The Gulf Swallowed Everything

Everything is constantly changing. Nothing stays the same.

 

Most of us don’t like change. We accept what comes gradually. But when change comes too quickly it can be confusing and the disorientation can take years to understand.

 

Things changed on the Gulf Coast. What we saw there was beyond imagination and perceptions of life’s normal pains. Along a stretch of the gulf highway that runs from Biloxi to just west of Pass Christian, frames the devastation that still remains.

 

The Highway 90 bridge that connects Bay St. Louis to Pass Christian has blown away like the dreams of the people who used to live here. As one drives west it is surprising to look down and see the speedometer showing only 12 m.p.h., but seeming that if we don’t move slower we’ll miss something.

 

There is this mixture of old and new. Both outnumbered by the nothing.

 

Thousands of barren lots are the old. Cement foundations and a few powerful swamp oaks accompany them. Many of the trees are uprooted. Like hope, some trees live on, bent and crooked from a stance taken against the warring waves and winds on the morning of August 29, 2005 when Hurricane Katrina made landfall, in its third and final assault.

 

Part of the bridge ahead still remains. However at its crest in the center of the bay the middle section is gone. Officially the wind measured 175 miles per hour as the barometer touched 26.65 inches of mercury. But scientists project that winds had to be more than 300 M.P.H. over the bay waters to rip that section into the water.

 

The people who remained on the shoreline on either side of the bridge met decimation. This is Ground Zero – where nothing remained the same. And even less now remains.

 

Down the four-lane divided highway, the drive out of Gulfport is a progressive thing, getting worse with each mile. There literally two or three Colonial-era stone homes remain. Across from the gulf is a huge boat, maybe a 50-footer, lying anchored in the sand like a monument.

 

We have traveled another 15 minutes. Looking for the Wal-Mart Super Center, we used to stop and buy cold cuts and ice there en route to New Orleans which is about 1 1/2 hours farther west. There is no evidence the huge store was ever there. Gone, too, are the bank, post office and art store.

 

Up ahead is a detour sign. It signals the end of this stretch of US-90. We take the turn through the rubble of torn fences wrapped around giant oaks, and wonder how many dead bodies are hidden here still.

 

As the road twists and angles away from the pavement to reveal stone dust, we approach the beach where a pier has been constructed by the federal government. The pier is bumper-to-bumper with cars waiting to catch the ferryboat, which we can see off in the distance coming back from Bay St. Louis. The round trip takes two hours. Crossing the bridge used to take six minutes.

 

It is easy to see the center of the bay and if one has binoculars handy it is easier to see the center of the bridge span missing a few hundred feet at its zenith. Birds above circle back and forth from the pier out to the bridge and then back again, as if still confused almost two years later.

 

Those waiting in line for the ferry talk about the missing ones, if asked. They remember the day that change came. The rumbles did not shake their conservative political values that morning, as many don’t want anything from Washington. But they are glad to have fresh ears to hear how they moved inland – two or three miles – and one old man mumbled something about the realization that they hadn’t hidden far enough away from Katrina.

 

They talked about how they huddled and trembled as the walls shook and the windows came crashing in. They remember the noise, and after that . . . silence.

 

Although many here lost everything, as much as it sounds like a cliche, they are the lucky ones. They met fate face-to-face and lived to recall the encounter.

 

The confirmed death toll continues to rise, standing now at 1,836. To get a different prospective compare that to nine jet airplanes all crashing on one day in one town, and each carrying 204 persons. Or, it’s about 60 percent of our nation’s military lives lost in Iraq.

 

Also, the price tag continues an upward spiral. It totals more than $86 billion. The presidential political promises to make things right are like pie crust, easily broken, and mostly unpaid.

 

These folk live near the intersection of obscurity and anonymity, so few outsiders see their tears. They have been secluded and left to fend for themselves, with the exception of city-slicker lawyers who have come to town to try and recover unpaid damages from insurance policies which have gone Welch from the good folks you can trust at Allstate and State Farm.

 

Suddenly a shower passes overhead. The sky turns black, except for the purples and gray off to the west. A puppy runs down the middle of the street drenched and shivering, and almost scoots under my wheels, as she darts across the road looking for shelter from the lightning and quiet from the thunder. We stop and she allows us to pick her up and wrap her in a towel. She doesn’t have a collar and like so many animals here since Katrina she belongs to the night and the streets.

 

She is a lovely puppy, a sign of new life, very warm and loving but quite drained and slightly shy. As the sun sets, I drive back into Gulfport and pass a Sonic drive-in and stop to ask the manager if she has some scraps for the pup. The waitresses pour out of the kitchen like the rain that is now finished. Most say they would take her, but they’ve already taken in one or two strays.

 

The manager fixes her dinner as if she were a regular customer – a special dinner guest – and the little dog is gobbling up every morsel of fried chicken strips. We fill up a plastic cup lid with water and she laps up every drop. Her pink tummy is expanded and full . . . Seemingly out of nowhere, she comes to life and climbs out of her rut, off the backseat, and extends her front paws on to the back of the passenger seat. We pull away.

 

Tongue out and tail wagging, for a moment it feels like we stopped the misery of this place. Yet I doubt Hiroshima canines found solace in a fortnight or in four years.
There are dozens of temporary cities filled with government trailers and such, and even construction of some new homes and high-rise condos. This place is earmark of America’s future. The nation where each is “responsible” for one’s self.

 

It has turned pitch, and up a side street is a deserted apartment complex. We ask some shadowy men standing on the corner why the place is empty when housing is so hard to come by. They say between whiskey sips that since there is no electricity or sewage in the area, most property is still condemned. Maybe that’s why the newly built condos climb skyward with million-dollar-price-tags, facing the gulf like soldiers at attention. Yet lifeless with no residents or lights. Everything is constantly changing. Nothing stays the same. This day, the gulf swallowed everything.

 

Days turn into nights, weeks into months. Summer approaches and it becomes a sticky-hot that only mosquitoes and locals can tolerate. The trees are silhouettes resembling Bonsai, and the night was quietly hiding another American secret.

 

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