Thursday, February 8, 2007

Katrina Story, Chapter 6: Birmingham and Beyond

One week after Katrina, we were back in the car, this time to our soon-to-be host family in Birmingham. By the time we would arrive at our new temporary home two days later, J. (all of 2 years old) clearly had become unsettled by the experience of, well, being unsettled. Over the past week we had driven hundreds of miles and spent the night in six different places. Little J. may have had some idea as to what had happened in Waveland, but that didn't affect him as much as the immediate lack of stability and his world turning upside-down. He began to associate the car with this turmoil and responded by kicking and screaming whenever he needed to be buckled into his car seat. The portable DVD player lost its calming effect (even with some new discs we picked up on the way), and we simply had to endure the noise until he tired himself out.

This would last for the next three months.

On reaching Birmingham (and exiting the car) we felt some semblance of calm for the first time since Katrina. Our host family (father, mother, 23-year old daughter, 21-yr old son, 14-yr old son, and 7-yr old son) were warm, gracious, accommodating, and almost eerily understanding. They let us know in no uncertain terms that, despite our protestations, we were not to consider ourselves a burden to them, and that we were welcome to stay as long as we needed. They asked for nothing in return, other than allowing them to help ease our way. Obviously, we would have none of that, and we tried to repay what we could, helping with groceries and meals and whatever else we could, but in the end, it would never be anywhere close to what we felt we owed this family.

In anticipation of our arrival, they had printed a local news item about previously unknown Waveland. A local pilot had flown his plane down with donated relief supplies, and he described massive devastation, but the specifics were otherwise scant. I was eager to drive in and assess the situation first-hand, and the father shared my sentiment, but how to arrange it?

The next day he came to me and asked if I wanted to drive down tomorrow. He, his oldest son, and I would set off before dawn, spend the day on the coast, and return that night.

The plan was set; I packed a backpack with some essentials, went to bed early, woke a few hours later, and we were off. I brought a notebook to remind me of my mission objectives: survey the office, talk to the hospital CEO about possibilities for returning to practice, visit our house, salvage a few valuables, and bring back Oscar the dog.

Approaching within 100 miles from the coast we saw trees snapped like toothpicks and stripped of leaves. We stopped in a Wal-Mart in Mobile, Alabama for last-minute food and water. Mobile had its fair share of damaged roofs but it had returned to being a functional city. As we continued west on I-10, the extent of destruction seemed to grow with every mile. More and more trees were down, as well as metal billboards twisted and folded in half. From the highway we saw only one or two gas stations open, identifiable by the cars lined up for up to a mile distant. (Thank goodness we took the family's fuel-efficient diesel.) Finally, we reached Exit 13: Highway 603, Bay St. Louis/Waveland. The hotel and gas station at the interstate exit were mangled wrecks of concrete and metal. We were about 5 miles from the main road through town, Highway 90, and another 2-3 miles from the water.

One mile from Highway 90, the National Guard was manning a checkpoint, complete with radio antenna and soldiers with M-16 rifles. Only locals or those on official business were allowed through, presumably to minimize looting; my hospital ID and driver's license were sufficient to let us pass.

We had entered the disaster zone.

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