We’ve been back in Mobile, Alabama, for less than three days and I’m still struggling to find words. The stupid thing is that the damage here is totally insignificant. Yet, it isn’t the damage to the surrounding area and homes and lives that ties my fingers up in knots. It’s the look on the face and body language of the campers here who leave predawn every morning and head out into Mississippi that strangles my creative expression.
They drag in late at night, legs barely lifting their shoes off the ground. They see me and Charlie and they lift their weary heads up and slap on a grin, showing a brave face. They come back here to eat, do laundry, sleep, and rise up again in the morning for another 14-18 hours of battling traffic, desperate people and catastrophic destruction, only to return home, shower, eat, sleep, and return. Shady Acres Campground has become a small oasis away from the crisis, and Charlie and Diane do their best to help out these temporary residents.
While other campgrounds, hotels, and lodging areas have raised their rates, Charlie dropped his. Right now, a week and a half after Hurricane Katrina, his family homestead still filled with water and damage from the 12 foot flooding storm surge along the river, he and his son-in-law are out in the blinding heat and humidity digging ditches and laying water, sewer, and power lines to restore eight new sites still damaged from Hurricane Ivan. They are working overtime to make sure everyone who needs a place to stay has one.
Campers, motor homes, trailers, and pop-ups are crammed in back to back in what are normally huge pull through spots. RVs are tucked in between and around mobile homes, wherever they can comfortably fit, and some uncomfortably. They have had to turn away many because there just is no more room left. So they work overtime to get these broken lots fixed up to accommodate all who need a place to call home for a while.
In my family, when we drive by a cemetery, it’s traditional for someone to ask “How many dead people are buried there?” The appropriate answer is “All of them.” I have started doing the night shift for Charlie and Diane, allowing them to finally get some dinner and decent sleep. Talking to a group of bankers, they asked me how many insurance adjusters and FEMA representatives were here. I said, “All of them.”
The campground hosts a few evacuees, but mostly family who managed to get out to stay with their brother, sister, son, daughter, mother and father who live here. The majority of those staying range from long experienced and battle weary to fresh-out-of-the-training-seminar newbies insurance and FEMA adjusters and investigators.
The newbies arrive with energy to spare, eager to get out there, their eyes clear and bright and their backs straight. Most of them have never lived in a trailer or RV and they are totally clueless about these FEMA or company supplied RVs. They grin and say they are fast learners and we help figure out all the details and differences. Living in an RV might be like taking your home on the road, but it is a totally different way of life and the smallest things you take for granted are different. Still, they laugh at their clumsiness and eagerly await their first assignments, which may happen immediately or within the next few days – as they wait, watch TV, wonder, and anticipate.
The old timers, who have been through Ivan, Frances, Andrew, and other names more familiar to them than their own family names, arrive in battered and worn trailers and campers, or big expensive motor homes. The contrast is amazing. Those who have been through this before, and know the value of the renewal and recharge time between leaving the disaster site and returning is only a few hours – many want the best comforts around them. These are the folks who will use this area as a staging area, moving closer only after the next area has been secured and returned to normal.
Other old timers know what to expect, and they expect to be in the thick of things. They are traveling in the battered and old trailers and campers. Generators, blocks of red plastic gas cans, propane tanks, and huge water cans are strapped and locked onto their RVs with chains, bike cables, and huge locks. They know that their arrival in a disaster area will be an invitation to anyone who thinks you have something worth taking. Many don’t wait for the giving to arrive.
Within a couple of days, the newbies return with hallowed eyes. They slouch more and drag their feet. The oldies, even the long time veterans of FEMA, return haunted. All say the same things.
“I’ve been watching it on television for over a week. Not even close. Not even close.”
“It’s so much worse than you can imagine.”
“The bodies….so many bodies.”
“There is nothing left.”
“Whole neighborhoods are less than rubble.”
“Whole neighborhoods are now in the next neighborhood.”
“The smell sticks to your skin.”
“I’ve been through five hurricanes. This equals all of them added together.”
“Been working in Florida for 20 years worth of hurricanes. Ain’t seen nothing like this.”
“All I want is a cigarette. I can’t smoke there. Everything is covered with oil and gas and toxins. I’m afraid to light up.”
“The smell of mildew and fungus is overwhelming.”
“We are still finding bodies – and they aren’t pretty.”
“Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief – no one was spared.”
“Katrina wasn’t selective. She destroyed everyone and everywhere.”
“The lines of people waiting for help and contributions – they are gasoline waiting for a match.”
“Why are they coming back in? Don’t they understand there is nothing to come back to but death.”
“You got a dead guy story. He’s got a dead guy story. We all got a dead guy story here. Wanna hear my dead guy story?”
“I thought it was a broken tree limb. It was a dead man hanging in the tree.”
“The wheel chair was so twisted around his body, you can’t imagine.”
“I keep telling myself I’m helping, I’m helping, I’m doing something good – just to get to sleep.”
“The media and politicians are spreading blame around – their method of keeping busy. Our method to keep busy is to keep doing, helping, and fixing the people and the area. Let them move their mouths, we’re moving our bodies.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t see any politicians down here with shovels or carrying dead people.”
“What good is blame? Pick up a damn shovel and chainsaw.”
“New Orleans is lucky. It’s still standing. There ain’t nothing standing along the Mississippi coast.”
Every night the men and women come back with stories. All day long, people are talking to them, telling them of their woes and suffering, asking for help, demanding money, pleading for things to be fixed immediately, and even threatening them. They hold hands and give hugs or just stand there when people break down, crying and sobbing, relieved to tell their story. When they come back to the campground, they want to do the talking. They want someone to listen to THEM for a change. Or they just don’t want to hear any voices. No talking. No chatting. No story telling. Just quiet and the numbness of whatever is on television.
For those that need to talk, Charlie, Diane, John, and I just listen. What is the socially correct response to “The bodies were hanging dead from the trees.” I don’t know of one and saying “I’m sorry” or “That’s terrible” just doesn’t work any more. So we listen and nod and know that they don’t care what we say, just that we hear them.
As sad as it is, the reality on the ground is that the most accessible areas get the help first. As Mississippi is healed from the outer edges of its wound towards the middle, the campers here will slowly move closer in. The campground won’t be empty, though. Contractors will begin to use this as a staging areas, helping to direct the flow of repair crews, construction, and rebuilders towards the area. Over time, they will thin out and be replaced by people who have decided that they want to be “close” to home, even if they can’t get to home.
Most will leave to return home when its safe to do so, but some will stay. One old couple here landed here after a hurricane destroyed their home in Georgia years ago. Then they decided to move closer to the coast in Mississippi. Now they are back, their home flooded and damaged by Katrina. They have become unwanted experts in evacuations, flooding, storms, and survival.
Haven’t we all. Haven’t we all.