I desperately brush the rain drops off my camera lens, and point it as hundreds of people falling in line outside one of the only grocery stores still open in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Hurricane Georges is churning in the Gulf of Mexico, and these last minute shoppers make the nervous, yet familiar pilgrimage to the water, battery and canned foods isle.
For long time residents on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, hurricanes, and warnings of hurricanes are as much a way of life, as the changing of the leaves in Maine, or the first winter snowfall in Utah.
As they casually board up windows on their beach front homes, old-timers will often spin you a yarn, about Hurricane Camille in 1969. The storm flattened the Gulf Coast and eventually killed 259 people as it swept inland. "I been through Camille," they'll extol as they hammer rusty nails into warped, plywood, "If I can survive that, I can survive anything."
In 1998, I am, as I've mentioned before, still living in Pascagoula and working for television station WLOX. By now I am somewhat of a fixture, in the practical, blue collar, shipbuilding town. I am in the "bureau," which means I work with one other person outside of the main station located in Biloxi an hour away and, for the most part, am what they call in the business, "a one-man band," that means I run the camera, write the stories and deliver them on air all by myself.
After 2 years I've settled into the Southern way of living, where you accept the sweat soaked work shirt, moistened by the blazing Mississippi sun and accentuated by the humid air that sweeps off the gulf. You understand that parades in Moss Point start 30 minutes late, and your appointment with a city councilman or the sheriff might be delayed, if he finds himself, "visitin'," with an old neighbor after lunch.
As Georges climbs on shore, I am hunkered down in the Jackson County Civil Defense building. The solid, stubby, granite edifice is an immovable rock of a structure, and likely the safest place to be in town. As I gather my gear around me late the first night and lay down on the cold tile, under a banquet table inside the marble facade, I am ever aware of the torrent of rain, powered by 80 mile an hour winds, pummelling the building outside.
Early in the morning, we discover our tiny office, used to transmit stories back to the main station, has been destroyed. "you're gonna have to drive it here," says assignment manager Doug Walker, "we gotta get it on the air."
I am forced to make the hour long trip in a tiny Murcury Topaz, along an expansive extension bridge that towers several hundred feet over miles of Mississippi marshes. The eye of the storm has moved on to terrorize another community but the wind on I-10 is still wild, and the rain still torrential As my partner Amy and I reluctantly load into the news car, we brace for the long terrifying trip ahead. We dodge debris littering the soggy pavement, and pock marked by potholes burrowed into the highway by the passing storm.
Although I am behind the wheel, it is the 60 mile an hour winds that are doing the driving, pushing us frighteningly close to the Jersey barriers of this swaying bridge high above the water below. As we splash over mini-lakes that have formed on the road, I feel the car hydroplane as the tires detach from the pavement, thanks to 7 inches of water and begin to gracefully drift our little car out of control. Fortunately before the vehicle goes into a complete spin the rubber grabs black pavement again and jerk us back onto our path.
there is no talking in the cabin of our car, we only hear the whip of the wind and smashing of the rain. My hands grasp the steering wheel so tightly I fear I won't be able to remove them if we make it safely to Biloxi. As we pull off the towering bridge onto safer ground, Amy and I sigh together and spill out a frantic, jubilant laugh as we hug each other, and Amy drags her index finger under her left eye wiping the tears of fear from her face.
The next day is remarkably clear and cool, as I tour the town. Two-hundred year old oak trees are easily plucked from the soil and mindlessly laid hard on homes. The roof of the elementary school, a place once designated as a shelter for people without homes, has been plucked off. Small boats usually moored in the nearby harbor, are now casually tossed and planted on front lawns and in the middle of Denny Avenue. Homes, entire homes, are gone, swept away by an indifferent storm. All that remains of a dozen houses in the concrete slab on which they once sat.
In Pecan (pronounced Pea can) east of Pascagoula, long time residents paddle in boats down rivers that were once paved streets. I recall interviewing a rough hued southern boy, as he shovels mud out of his kitchen.
We chat about the sand, water levels, and "getting back to normal," when, like a SWAT team storming a drunks motel room after a long stand off, something burst out of the man's kitchen cabinet and onto my host's head. The wet, wild raccoon hugs his matted hair, the ratty mongrel eyes me intently and rabidly as it squawks and squeaks and hisses, I stumble backwards, fumbling my camera, and trying to steady myself against the kitchen counter only to send pots, and plates careening to the ground. "holy hell," I holler, as the man gives me a curious look, then pulls out a dog biscuit from his pocket and feeds it to the beast, "why you all bothered," he giggles, "this here's Charlie, he ain't gonna hurt ya." His laugh starts slow then quickens, becoming contagious as the giggles of 6 other dirty men in the room gather, much like that now passed hurricane, in hysterical laughter at me. "I'm sorry guys," I blurt sarcastically as I pick up my camera and dust it off, "it isn't everyday a 20 pound rodent springs out of the soup cabinet." I say embarrassed , "It is around here!" the man proclaims, as he laughs even louder, his buddies struggling to match his level of hilarity.
For the next week, I will toil daily telling stories about things like the 6 large alligators that escape from a nearby animal refuge and are tormenting power company employees attempting to spark the cities power grid back to life.
Every night I will drag myself home, to a house with no power. Thankfully for me and my roommate, our neighbors have stocked their refrigerators with ground beef, steaks, and sausage Each evening we will gather in the middle of the street for an unplanned party, easing down in weathered lawn chairs, eating and laughing into the darkened night, only to return, flashlights in hand, to dark house and get up the next morning, pull on my slickers, and splash into the salt water for another long, lonely day.