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Katrina

“We’re the richest and most powerful country in the world and we can’t do anything to keep old ladies from dying on cement. For the last five days, we’ve had people dying in front of our eyes every hour, simply because we couldn’t get help.”
- Jack Stephens, Sheriff, Chalmette, Louisiana.
(Quote from an article in “The Los Angeles Times”, 9/4/2005.

I woke up from a dream two nights ago... a dream where a great American city had been destroyed, but the Hero was there (played by Tommy Lee Jones), and everything was all right in the end.

Then I woke up. Life isn’t a dream.

Some things are nearly too big to comprehend. The utter devastation of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the incomprehensible number of dead and displaced, the tragic loss of a city which is also a cultural icon.

“Unimaginable” some say, and yet this very sequence of events has been imagined, in detail, for years. The New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a prescient series of articles, detailing this exact scenario, only a couple of years ago. And the Louisiana congressional delegation have been screaming this information into deaf Washingtonian ears – and yet the budget cuts continued, the levees neglected, and billions of dollars and the National Guard deployed elsewhere.

So many, many personal stories are coming out now. The Los Angeles Times ran a front page article on 9-3-05, detailing how a man named Stan Flint drove from Jackson, Mississippi, 100 miles north of the coast, to Gautier, Mississippi in search of what sounds like dozens of family members... how there were no gas stations or other businesses open for that entire 100 miles... how, when he tried to exit at Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 70 miles north of the coast, he was turned away by a SWAT team... How he eventually made it to the coast and found his family, most of them now homeless, but all of them safe.

I read that story, and thought of my friend “J”, and his sister in Hattiesburg, and how, yesterday, he finally spoke to her for the first time in days. Phone service still wasn’t on at her own home; she was calling from elsewhere. But she is OK. Her family is OK.

I read that article and thought about Gautier, Mississippi.

In 1971, my family went on a vacation to see my dad’s old friends in Gautier (pronounced Go-Chay), just across the river from Pascagoula.

The house we stayed in was right on the coast. We could literally walk from the front porch to a sandy beach, and then go swimming in bathtub-warm Gulf of Mexico water. That visit was all about ice tea, and fried everything, and long conversations on that front porch.

That visit was also about a drive we took along the coastal highway to Gulfport and back again. It had been two years since Hurricane Camille had raged through but the evidence was still everywhere. There were church steeples without churches; there were bits of walls without houses. There were, as I recall, some lots still covered with piles of rubble.

I remember having teenage attitude about everything that year, and yet I remember how seeing these stranded, isolated bits of architecture left me silent.

It sounds like Gautier is gone now. And the much-bigger Biloxi. And dozens of other, smaller communities whose names will make the news briefly, if at all.

When you’re a teenager, it’s hard to comprehend these things. Now I’m decades older. Now I’m thinking about all those people, all the lost, displaced, homeless, dead victims of Katrina. I read the paper, I watch the TV. Some things are nearly too big to comprehend.

Post Script: The Mayor of Hattiesburg, Mississippi was just interviewed on CNN. No power or water for days, lives lost, buildings destroyed. The interviewer asked him his thoughts about FEMA. He laughed. He said, “What’s FEMA?” He made it clear he was being ironic, and then praised the Red Cross and local churches. But FEMA hadn’t yet gotten around to authorizing trucks to carry water into their town.

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