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Friday, September 02, 2005

The View From Barthelme

Frederick Barthelme, writing from Hattiesburg, MS, 70 miles inland.

In Hattiesburg, our Hurricane Katrina was a land-based Category 2 storm with sustained 100-mile-per-hour winds. Our trees were knocked silly, shingles and even whole roofs were lifted off buildings, stores were blown out as if bombed, old buildings collapsed, gas stations were mauled. But mostly what I see now, in the aftermath of the storm, is people driving around in their S.U.V.'s, going slowly, as if on parade, witnessing the drama. If New Orleans, post-storm, is a new third-world country, Hattiesburg is more like an old bombing range the Air Force recommissioned in the last 15 minutes.

Hattiesburg is today home to 50,000 or more evacuees. I'm making up this number, but it can't be far off. We're right on the main routes north out of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. People who are hopeful or tired or just don't know much about hurricanes think it's safe to stop here. It isn't, of course. We have our own dead - not so many as the coast or New Orleans, but just as dead.

Here too, at the Mississippi-Tennessee border, we have refugees as well. One of the local churches close to the Square has been set up as a Red Cross shelter. Those of you who are in Mississippi or within close enough distance to do so, they need money, canned food, and volunteers, toiletries. Back to Barthelme:
Without power and water, Hattiesburg becomes a sweat palace, a 100,000-person sauna, and everyone who can be in his or her car is in his or her car, where the air, thank God, is still conditioned. At least as long as the gas holds out, which, from the look of things, isn't going to be all that long. By Thursday afternoon the lines at the pumps are beyond silly, past ludicrous, all the way to ridiculous. Yesterday you waited three hours if you were lucky. Today it's six hours, and a line of 200 cars circling up an off-ramp from Highway 59. And the word is that the government - federal, state, city, who knows? - is taking over the gas allocation tomorrow.

But if they have the gas, the people are out touring the devastation - four, five sometimes six to a car. Most beautiful among the sights are the great downed trees, bringing a stately majesty to our streets, something like what the sculptor Mark di Suvero might have done in his heyday, which I don't quite remember now. He is the guy who made art out of giant tree trunks and he would be happy here today. The avenues are littered with exquisitely poised trees - tilted, angled, jilted, twisted, spun, splintered, bent over, transformed by the storm into great barricades, graceful arches, lovely bridges over roads. It's as if God got tired and tossed a God-sized handful of these 80-foot pine trees, pick-up-sticks fashion, on our town.

The good news was that the storm came in the daylight, when you could at least see as your house was about to be crushed by falling timber (mine, fortunately, was relatively unscathed). Early Monday morning, when those "outer bands" that the TV announcers like to remark on hit us, the power was still on, so we had the TV to guide us, to hold our hand, to show us the infrared, convection, visible satellite imagery, radar and other views, all of which we took in somberly, all of which seemed to say that we were spectacularly badly placed for the hurricane's passage north.

As I'd mentioned with the superficiality it deserves, Katrina came through up here as well doing relatively no damage at all. Our power was back on the next day, and aside from losing some trees, the effects paled in comparison.
The Gulf Coast is a wreck. It looks like that documentary film you always see about the power of the atom bomb, everything just blown away, houses reduced to debris, a rubble-land, buildings razed as if by one of the companies that do that for a living. And the Mississippi Gulf Coast casinos, which are, by ordinance, floating things, three-story barges heaped with gaudy neon, have been tossed like the fat cats they are up onto the shore, crushing everything in their path.

One, the Grand Casino in Gulfport, with which I have a dark history, got its just desserts when it was thrown into the middle of Highway 90. There it sits, in the helicopter footage, like a big useless slab of suet, bringing its many benefits to the state. The nastiest remark I heard was from someone who, on hearing the bad luck of the casinos being destroyed, said that they were all no doubt insured to the gills, and that they would probably make money on this, too. Too, he said. He was a man after my own heart.
You know they will. Go read the whole thing. It's worth your time.

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