Katrina: A Journal, Revisited (Part 2)

Tuesday, August 30, The Day After. Jackson’s The Clarion-Ledger said: “The eye of Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane, hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast about 9 a.m. Monday with 125-mph winds. Around the state, the storm knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, flooded casinos, shut down major highways and even wiped out an amusement park…Nearly half of those living in Mississippi slept in the dark Monday night…Most major highways and evacuation routes throughout south Mississippi still were impassable Monday night…Although Katrina’s winds weren’t as forceful as Camille’s, the hurricane caused waves to swell higher than Camille’s, reaching 28 feet on the Gulf Coast. As a result, some boats crashed into buildings, and others wound up on the Coast’s busiest thoroughfare, U.S. 90, which was seven feet under water.”

Mississippi got the eastern wall, the worst of the storm. I couldn’t bear to think about all the destruction. The sandy Gulf shores where my family vacationed when I was a child. The beautiful coastal highway with beaches on the water side and old historic homes and quaint diners on the other. I played in the Gulf waters, collected shells, ate seafood. As an adult, I took my babies there and let them step out in the gentle waves. The waters were always so peaceful, so beautiful, and the sand and palm trees and sea touching sky were such a cool and calming contrast to my hot Delta home of black dirt and white cotton, just a few hours away. I remembered after Camille, we couldn’t swim in the waters for a few years—bodies were still washing up. Silent sobs bubbled up from my chest.

I stopped in Walgreen’s shortly after noon to pick up a prescription for my husband and to get some moisturizer for myself. My cell phone rang. It was my son. He hemmed and hawed and blew out hard. “Mama, it’s bad. It’s really bad here. It’s absolutely unreal. In central Mississippi, 85% of us are without power…the entire cities of Brandon, Pearl, Raymond, Byram, Clinton, Richland, Ridgeland, 95% of Flowood, 90% of Jackson, and 40% of Madison. We’re not expecting to have power restored until September 10, Entergy’s official target date for Flowood/Brandon. We have no communication with the outside world. No television news. Most radio stations lost their towers. No telephones. All but three cell phone towers in the area are gone.”

I lost connection with him three times during the conversation.

“No grocery stores. No hospitals. No gas stations. The one gas station that was open on this side of town ran out of fuel and food and ice this morning. No way to get food or water or Advil, and I have a migraine today, of all days. We can’t drink the water. We’re under a boil-water notice for the foreseeable future. Every stoplight is now a 4-way stop, making driving a pain in the ass. The heat index today is 107.”

I sat down Indian-chief style in the aisle in front of the Oil of Olay and let it all sink in. Probably half the state south of Jackson was in the same boat.

“For now, we have power here at my office, but it comes and goes,” he continued. “All of our food is in the freezer here, too. We have four big water bottles from the cooler that will last us a while. After that, we will have to use boiled water from the swimming pool. I also have purification tablets—remember how everyone always made fun of me for keeping those in my hunting gear? We have four propane bottles and a handful of candles, along with four or five flashlights.”

I’d never heard notes of despair in his voice before. I took in a few ragged, shallow breaths.

“No one was expecting the storm to be this bad. All of our Entergy crews were pre-positioned in the south and only returned this afternoon. It looks like a war zone here. And the National Guard in Jackson is shorthanded. We do have an 8 p.m. – 8 a.m. curfew for the entire Metro area. The few radio stations that are operating are using the emergency broadcast system to distribute notices and alerts.”

Alas, Babylon, I thought. This is the title of a book that tells how people in a small town cope with nuclear war and its aftermath and how, though numbed by catastrophe, they are driven to go on living. I read it as a teenager, and much later, my children read the cleaned-up version as required reading for school. The title became our secret emergency code in a crisis. I got the message that this disaster was one of unprecedented proportions.

“Getting gas is going to be a problem,” my son continued. “I saw a tanker truck on Highway 80 this morning being escorted by Army Humvees and a black SWAT team truck. They stopped all traffic to let it pass. The radio stations are telling everyone to stop driving around because the tri-county area—Rankin, Hinds, and Madison—is running out of fuel for emergency and utility vehicles. It’s becoming a real crisis fuel-wise.”

He and Nicole and their three dogs slept at his office that night, along with a dozen co-workers and friends. They all cooked and ate together.

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