We drive the last 40 miles of our trip on I-10. At first nothing seems amiss at all. I know we're not far from the coast, there should be something. But it's dark. The first indicators are subtle. Highway signs are bent and twisted. But little else seems amiss.
But as we pull off and drive into Biloxi things start to take shape. The first thing we see are the dozens of cheap signs, the kind you see at offramps advertising cheap hot tubs and insurance for the self employed. These advertise contractors. We are passed by about a dozen trucks on the way down. Then the banners. "We're open!" they cry. "Now Hiring". Further on there's a crumbling strip mall. The corner of the Quizno's subs is a pile of bricks. Then the tree trunks, all hacked off. Mosts business signs that were on poles are twisted and broken. It's strange. I have never been in a disaster area. But despite this damage there are lights, people, businesses are open. It seems somewhat normal.
We locate the church that houses Hands on USA. The front is the chapel. The rear building is the operations center/clinic/crash space/dining hall. We walk in and its dead quiet. There's a meeting going on. People are making reports, relating what they saw or what might need to be done tomorrow. A young woman sees us and tells us to get some chow. The guys from the airforce base cooked dinner tonight so it was served earlier than usual. We hastily make something like a burrito and sit down. The meeting is wrapped up.
The woman returns with some papers. She asks us where we're from and how long we're staying. They she gives us a paper outlining the groups mission and then asks us to fill in the release form. Let me tell you that this waiver was one big flashing caution sign. It said that we acknowledged that what were doing was dangerous. That we would be in dangerous places working with dangerous tools operated by volunteers. We might be far from medical help. We might be injured, maimed or killed. Were we okay with that?
"This thing says we could be subject to every danger known to man except tooth decay and smiting by the God of the Israelites"
"Smiting is in paragraph 4" she smiled.
We signed and then got a tour. The building is a plain steel box, half of which is filled with clothing, toiletries and other supplies that are distributed locally. There are tables, some couches, a kitchen. There's a shower inside with hot water but showers were limited to 4 minutes. They had McGuyvered showers outside as well. Not very warm, but you can spend more time in them.
A loft that runs around the room has room to put your air mattress or small tent. The other option was camping in the field behind the ops center. More privacy. We opted for that.
We were introduced around. I remember no ones name but that doesn't bother anyone. People are in and out all the time. Most seem young and a few old hands round out a group of maybe 50. When they hear I have a van and tools they are delighted. I'm told I'll be a 'termite', someone who works with the tree removal crew. They look at Rossana. I decide to end any debate about if she can hack it. "She doesn't run a chainsaw but she's stronger then me."
"Okay, we meet at 7am for breakfast and try to get out on the road by 8. We have a lot of work tomorrow. All hands on deck" he says.
I look at our escort. "We normally have 3 outside crews and three inside crews and several crews back at base or working with the salvation army. But we can't keep up with the new requests for help. So tomorrow everyone is going out. It will be our busiest day yet."
"Fantastic" I smile. I'm still stiff from trying to go to the gym and from 2 days of driving.
We set up the tent and I make a call to Vlad, (a friend from the SCA) who had lived in the area until Katrina destroyed his house. He was back in town and he and his wife were in new base housing. (Vlads wife is in the Airforce, stationed at Kessler AFB). In fact, he said, we were only two blocks from his house. Why not come over?
Now I enjoy camping, but we will have plenty of time to rough it later, and Vlad was offering his spare room for the night. We drove over and spent the night catching up with them. It was strange. The last time I had been to Vlads house was when he was living in a sprawling place in Detroit. It had been packed with ornate furniture, swords, sconces. Vlad must have been a wealthy nobleman in a former life and his tastes run to the theatrically Baroque. But now he had whatever he could salvage from the old place wedged into the tiny 3 bedroom apartment. Vlad had also been insured, so he was replacing his destroyed furniture, but the massive credenza, desk, dining table etc were not coping well with the constraints of the 20th century utilitarian architecture. He needs a place to live, but the market is insane right now. And he things it would be better to build. Nothing remains of the grand old homes that used to line the beach. Nothing is left of many of the the Casino's that fed the states coffers. It will be at least a year before things are back to some semblance of normal. But he and his wife seem quite content to stay and are even planning of bringing his parents down.
I'm off to bed now. 6:30 comes damn early.