Friday, March 3, 2006

Recovery encampment, Pass Christian

As Louise has already documented with a photo, we are parked at a destroyed Wal-Mart in Pass Christian, Mississippi, less than a hundred yards from the Gulf of Mexico (map). We have a beautiful panoramic view of the gulf out our front window.

This store was brand spanking new when we passed through here last January. My recollection is that overnight parking, as well as parking for the beach, was not allowed. Now it is home to perhaps a dozen recovery contractors in camps scattered throughout the expansive parking lot. Many are sleeping in their trucks, a few are in tents (and what a curious sight that is, in the asphalt lot), and a lucky handful have small travel trailers or motor homes. One is even living in a school bus, still yellow but with curtains over the windows.

Wal-Mart has done a good job cleaning the property up -- the store is empty of debris and fenced off with a temporary cyclone fence (and isn't that an ironic name for it?), the parking lot is swept clean, and the dead trees have been removed. It is eerily familiar, with the hulk of the store in the background, but the complete absence of light in the parking lot (the immense parking lot lights survived the storm, but the power is off), the ghostly remains of the gas station, and the utter absence of patrons' cars combine with the small circled encampments to give the place the feel of one of those B-grade after-the-holocaust films. Not far from the truth, I guess.

A block to the west can be seen a pair of circus-sized tents surrounded by travel trailers, box vans, and generators, a loosely organized grass-roots feeding operation known as God's Katrina Kitchen. On the horizon to the south we can make out the silhouette of Cat Island.

Yesterday afternoon we walked around the block, which took us half a mile inland as the ground rises gently from the beach. No structures are standing within the first thousand feet from the highway, but as one climbs further a line of partially-destroyed houses slowly gives way to mostly intact structures and then some with either minimal damage or fully repaired. From the highway, though, the scene is endless, utter, and complete destruction. There is not a single intact structure from Gulfport to Pass Christian.

The pictures and video from this area do not adequately convey the enormity of the situation. To the casual observer, it looks as if the storm came through here yesterday, though it has been over six months. Few casual observers will see this, though -- we are on a stretch of highway between two closed bridges (one between Ocean Springs and Biloxi, the other between Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis), the road decks ripped off their piers by the storm. Mississippi has elected not to repair them, waiting, instead, for federal funding to replace them with more modern structures.

Just as well that few people travel this stretch -- there are no services whatsoever. US90 has been mostly repaired and reopened, but the dozens of traffic signals on the route are gone, the empty stanchions a grim reminder of how much infrastructure remains to be fixed. Missing storm drain grates and manhole covers make a stroll down the street a less-than-casual affair. Street lights are working now on the side streets, and there appears to be a network of temporary water mains serving the inland buildings that are habitable.

We saw Mardi Gras beads littering the highway yesterday, and signs prohibiting parking during the parade. We would guess that the celebration here was bittersweet, but clearly well attended. (Which reminds me that our visit to Mobile on Ash Wednesday revealed the scope of the celebration there -- forget New Orleans, I want to go to Mobile for Mardi Gras!)

All in all, a very sobering visit to this part of the gulf coast. It makes us glad that we will be checking in with the Red Cross this afternoon for another, albeit brief, stint.

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