Monday, May 21, 2007
My mother-in-law lives in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi in the depths of the Deep South. Three of the past four years we visit her during Mother's Day week. She gets us a condo, on the beach, in Gulf Shores, Alabama and we spend the week steps from the Gulf of Mexico. The beach there rivals any beach I've been to in Florida (Florida is only five miles away), California or the Caribbean. The sand is powder white and the water has that iridescent green/blue hue not found any where north of Cape Hatteras. The week is a chance for my wife and her mom to reconnect and its give my kids a chance to get to know their "Nana".
Nana moved down south 20 years ago when her then husband retired from the railroad. After visiting some friends in Mississippi they decided to move there enticed by the mild winters and the low cost of living. Since living there she has been divorced, remarried, divorced again and now lives with her current boyfriend Chuck. She bought the bar she was working in, Benignoes, about ten years ago. When Hurricane Katrina's eye wall passed directly over "The Bay" 21 months ago and sucked most of the town into the Gulf, her house and bar survived intact. For months after the storm, her bar was the only watering hole available for 30 miles in any direction.
We were vacationing in Maine in late August of '05. On Sunday morning as we were getting ready to go to the pool I was watching the news and saw that Katrina was making a beeline for the gulf coast. I told my wife to call her mother. Her mother was in the process of getting out of town. She spent the storm in northern Mississippi and upon hearing that the Gulf Coast was completely destroyed she drove north to Massachusetts. She spent five weeks living with us, getting daily updates from her boyfriend who had gone back to Bay Saint Louis the day after the storm to assess the damage, help look for missing people and slowly start the rebuilding process. When she received word that things were livable (meaning running water, electricity and dead bodies not being found indiscriminately) she asked me to accompany her on the ride back to "The Bay". We drove 14 hours, spent the night in Virginia, then got up at 6 AM so we could make it to her bar for "Happy Hour". As soon as we entered northern Mississippi we could see some wind damage, uprooted trees and downed road signs. As we got closer to the coast the damage increased. By the time we reached the coast it looked like "Nuclear Winter". There were no leaves on the trees, most were bent or broken in half. There were rows and rows of empty slabs were houses once stood. There were parking lots full of tents and trailers housing relief workers. The smell of burning wood was in the air as the only way most could clear the rubble from their lots was to burn it. One lot we drove by a few blocks from her bar was filled with refrigerated trailers I found out was being used to store dead bodies that hadn't yet been claimed or identified. We headed into her bar for "Happy Hour". The bar was full, the silence spoke volumes.
I spent three days there in Bay Saint Louis and with the exception of an occasional drunken ride through town to survey damage I sat in her bar drinking and listening. Stories about seeing lifeless bodies stuck in trees thirty feet in the air after the water receeded back into the gulf. Stories about standing on rooftops for hours waiting for help. Stories about sifting through rubble looking for some semblance of normalcy. The story most heard was that of insurance companies that were not paying claims because people didn't have flood insurance, even though they all had hurricane insurance. The faces of the bar patrons had lifeless, blank expressions, but their eyes had a panicked look as if they were replaying horrific scenes over and over in their head. The eeriest scene I encountered was when I left the bar a half hour before the ten o'clock curfew and drove down some streets near the beach and saw lot after lot of people huddled around barrel fires, some holding shotguns. Its what I imagined it would be like after the apocalypse.
I flew back to Massachusetts out of Gulfport at 6 AM on a crystal clear morning. I had a connecting flight to Haftford from Houston, so we flew directly over "The Bay" on our western flight over the gulf coast. The sun was just coming up as we made our ascent. Flying down the gulf coast you could see damage from the air. When we got to "The Bay" it looked as if God had taken a broom and swept a swath ten miles long and a mile inland directly into the gulf. It was the worst damage discernible by air from Gulfport to Houston which included a flyover of New Orleans which was still covered by water.
21 months later the place is still a mess. Insurance claims still have yet to be settled. There is still an eerie silence where you would expect to hear the sound of hammers and saws. My mother-in-law has done alright. She has opened up a second bar on land that was being leased to another bar by the railroad. The couple that owned the other bar gave my mother-in-law the lease as they were leaving the town for good, never wanting to relive the horror of another hurricane. She rebuilt on site and the new bar is called the "Rusty Rail".
Our visits the last two years since the hurricane have been bittersweet. We travel from one of the most depressing places in the south, Bay Saint Louis, to one of the nicest, Gulf Shores and then back to "The Bay". I like to think that our yearly visits provide a sense of normalcy and stability to my mother-in-law's life. She is talking about buying a condo in Gulf Shores at the same place we go for our yearly visits; that will be her "get away" from the troubles in "The Bay". As long as there are hurricanes, there will never be a sense of normalcy or stability in "The Bay".