Saturday, 30 December 2006, Baton Rouge, LA
I can't believe that I forgot about Mississippi! Leaving western Florida, I realised that we had to drive through about 70 miles of Alabama and, for some strange reason, forgot there was then a piece of Mississippi in between Alabama and Louisiana. It was a bit strange but became even stranger still when I went into the welcome centre, after we crossed the border. I asked for information on state parks and was told that there is only one open. The man serving me must have assumed I would be aware of the reason - I wasn't. He spent a great deal of time gathering information on other campgrounds along the 75 mile way to Louisiana that might be of interest to us.
Then I asked him about Antebellum Mansions along the way - our road atlas mentioned some near Diamondhead. He said there were never Antebellum Mansions there, but they were all along the coast and are now all gone. I looked at him in amazement and repeated the words, "All gone?" to which he replied, "yes, in the storm". The light finally came on and I realised that we were about to pass through the coastal section of Mississippi that was annihilated by Hurricane Katrina not much more than a year ago. I started to feel a little bit like an ignorant fool. I don't want to denigrate myself too much, but I felt very sad that I could have forgotten so soon the loss that these people had suffered. We all remember New Orleans, but at the time we were also given a lot of footage of the people of Mississippi, particularly around Biloxi, that just lost everything. The next 24 hours in Mississippi brought home the enormity of the loss to both of us.
We drove on from the welcome centre to the state park, but after looking around the campground we decided that it was just too depressing to stay there. It really looked like it wasn't cared for and the people mostly seemed to be living there, but didn't care much for their surroundings either. The final straw was the bathrooms - they didn't appear to have been cleaned properly for some time and smelt bad. Back toward the freeway we had passed a commercial campground and so we went back there. It was getting too late in the day to drive on without knowing where we would find another campground. The woman at the entrance to Indian Point RV Resort was very friendly and gave us a site in the overflow section of the campground. When we asked if they offered any Good Sam or AAA discounts, she replied that they had stopped offering discounts after 'the storm' as there was too much damage to repair. We could understand that.
As we drove into the campground we noticed that it was full of FEMA trailers which were obviously there for a long time since they were sitting on blocks and had hurricane anchors. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has provided a large number of basic trailers (we'd call them caravans in Australia) for people who were made homeless by Hurricane Katrina. We understood why we were sent to the overflow section - it was the only part left for people who were travelling through. And it was quite popular - the nine sites were almost all occupied that night. The next morning as we were emptying our waste tanks at the dump station, I got to chatting to a man whose trailer was nearby. He told me that his house had been completely blown away by 'the storm' and that he and his wife had lived in the trailer since then. His wife was the very friendly and good-natured person who had checked us in the previous night. He was busy with his pot plants and it made me wonder what sort of a garden he had lost along with his house. It made my heart ache for him and the others like him who had been living a very ordinary life which was so suddenly destroyed. It made me wonder how his wife could appear to be so positive.
Following the advice from the man in the welcome centre, we drove off the interstate 10 and down to Biloxi. He told me that if you drive this section of highway 90 you can see clearly what 'the storm' did. (I also found it strange that all the people we talked to just referred to 'the storm' - not 'the hurricane' or 'Katrina'!) We were unprepared for the magnitude of the disaster that was evident along the ocean front. This hurricane hit in August 2005 and there is still much evidence remaining of the destruction it wrought. In between the concrete pads, that are all that remain of the buildings that once occupied the sites, are some other buildings which are still standing, but barely. Some evidence of the structures which were once there are the twisted steel poles supporting empty signs which used to advertise motels, restaurants, and various shops. But basically, for 3 or 4 blocks back from the ocean, the land is almost completely bare, except for a few large live oaks which resisted the storm surge! Every now and then there is a brand new motel which is open for business. A few have managed to renovate the buildings they had left, but there are still obvious spaces where other wings had once stood. There were several destroyed motels still standing that had curtains hanging in glassless windows and you could see the beds, complete with bedcovers, through the openings. Some fabrics that had been blown outside were hanging in the trees. I saw the remains of a washing machine just lying on the side of the road.
What really surprised us were the new highrises which are being built on the sand along the ocean front. I don't really know how hurricane-proof one can make a highrise, but either these developers are supreme optimists or they have a miraculous way to construct these buildings... There were also a number of sales offices along the road for new highrises which don't even have foundations laid! And in between you even see construction crews working on new low-set timber-framed units - one wonders how sensible that might be? We saw one sign advertising gulf front land suitable for condos, 'directly on the beach', for 4.8 million dollars. This was a row of blocks covered with bare concrete footings and empty parking lots (all that was left from previously booming businesses along the ocean front), right across the road from a motel that had been almost totally destroyed and still stands as a warning that the developers don't seem to be heeding.
The further west we drove, the more the blocks looked like they had been owned by private people who lived there. On some of these FEMA trailers were parked and there was some evidence of rebuilding. Some had a mobile home in the middle of their block so they can "go home". People just seem to pick up and go on with their lives and hope that it won't happen again.
I'm glad we visited Mississippi, and particularly this section of the beach front, and I don't think I'll inadvertently forget about Mississippi again.
If you are interested in seeing more photos of this area, the following websites have lots:
Katrina before-after satelite photos [pop-up!]
GulfCoastNews: Local newspaper - several pages
Private photo album at webshots.com