Bringing joy this Christmas to the children most affected by hurricane Katrina through the charitable donation of gifts.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Chapter 1 - The Drive

The sun had finally risen on Saturday morning around the time we got onto Interstate-10. This was "the homestretch". I knew the I-10 portion of this drive like the back of my hand; after all, this was the way home from the beach when I was a child. I was looking forward to the familiarity. In Mobile, Alabama, after a two hour trip to Wal-Mart at six in the morning, we stopped for some nourishment. The Golden Arches were still standing high but the rest of the sign was gone. We thought enough of it to take a picture, but not enough to realize this marked the beginning of what would be a long stretch displaying the wrath of Katrina.

Once we crossed into Mississippi, things became more apparent. Trees were downed everywhere, but that is pretty par for the course in a bad storm. I did take my camera out when I noticed a twisted metal billboard. It was if the top just snapped and was hanging there. We wondered about the forceful wind that took down the sign inviting you to rest for the night with free cable. As we rounded the curve, we noticed that all of the billboards seemed to have followed suit. It was as if they had just bowed down to Katrina. Sitting so high and wide, they didn’t stand a chance. Around Gulfport, we needed to stop and fill up the truck with gas. The sign on the interstate said Chevron was 0.3 miles north and Texaco was 0.3 miles south. Seeing that the Chevron sign was pretty much gone, we took a left to head to Texaco. The truck went over I-10 and rested at the bottom of a hill in a parking lot which used to have a shopping center. The Texaco was now a huge pile of rubble with a little pink shoe. We filled up at Chevron and got back on the road

Around Biloxi, things began to feel as if we were entering a war zone. Katrina left her mark on much more than the trees and signs. Many of the cars and trucks presumably swept up by the storm remained wherever they landed, many of which were right on the side of the interstate. At one point we saw a boat, upside down and tattered, resting comfortably in the median of I-10. We were still limited in the destruction that we could see from the interstate. By this time, the familiarity I had come to know as a child was all but gone.

Once we hit New Orleans, we exited I-10 and proceeded around the city in our Penske. We drove around some of the residential areas for a while just trying to take it all in. Maneuvering the sixteen foot truck was not a problem because there just wasn’t any traffic. Still near I-10, we parked the truck and walked around. Up to this point, we had been driving along with the windows up and the radio blaring. Turning that truck off and opening the doors to a deafening silence was not quite what I expected. Walking down the street, so many of the words from my family and friends came to mind: surreal, indescribable, eerie, ghost town. Steph turns to me and says “it’s like one of those Sci-Fi movies where some disaster swept through town and made time stand still.” It was very much as she said, with the exception of the Sci-Fi part; this was reality. I stood there, in the middle of Elysian Field on a Saturday around noon and there was not a car or person in sight. That, in and of itself was strange, but even stranger was the piercing sounds of nothing all around us. As I was taking photos, I was startled by the noise of a screen door continually slamming against the side of a house.

Looking down the street, Katrina’s mark was everywhere. She took the form of spray paint all over houses letting people know that they had been inspected. She threw trees into cars and cars into homes. She ripped apart living rooms and bed rooms and left their contents in the front yards. She piled up the contents of people’s lives for everyone to see: clothes still on hangers, coffee mugs, trophies and “mom” t-shirts were strewn in front yards. Then, when she was almost done, she left her watermark on everything. It looked as if some great creature took a brown marker and painted a stripe across everything standing on these city streets. Just in case anyone missed the wind damage, Katrina wanted them to know she was there.

The silence followed Steph and I back into the truck as there were just no words worthy of what we had just seen. We cried. She said “a whole town, gone...never to return.” I disagreed. If I know one thing about my fellow Louisianians, they are a stubborn breed. New Orleans will be back. That much I know.

We pulled over again to walk the streets of the French Quarter hoping to regain the spirit of Louisiana. Artists were in the streets, patrons were in the bars, shops were re-opened. The numerous t-shirt shops had new shipments spouting “I survived Katrina”, “The Battle of New Orleans 2005” and some with choice words about FEMA that I shall not repeat. Most places were only taking cash and everyone had hand-written help wanted posters in their windows. We stocked up at Aunt Sally’s and headed to Café DuMonde for some beignets and coffee. Aside from the ethnic make-up of the wait-staff being different than it used to be, the Café Au Lait and three pack of beignets still hit the spot. As we wiped the powdered sugar from our jeans, we were approached by a stranger (not uncommon in Nola). She merely wanted to tell us thank you for coming to her city. She said she was a native New Orleanean and said it was so good to see people coming to her city again. I didn’t have a chance to introduce myself before she had moved on to the next table to thank them as well. That Southern hospitality...that is what will rebuild New Orleans. We got back into the Penske feeling as if we had seen one side of a city: beat down worn and tattered and the other side of this great city proud and determined and ready to move forward.