8/29/13 Katrina and the Land Mass

It seems like a lifetime ago. It seems like yesterday.

Eight years ago today, Hurricane Katrina made her way on shore, aiming dead-eye at Waveland and Bay St, Louis, Mississippi, or a part of the land mass the exists between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, as Mississippi was referred to on many national news broadcasts at the time. This still irks me.

When talking about poverty, it’s easy to refer to Mississippi by name. When talking about our racist and Jim Crow past (we Mississippians acknowledge this), the word “Mississippi” slips effortlessly and frequently off tongues. When talking about poor public schools, illiteracy, teen pregnancy, obesity, and anything negative, “Mississippi” is easy to say.

Yet, when Katrina devastated everything South of Interstate 10 East of the the Louisiana border to West of the Alabama border, Mississippi became known as the land mass between New Orleans and Mobile. Of course, in the world of media, the operational motto is “If it bleeds, it leads,” and the flooded New Orleans 9th Ward and the fiasco in the Superdome certainly made for good press.

“There are dead bodies in there,” one temporary resident of the Superdome said.

There were dead bodies in the land mass, too. And flooded homes, and homes reduced to concrete slabs, and places where even the concrete slab was gone. From Pascagoula to Waveland, the coastal counties of the land mass were devastated, and the destruction did not stop there. We had hurricane force winds as far north as my home in Porterville, some 150 miles north of the coast, and widespread power outages, even in parts of the land mass as far north as Columbus and Starkville.

The media seemed to skip most of this, focusing on New Orleans, which certainly had its share of trouble. While the media continually led with stories of people demanding the government do something for them, that government had failed in its duty to protect them, feed them, and provide them with comfort and safety, people in the land mass, many of whom had likely spent the last 24 hours in the water clinging to trees, set about helping themselves, retrieving what was left of their possessions from the battered remnants of their homes, cutting downed trees to provide access to emergency vehicles, and marshaling whatever assets they could beg, borrow, or steal to serve their own needs and the needs of their neighbors. When the government did show up, they showed up with thousands of clerks and mountains of applications, and some bottled water. I think the folks appreciated the bottled water far more than they appreciated the paperwork.

I am not saying that government didn’t offer some assistance to land-massers during that time. My father and my step-sister were furnished with FEMA trailers that took six weeks to connect and be certified for occupation after they were set up in their yard, and then, they had to attend an eight-hour “trailer-living” class before being given the keys. I suppose they thought that people from the land mass were not capable of figuring out things for themselves; we needed to be educated by expert government contractors on how to sleep in a camper.

“This is the refrigerator and this is the microwave,” said the FEMA certified expert camper-living education contractor to my step-sister, Teresa, in her new FEMA furnished camper home in Gautier, Landmass. “You put things in the refrigerator that you need to keep refrigerated, or keep cold,” he said, adding, “And the microwave is used to cook food.”

“My, my . . . what will they think of next,” Teresa said sarcastically to the FEMA certified expert camper-living education contractor.

“This,” he said, pointing to the bed, “is the bed. This is where you will sleep.”

“We had one of those before Katrina floated it off somewhere,” said Teresa. “I think I can remember how to sleep on one of those. We’ve slept on the soggy upper level floor for six weeks, but I do recall how to use a bed. Thank you for reminding me, though.” As the FEMA certified expert camper-living education contractor was leaving, Teresa smiled and waved and said, “Bless his heart.” Ever the angel, that Teresa.

My dad got one of those, too, as did my cousin Tammy, my friend Debra Jean, and others I knew that lived in their same subdivision. They all had endless papers to sign, including one that said they had been properly trained and now understood how to flush the toilet. It was, perhaps, the first flush toilet that many people from the land mass had ever seen.

All that existed in the town of Waveland was a whole string of FEMA trailers. Some  FEMA certified expert camper-living education contractors made millions of dollars from all the sub-contractors, sub-sub-contractors, and sub-sub-sub contractors, as well as the various clerks who went out and had the paperwork executed, each piece of paper having a different clerk. Most of these expert clerks had been imported from other places as folks who lived in the land mass were too busy to work the good-paying part-time jobs since they were still picking up their belongings, or returning the soggy, moldy belongings of others that they found in their yard.

“There is a small to medium-size container ship aground in my living room,” my father said, thinking he was speaking to the FEMA Land-Mass relief Coordinator. “Could someone come and retrieve it?”

“For English, press one, please. Para Espanol, numero dos, por favor,” the FEMA Land Mass Coordinator said. Daddy gave up after a while, having to decide on remaining on the phone, waiting for a real person, or the necessity of going into the camper and using his newly acquired camper skills to successfully navigate the toilet. Nature had her way, just like it did with Katrina. Besides, a small to medium-size container ship in your living room is not really a major inconvenience. It could wait a few more days.

And me?? What did I do in the aftermath of Katrina while so many members of my land mass family had lost everything? I was helping to restore power to others in the land mass who had none. I was working, doing what it is that we do for a living. We were at the Naval Air Station in Meridian, putting back up broken power poles, stringing new conductor, and restoring electrical service to the United States Navy, where a huge Katrina materiel marshaling effort was being put together, and installing temporary high-voltage and secondary voltage connections to the hangar in the flight operations area that was being converted into a temporary hospital for all the folks from New Orleans who were being evacuated from New Orleans’ Charity Hospital (Remember that one? This is where some doctors euthanized some patients who were too sick to be moved). I remember working for days to restore power to this part of the land mass, and building all the temporary services to feed electricity to the dozens and dozens of FEMA temporary offices all set up there, each one filled with dozens of FEMA desks, FEMA chairs, FEMA fax machines and telephones to nowhere, and FEMA computers, with thousands of FEMA file cabinets, and hundreds upon hundreds of FEMA employees and the employees of FEMA contractors. The tarmac at the hangar had over three thousand 18 wheeler trailers filled with supplies. Many of them had ice but there was no power to keep the reefer units running, so the ice melted. Anyone from the land mass could have told them that the ice was perishable and needed to be delivered, forthwith, to someone who could use it. The FEMA folks didn’t think to ask us what we thought, after all, we were merely land massers.

I remember when the first (and only) C130 plane landed at NAS Meridian carrying the sick people who had been evacuated from New Orleans. A total of twelve patients walked down the steps under their own power, each escorted by a nurse, or nurse’s assistant, or orderly, and walked into the FEMA Mobile Hospital triage area, and from thence were escorted into the newly operational FEMA Field Hospital. Of the 125 beds in the temporary hospital, all they ever used were the twelve for those twelve patients, who resented having to be in a bed, and mostly sat outside and watched all the activity and smoked cigarettes, occasionally asking one of our workers if they could bring them in some beer the next day. We never left to be able to bring anyone anything. We slept in navy barracks when we got to sleep, and ate in the Navy Mess when we ate. The NAVY was a gracious host and saw that we lacked for nothing. The FEMA folks were not quite that way, though.

I remember being ordered by a FEMA person to stop what my crew was doing and to immediately come and get a generator hooked up for his personal office. This was before land power was restored. I declined to do so, whereupon he flashed his FEMA badge and ordered me to do so, again, this time in the name of FEMA. I declined a second time and kept right on doing what I was doing.

“You don’t understand,” he shouted, “I am with FEMA and I am ordering you to hook up the generator that is supposed to be feeding my office trailer. I have important work to do and can’t get it done because you land massers don’t understand just who you’re dealing with. I am the FEMA regional coordinator.”

“And I am in charge of this crew, and the guys you see here are working for me, and we are all working for and at the direction of East Land Mass Electric Power Association,” I said. “I am not working for FEMA. If you can go and get East Land Mass Electric Power Association to come and tell me to immediately stop what I’m doing and hook up your office trailer, I will come and do it immediately. Short of that, and on behalf of all the men you see working here, you can kiss our collective ass.” I was not ugly or irate when I said this, and think I said it very politely, but he seemed to take great offense at my declining and suggestion and rushed off with his cell phone in his hand, furiously yet futilely dialing, getting no answer since cell phones weren’t working yet, either. I suppose he thought his FEMA credentials would make his cell phone work when there was not an operational cell phone tower for a hundred miles. It could be that the laughter of my men irked him like a sand spur under a horse’s blanket. We kept on doing what we had been instructed to do by those who were paying us. I never saw the FEMA regional coordinator again. We may well have and most likely did hook up his office trailer, but he must have been busy with other things. I kept an eye out for him, but he was likely somewhere else flashing his badge. Even a land masser knows that you have to serve the people who are paying you.

That is enough about Katrina. I hope we never see the likes of her again. Well, we’ll never see a Katrina again, since that name has been retired, but the likes of her . . . you can count on that. Maybe not this year, or next year, but sooner or later, the likes of her will bear straight down on the land mass. If the levee along the New Orleans’ Industrial Canal that runs from Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River had not failed, the land mass might have gotten more attention. But the levee failed, as all levees must eventually do when the conditions are bad enough, and New Orleans had a rough go of it. But so did folks in the land mass . . . those in Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, Gautier, and Pascagoula.

From deep in the heart of the land mass, I am wishing you all a good day. Today, there is not a sign of the formation of a tropical cyclone in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, or the Atlantic. Tomorrow? Well, tomorrow could be something completely different. We folks in the land mass know about this.

In fact, we land massers know more than we’ll admit, particularly to those who think they need to teach us how to flush a toilet.

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