. If find the bodies of my parents.

Our new house

I navigate to what would have been our new house. All brick. 40 years old. Cindy had found it before I left Atlanta. It was scheduled to be inspected today. We’re supposed to close on it next week, September 9th. My brother’s 32nd birthday.

“It survived Camille” the owner told me.

But Katrina flooded it. Up to my waist. Four feet of bayou water bathed the entire house.

As I drive up, the carport is full. Glen Graves, the owner, and his entire family are there. They’re cleaning. And mopping. All working to haul his mother’s furniture to the growing mound in the front yard. She passed some months ago. He had not managed to sell off her belongs. But now they’re ruined.

The carpets are gone already. I’m staring at the wet slab. Mr. Graves’ son is cleaning out the kitchen. His daughter wields a damp broom and is sweeping the last bit of water out the back door. Mrs Graves sees me and sighs and comes to hug me. Mr. Graves is out of breath and sweating. (We’re all sweating.) He gives me a grip and pats my back. They were worried about us. Didn’t know what we had done, but hoped we escaped the worst of it.

He shows me the house and everything they’re doing. I follow him, but don’t hear anything he says. I’m thinking about my parents and their home. If Gulfport is this bad, Long Beach is going to be worse. Four feet of water means all of my computers on the floor of Dad’s garage are going to be submerged. All of my antique medical gizmos are drowned. Not to mention about twenty thousand worth of comics. And all of my other books I’ve collected for 20 years. And of course, my parents. If they weren’t struck by a fallen house, they drown.

And I’m really sweating, now. My heart filling my throat. My stomach knotting.

Mr. Graves says more, about fixing the house. A new closing date. And something about my mother-in-laws neighborhood. I don’t hear it. Sweat down my neck and the thud thud thud of blood coursing through my neck.

I have to check the cats, I say. Shake Mr. Graves hand. And run to my car.

Long Beach is going to be worse.


Dazed victims

I pass below the silent, un-used corpse of I-10. Heading further south. Into the midst of the real damage. And reality implodes on me. I do not recognize half of what I am seeing. Store fronts ripped off. Signs twisted like perverse origami sculptures. Endless lengths of tattered cabling droop from exposed walls. Chunks of brick strewn everywhere. Shingles by the tens of thousands. Fragments of wooden beams. Cars flipped onto their backs. Sand covering the streets. Dirt covering the sand. Leaves and limbs covering the dirt. And somehow clothes in the mix. And somehow furniture in the mix.

Gulfport has become the sobbing twin of post-bombing Nagasaki. Complete with dazed victims who wander the streets, wading through the drying remains of their former lives.
I can’t absorb it all. It doesn’t make sense. This foreign city under siege. It can’t be Gulfport. Can’t. So I don’t look at it any more. I just drive. I have to get home.


A minor victory. Our warehouse is untouched. No wind damage. Thankfully no water damage, either. Cindy will be relieved. Everything that wasn’t in my basement is now in these two spaces. Beds, furniture, the kitchen and garage. All of the children's items. And they’re still safe.

My Father-in-law, Robert, lives close to our storage lot. I check on his place and discover he faired well. His house doesn’t have any visible damage. The trees in the neighborhood took a beating, though. Quick estimate: one in four are lost. But few houses appear to have suffered. Mostly shingles missing.

They're all okay, Buddy.

Maybe they are, after all.

Heading south on HW49, I drive past Robert’s business. It is intact, too. I’ve been on this road for half an hour. After exiting HW11, it has been a near-speed-limit journey. Fewer trees across the road. Very few cars going south with me. Still took three hours to make a 60 mile trip. Just dawned on me that I haven’t seen a traffic light in two days. Everything is a four-way stop, now. Probably stay this way for several weeks.

Police out in full force. Patrolling some of the not-yet-looted locations. Some of them acting as traffic signals at major intersections. All of them sweating like a faucet. As I pass each officer, I roll down the window and thank them. I’m sure they haven’t slept in two days. (Not that I have, either, but I’m not wearing Kevlar.) They refuse the cold bottles of water I offer. I figure they have to. Don’t want any unexpected surprises in their water.

Waiting to turn off the highway, I flip on my PDA. Search for a wireless connection. Nothing. Search for a cellular connection from T-Mobile. Nothing. Dead air. All the packets swept up and displaced by Katrina.

We’re not in Kansas any more, Toto.

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!

Best Case Deaths

Lunch does not go down well. Supposed to be sweet tea and ham sandwiches. Feels like a belly full of concrete and barbed wire.

With the yard cleaned, we’re listening to Aunt Judy’s battery-powered radio. It doesn’t help. Biloxi and Ocean Springs are crippled. “Waveland is gone.” "Bay St. Louis is gone." Gulfport may go the way of New Orleans, but police are quickly getting control of the looting. Nobody has heard from Pass Christian. Nobody has heard from Long Beach, where my family lives.

So I’m back to hanging out with Denial. But I’m not really listening to him any more, and I have started to mentally create these Best Case Deaths for everyone. They usually involve a minimum of suffering. They all happen quickly: Mom & Dad struck by the collapse of their home. Grandma caught in a tornado with Grandpa. Jason & Mel flattened by a small forest of fallen trees.

I can handle this. I just don’t want to be the first one to find any of their bodies.

They’re still alive, Buddy.

Shut up. Asshole. I’m tired of you. I’m giving Acceptance a call.

I’ve skipped the middle three Stages Of Grief (I can’t remember them from my days in Intro To Psychology) and I’m on the last one: Acceptance. Might as well come to terms with the fact that Mississippi was just hit by the largest natural disaster in history. And some people did not survive it.

The radio keeps painting the picture in darker shades of black and grey. No power for 4 – 6 weeks. Don’t drink the water. CDC warning about disease from a soon-to-emerge swarm of mosquitoes. Don’t eat fresh seafood. Gas leaks threatening entire neighborhoods. Don’t drink the water. Looters going into historic houses after the owners evacuated. Raw sewage filling the municipal pipes of Biloxi. HW90 impassable. Nothing within a mile of the beach survived. Waveland, Pass Christian, and Long Beach hit full force by Katrina. Don’t drink the water. Gaming as we know it is gone, on the Gulf Coast. Every casino gutted. Thirty percent of the state’s revenue at risk. Bridges collapsed. Stray animals roaming the streets. Curfews from sun-down to sun-up. Ladies and gentlemen: let me introduce you to our new form of government: Martial law. And God help you if you drink the water!

Pack your bags, Acceptance. I have to get home.

Survivor: Hattiesburg

Redbull and biscuits for breakfast. I can't really eat. The same ghosts and fears plague every thought. My stomach balled like a fist. Don't much talk, either. Just hug Cindy and Glenda and the kids. Trying to stop the voices. Trying not to talk to Denial. They're still alive, buddy.

We discover the landline died some time last night. A neighbor says that the power company cut phones in order to establish an electric foothold. And cell connectivity is down, too. We can't call anyone who is not within shouting distance. All we can do is clean up.

Uncle Terry says we'll just burn the debris. Get several fire pits started and turn everything to white ash.

Liam's eyes light up when he hears he'll get to torch something. Fire to him is like a new inmate to a prison. He can't wait to get started. Neither can I. Work will help stop the dance of voices and faces. Denial can sit inside drinking martinis while I do some cutting with power tools.

Dicing up limbs is cheap personal therapy. And God knows it helps. Creating some destruction of my own. Having control for the first time in two days. Feeding the remains to the fire. Watching them get consumed. Helping Liam play "Survivor: Hattiesburg." The Boys against The Girls. He's running from fire to fire, adding sticks or leaves. Even wet and/or green items will burn if you get them hot enough. Liam keeps pouring water on the back of his neck. We take turns dunking our heads in an old metal washtub that has filled with cold rain. Sweating from the efforts and the heat. I even take off my shirt. Nobody cares how pale I am. We're doing something helpful rather than being afraid. And not hanging out with Denial.

I'm actually happy. For a little while.

King of infinite space

Here's the deal: I'm dependant upon noise and moving air to sleep. Last night, I had neither. And the hour, maybe two, of sleep that I did get were haunted by the ghosts of my parents and my brother. And people calling my name. And images of our belongings getting flooded. Or crushed. Or flooded and crushed and looted.

(Since we were only going to close on a new house in a week, we didn't get any insurance for the warehouse space.)

No noise. Except the croak of excited frogs. No air moving anywhere. So I rolled and twisted and moaned and covered the sheets with sweat all night.

I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space–were it not that I have bad dreams. Like Hamlet, I'm glad I didn't sleep. I couldn't take the bad dreams.

Right you were, Shakespeare.

Monday, August 29, 2005

When in doubt

The return trip to Aunt Judy's takes longer than my voyage into the storm. More cops have hit the roads, with their rain ponchos, like yellow toy ducks littering the streets of Hattiesburg. More roads are blocked. The check points actually become choke points for traffic as the police try to get a grip on the situation. It becomes routine: drive up to the officer, "Can I see some ID?" He gives me the stink eye when he sees an Atlanta, GA, driver's license. And he checks to see I have Atlanta, GA, license plates. "Looks like I picked the wrong week to move down here," I say. Then he nods, returns my wallet, and I'm able to move another mile before repeating the process.

But night is falling. And the darkness isn't calm. Or inviting. No power in this ravaged concrete jungle. No street lights. Few other cars. Between trying to avoid these pseudo military excercises in futility and trying to find a cleared road back to Judy's, I get lost in a foreign town on foreign roads.

Keep the green compass on my rear view mirror on W. Move parallel to the major highways. Dodge the power lines. Every dead traffic signal becomes a four-way stop. I try to remember the eight or twenty turns I've taken in the past hour, but I find myself outside a frat house in the middle of the University of Southern Mississippi.

Then I spot a gigantic ass-hauling, country-music-blaring pickup truck. Massive knobby tires. Tailgate spangled with several different flavors of dried mud. Gun rack. And six guys crammed into the Extended King Cab.

Bingo! Red necks.

These guys know the roads like I know computers. They're cutting through parking lots. Heading the wrong-way down unused access roads. Throwing up a constant spray of mud and sod and pine straw. Driving across open rain-soaked fields on the lightless campus of USM and inching our way back toward familiar highways unimpeded by cops or national guard.

An hour of very long short cuts later, I'm pulling into driveway of Aunt Judy's candle-lit house.

When in doubt, follow the red necks.

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!

Tormented. Tormented. Tormented.

I've been pacing for hours. Can't stop thinking about them. Cindy knows what is on my mind. Everyone knows. Their family is all here, or further north. Beyond Katrina's reach. Everyone I love is either with us in Hattiesburg, or on the Coast.

How many survived? How many didn't? Are they trapped right this moment? Are they counting on me to rescue them? How long can they wait?

I can't wait, through. Cindy knows. She sees it on my face. She doesn't want me to leave. Wants me to stay with her. And the children.

But I'm dying inside. Suffering these long moments of quiet desperation because I have so many questions and fears and doubts. And I keep thinking about my Mother and my Grandfather and my Brother and my Father and my Grandmother and twenty five years worth of friends who were all in the path of Katrina. Their faces and voices haunt me.

Cindy knows. Helps pack a couple of bags. Then makes two PB&Js for me. When she pulls me close and whispers to be careful, I feel her sigh. She doesn't agree with me. But she knows I have to leave. I have to see for myself who survived. And who didn't.

We pack the SUV. Share more hugs. Good luck. Be careful. Good luck. Be careful. We love you. And I'm on the road. Driving into the wake of the storm.

"Because you're mine, I walk the line."

Stages Of Grief

Denial is the first of five Stages of Grief. I don't know when the other four of them are going to show up, but I've been having a killer tea party with Denial. He's a wildman after a couple of vodka tonics. Likes to hang out and get to know you.

They're not dead, I tell myself.

Sure they're not, buddy, he says.

They survived Camille, I tell myself.

Yeah they did, buddy, he says. Yeah they did.

Katrina's only Category Four. Camille was a 200MPH Category Five monster. They'll be fine, I tell myself.

Denial nods to me, slowly sipping his cocktail. Those guys are fine, buddy, you're just getting all worked up about nothing, he says.

I don't think I've said more than six words to anyone in the past hour. I just keep holding the children. I hug Liam, thinking about my brother, Jason, and my father, and my Grandfather.

They ain't dead, Denial tells me. The phone line is just down. And their cell phones are off. You know they gotta save their batteries.

I hug Meg, pressing her red red hair against my check as I kiss her. Mom and Grandma.

Come on, buddy, you know they're tough old birds. Grandma lived through the Great Depression. And your mother survived Disco, didn't she?

I think we ate lunch. I think Katrina's eye is upon us right now. The wind has nearly stopped. Aunt Judy didn't lose too many trees. We made it through. And my stomach is doing cartwheels up my spine. I'm gonna puke any minute now.

But they are not dead. They survived. I just have to get in touch with them. If I can not call, I'll drive down there. In the wake of the storm.

The sky isn't so dark, now. I could probably make it to them. If the roads aren't too bad.

They aren't dead, I tell myself.

I know, says Denial.

Maelstrom Part Deux

Dry again. Watching two humming birds flit effortlessly around Aunt Judy's plastic red feeder. Fascinated by the green blur of their wing tips. Only ten feet away from them, one of Judy's oak trees is bending nearly in half. But the humming birds appear unaffected. Each taking turns at the dangling feeder.

And the tin roof, on the back shed, peals away. Sloughing off like snake skin. Flaps angrily in Katrina's embrace across thirty feet of field before slamming into the ground. It starts rolling, end over end, like a Southern tumbleweed. Behind it, the shed begins to rock on its foundation.

Of course, MY CAR, is in there. "It survived Camille," Terry said when I asked where to park. It isn't going to survive Katrina.

So I'm running. Again. More rain in the face. This time I'm barefoot. In gym shorts and a t-shirt. And my God, I'm running like a damn teenager! Long, confident stride. Arms scissoring. Eyes focused solely on my SUV and the ever-widening sway of the old storage shed.

Since I haven't actually had to run in the past decade, I don't quite make the transition from running to stopping very gracefully. My feet come out from under me. Land of my left hand. And left hip. Sink two inches into the wet earth without hearing the subtle popping noise in my left wrist.

Thunder and rain and the constant howl of an unleashed hurricane have a way of compressing time. I don't know how I make it onto my feet, next to the car. Hunching there. Shoulders pushed to my ears in an insanely stupid attempt to keep my neck dry. Can't figure out why the door won't open. I'm pushing the remote like a trip hammer. Hand slipping off the slick handle because the damn lock is still engaged. After several long seconds of getting pelted in the face by Katrina, I notice the horn is honking as I'm fondling the remote. Of course it's doing that, I realize, I've been pushing the LOCK button. Over and over.

Soaked completely. My left side sheened in mud. I hit unlock and flop into the car. Onto my leather seat. The wooden frame of the old shed groans violently. The whole structure shifts toward my wind shield. I'm screaming something ugly about its mother, fumbling for the ignition. Which damn key? Rain falling in slow motion, almost horizontal. Which key? My stomach about to overtake my tongue and crawl out of my mouth. Another gust from the storm jerks the beams toward me. And I fire the engine, still cursing and dripping. The whole damn place about to collapse as I reverse off the slab and into the mud.

The shed manages to stay upright. Slanting at a painful, gravity defying angle.

I park in the open field. Hopefully out of range of falling trees or loose debris. Then I'm back in her embrace, cursing Katrina with every angry breath.

Run back to Judy's porch.

And my third set of clothes.

Braving the maelstrom

I'm sitting under the covered porch watching giant Southern pines sway in Katrina's path, when Judy's landline rings. I can hear the neighbor's voice. She's screaming. Barely understadable. Yelling that a tree has cleaved through their home. Their mother is pinned under one of the limbs. They think she is bleeding from some place on her head. But they don't know for sure. They can't free her to find out. And storm waters are pouring over her, from the open roof.

Terry and I bolt for our coats. I shoulder my 60 pound bag of cordless power tools.Then we brave the storm. Neither of us have said a word. Probably don't have a plan, but we are going to save that old woman. Save somebody's mother. Or die trying.

Behind us, Cindy and Glenda scream to be careful. And Judy has joined us. She's wearing shorts.
We're in the clutches of Katrina only a few feet when I start having second thoughts. Rescuer's regret? The rain HURTS. I'm soaked immediately. Leaning forward. Barely able to lift my head against the wind. Glasses sheeted with rain. Can'tsee more than ten feet. And we're running. Or trying to run. Lifting our feet high. Over slick tangles of broken tree limbs. And a routed army of stray pine cones.

Almost a blind sprint as we stumble upon our first obstacle. An uprooted pine tree. Across the road to the neighbors. Terry says half a mile to their house. Through hell and high water. The storm getting worse by the second as I straddle the tree. Katrina pressing me down, against the wet wood. I can feel the cold bark bite into my jeans. But we make it.

Twenty more blind feet. Brought to another halt. Smell of fresh cut lumber. And an enormous oak felled minutes ago. The fallen trunk resting chest high. Slick with water and debris. Even without a hurricane at our backs, we couldn'tclimb over this big bastard. It probably dates back to the Mesozoic Period. I've flown on planes smaller than this!

But Terry sees a way through. The tree is so massive that it spans a ditch next to the road. We can crawl under it. And do. Water up to my thighs and this damn tool bag on my back. The smell of wet earth choking me. My face kissed by roots dripping with mud. Almost lose my glasses in black ditch water. As if they're of any use.

Then we're running again. Half way to the neighbor's house. And I'm out of breath. Batteries slapping against my spine. And a hammer drill. And a reciprocating saw. And everything else. Cold wind in my throat. Hot sweat running down my arms. Glasses starting to fog. I'll be useless when we get there. If we get there.

And headlights coming through the storm. A truck heading our way. Come to give us a lift? No. To let us know they had pulled their mother free. They're taking her somewhere. But they have to use back roads. If any roads still exist. If any places are open. If any doctors survived. Their adventure is just beginning.

Turning home. Somehow the rain hits harder. When I was eight, a crazy old lady shot me with rocksalt for walking through her field. Katrina feels like that shotgun blast. On my face. On my neck. On my hands. Endlessly.

Silently starting the trip back to Judy's, we nod to each other. Knowing that we tried.

Warn them

I reach my brother, Jason. He's only one block north of my parents. Warn them, I yell across the faint, dying connection. Maybe he hears every third word. I tell him that I love him, and the eye wall is coming. I plead with him to tell our parents. Warn them. Somehow. Then hide. For his life.

He yells that he loves me, too. Then we both fall silent. Neither of us says goodbye. And we hang up.

Alone, I wonder if God had heard my one prayer. Among all the millions of other coming his way this morning.

Now I'll step outside. And pretend I'm not howling behind my eyes. That my stomach isn't trying to crawl up my throat. That I don't think they are all dying. I'll just smile and welcome Katrina's darkling approach.

Whispers to God

The power dies suddenly in Hattisburg. Everyone runs outside. To watch the storm from the covered porch.

On the radio, the news reports that the eye wall is maybe an hour from Gulfport. Katrina is ready to get the party started on The Gulf Coast. For her, the best is yet to come.

I try to dial my parents again, to warm them. No calls connect. Try my grandparents. No calls connect. Nobody's cell works. Nobody's land line. Nothing.

I can still hear my mother crying. She won't know. I can't get through. To any of them.

Alone, in Judy's bedroom, I whisper my first prayer in a decade, whispering: Please, God. Protect them. Please.

I won't let the children see me cry. I'll dry up. Join them on the porch. And watch the storm engulf us.

And her cell phone dies

I place a call to my Mother. Between rings CNN / Fox / MSNBC force feeds the headlines: Katrina slams into New Orleans. God, have mercy on them. She floods Lake Pontchartrain, sunders all of the antique levees, drowns every bar I've ever visited, and pimp slaps a hole in the top of the Super Dome. I try not to imagine the fear and screaming raised by tens upon tens of thousands of now-homeless huddled in that make-shift shelter. The women and the children wrapped around each other. The water slowly collecting at their feet. And they have nowhere to run.

My mother answers. She is in tears. Begs me to tell her the worst of the storm has passed. Says the roof is going to come off. She can hear the wood buckling. The shingles peeled off like onion paper. Almost every tree within site has fallen.

When will it stop, she cries? Can you tell me?

I don't let her know I'm crying. Or that I'm about to piss myself with fear. I tell her to hold on for two more hours. She's more than half way through it. Just hold on a little longer.

She tries to stop sobbing. But she's spitting out words between breaths. Panic and fear like I've never heard from my mother. She's always been strong. Always kept us in line. The Matriarch. And now she's uncontrollably weeping to me. From within the clutches of the worst damn storm in American history. And I'm in tears because I can not do anything but listen to what might be her last words to me.

Says they have been running through the house since before dawn. Fighting leaks. Empying buckets of storm water. They can't stop running. They are out of bowls to catch the drops. My grandfather, 85yrs old and nearly buckled in half, has been doing the same. Their phone lines and everyone's power died at five in the morning. They're using two-way radios from work to hear my grandmother's panicked updates.

Mom wants to know when I think it will be over. When can they stop the running? A final sob. And her cell phone dies.

Slower still

WOO HOO! Category Four, baby!!

I dunno if it is barometric pressure, water temperature, cosmic rays, good karma, or good old fashioned New Orleans voodoo, but whatever the cause (after maybe four hours of very bad sleep) I am jubulent to learn that I'm only going to feel the wrath of a Category Four hurricane.

15% less carnage?

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Slowly into the breach

Amid a mixed batch of news reports, I try to sleep. Bad news: Katrina continues her push to the East. She set her eye upon us. It is going to be brutal. Good news: The storm is slowing. She has descended to 160MPH and is on her way down! A little less anger from her, and she'll be Category Four. The slower, the better, I says.

Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more, or close up the wall with our Southern dead.

II Peter 2:6

I don't know how many people would admit this, but I have been hoping (and I'm sure many are PRAYING) that Katrina breaks left, toward Texas. If she would just nudge toward the far side of New Orleans, I think we might be able to dodge this bullet.

But it must be bad karma to ask God to send a hurricane somewhere other than your backyard because every unspoken prayer appears to be dragging Katrina further east. Either we're getting punished for our hubris, or Texas has a hotline to Jehovah and they're pesting him more than we are. That damn "cone of probability" on The Weather Channel (I think they should call it The Swath Of Possible Death, though that isn't likely to calm anyone's concerns) keeps pulling to the right. Moving closer to us with each hour. With the wind and the skies and the non-stop news coverage it is like watching the slow approach of a hooded, axe-wielding executioner.

One thing is certain: New Orleans is going to see destruction on a biblical scale. The levees are not going to hold. The streets are going to fill with water and shit and bloating dead bodies. And it won't be long before those folks get pissed. Then the looting. And maybe some rioting. Chaos will sweep across that ancient city. And nothing short of a invasion force is going to keep it in check. Biblical scale, I says.

In Aunt Judy's bible, I find this: "Turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly" II Peter 2:6

Calm before the storm

We sit outside drinking tall, seemingly endless glasses of sweet sweet tea. All of Aunt Judy's lawn furniture has been put into one of the many "sheds" on their farm. One hundred and forty acres of heavily wooded Mississippi countryside. Uncle Terry is a truck driver. Usually hauls hazardous chemicals up past the Mason Dixon Line. Aunt Judy recently became a realtor, after her youngest (Logan) went off to college. Maybe two years ago they built a new (all brick) house and we're hoping it will fend off Katrina.

Meg keeps yelling, "Swing me high, Daddy! Swing me HIGH!" She says it to me, because she knows Cindy will barely push her on the old rope swing. Cindy somehow imagines that too much extra ummph will result in Baby Bear flipping over backwards and somehow cracking open her skull, even though the swing barely skims above the ground most of the time and it hovers over a couple of inches of thick country grass.

And if my Herculean efforts to dislodge Meg aren't enough to stop Cindy's heart, she has to physically walk inside the house whenever Uncle Terry fires up the Four Wheeler and takes Liam for a spin through the fields. Then, "all the boys" as Liam calls us, pile into a thirty year old pickup truck and tour the unmarked "edges"of the family property. Including the creek (pronounced "crick,") the deer stands, and "the dumps" which are home to the gargage that "the city folk" won't collect each week.

For Liam it is one long party. Meanwhile, Katrina is pegging 175MPH.

And thus she begins

More gas in the tank and a belly full of O'Charleys. It is disturbing to sit in a diner expecting good service when you know full well that an ungodly huge storm is about to tap dance on your spleen. But everyone is dressed in their Sunday Best and the kitchen staff is yelling to the waiters that the Lunch Rush would not be so chaotic if fewer of the college kids had ran like cowardly little children.

Hey, Chef Jackass, I'm not sure if you missed this news alert or not, but just in case: There's a HURRICANE coming! Can we cut the college kids a little slack? I'm not sure if it is worth their lives just to serve Mr & Mrs Hattiesburg a bowl of potato soup and some hot yeast rolls.

Other than the morally-challenged barely-english-speakings chefs, it is obvious that everyone is starting to get EXTRA friendly. "Good luck," ends most conversations. We're all being polite while we can. We know what looms ominously on the horizon. Know it might be our last words to a stranger. And know we need to generate some good karma.

On the ride home, the black clouds appear. Pushing north. And thus she begins.

One last look

Filling the tank at a half-full Shell Station. I expect a torrent of people to explode into the local streets just after lunch. The church crowd will have said their last prayers. And their pilgramage ought to begin just as mine concludes.

Two cans of Red Bull and a wasp sting on my ear (yes, my EAR!) kicked me in the ass. I'm not sure if I have blinked in the last hour. Part fear, part energy drink. But I know my parents are a little safer, with the house boarded.

Neither my parents or my grand parents have ever fled before a hurricane and they don't plan on starting today. If I didn't have a family of my own, I'd stay with them. And the two dogs. And Mom's eleven little birds. All of us shaking our fists (or paws (or talons)) at Katrina. "We survived Camille!" we'd shout. "Bring it!"

God, I'm stupid. We're looking into the eye of a dragon, and somehow we think it will blink first. Like we're tougher than this damn thing. Like we're going to be able to survive on anger and venom alone. Repeating to ouselves over and over, "We survived Camille!" Our tribal mantra. Compelling us to believe we're braver and stronger than anything Nature can throw at us.

I pop in a CD and drive off, and take one last look at the neighborhood, thinking for the first time: How different will this world be when I return?

Early to rise

A benadryl induced fog behind my eyes and Lady Katrina plastered on every screen. She's a big girl. Doesn't look happy. Category 5 and working herself up toward 200 MPH. I'll let my father sleep another hour. (An excuse to try to clear the cobwebs from my head.) Then we have to board up the windows. If Jason gets his act together, I'll help him, too. But I have to get on the road. And head north. Supposedly, the evacuation of New Orleans resulted in people taking 8 hours to drive 4 miles through the inner city. I don't want to be caught in the maw of Traffic Hell. (Didn't I just leave Atlanta to avoid such adventures?)

Cindy has already left, with her Mother, to Aunt Judy's house. Hattiesburg, MS. Where we are making our last stand. And I'm already groggy.