Thursday Sept. 1, 2005
I heard the stories. Refugees were flooding Atlanta. They were snatching up hotel rooms, slowing the airport, clogging the highways. But when I landed in Hartsfield Airport, there were no evacuees, no people on the run with all their possessions slung over their backs in a tablecloth. The airport was crowded--with vacationers. It was Labor Day weekend. The hotels in Midtown Atlanta were bustling--with conventioneers attending the 2005 Dragon*Con, a sci-fi convention for "dorks," as the attendee in my airport shuttle put it.
Friday Sept. 2, 2005
I cabbed it to the Peachtree Dekalb Airport; told the driver to take me to the main terminal. He dropped me off at what turned out to be one of the main terminals. How was I to know? I've never flown on a corporate charter. After a harried phone call to my contact, Bud Trice of Crawford, I hoofed it like a golf caddie, a bag on each shoulder, to the correct main terminal. It's 7:15 a.m., and I'm already sweating.
When we landed in Mobile, Ala., I got my first taste of hell--and my Mustang. Don't get me wrong--I ordered a compact car from the rental car company. But even the rental company doesn't have gas in Mobile. They were forced to give me the only car on the lot with gas: a convertible, spanking-new red Mustang.
The Mustang also got me out of having to drive to Biloxi, Miss. You can't expect the CEO and vice president of Crawford & Co. to squeeze into the backseat of a sports car. So we took their company minivan. CEO Tom Crawford was grilling me and another reporter in our group about car insurance. We better not have minimum coverage, he told us.
I don't know when the good-natured chatter stopped. It could have been when traffic on I-10 crammed into one lane, then no lane. Or it may have been when the road approached Pascagoula and the scene out of our windows went Third World, or when the security forces in bulletproof helmets redirected us toward highway 90, toward the coast.
Nearly 90 miles from New Orleans, we passed through Gautier, Miss. Don't ask me how to pronounce it, but the town's gas stations were twisted from above like something had tried to unscrew them from the ground. Ocean Springs, Miss., Song River, Miss. As we passed through them, it got quieter. On the side of the road, one of the country's biggest chain home-improvement stores had a hole in its front façade the size of most mom-and-pop hardware stores. We're getting closer to New Orleans. The world's getting less and less familiar.
We had to swing back up to I-10, because the bridge into Biloxi coming from the east was supposedly in ruins. Off I-10, we took I-110. I'm sweating, this time from the excitement of approaching Biloxi. I've heard about Biloxi, just as I heard about Atlanta. Would Biloxi be a big disappointment, too? I want to see.
We enter Biloxi. I don't want to see it anymore. It was maimed by the wind. It was raped by the sea. I have been thinking how to describe what I saw in Biloxi. At the time, it was really hard to wrap my heart or my mind around what I saw: the flipped over roads, the foundations with no homes, the beach of garbage, the casino boats on land, the casino hotels teetering into the sea, slot machines strewn about like coins.
I thought about how to describe it--and the clichés poured into my mind like memories of a favorite sitcom--but I could think of nothing better than violence, raping and maiming. I dreamed about this when I slept on a couch in the party room of an apartment complex. That was the only accommodation I could manage. Hotel rooms are as hard to come by as gasoline, maybe harder. I am still sweating.
Saturday, Sept. 3, 2005
I followed around adjuster David Atkinson today, a pro with whom I've traveled before, and the experience calmed me. He's got an air about him that, given time, given the right people, anything can be put back together. He even landed me a hotel room.
And just as I was beginning to feel comfortable in Mobile, to feel like I was in the United States again, Atkinson drove me out toward the Gulf, toward the low, back neighborhoods of town. And we visited the gulf-front seafood restaurant that was hit by a wave that tore the front of it off like a layer of gift wrapping. I talked to the owner, or he talked to me. I think he mistook me for an adjuster, and he rattled off all his woes, especially his broken foot. He showed me around his place. It smelled like maggots were there. He showed me his big toe. It was purple, the nail black.
At least I had my hotel room at day's end. Trying to sleep, I turned the lights off, but the dark was perfect for the projection of memories in my mind. Biloxi. I saw the signs from the people left behind, the people who sat in their front yards with their destruction at their feet. "We are home. No looting. We will shoot." "The South will rise again. Amen." Then spray painted on the top floor of an apartment building down the street from where the casino boat was dumped: "Mom we're OK."
Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005
Another day, another adjuster, more destruction. I met Earl Harlan at the security force checkpoint on highways 188 and 193, and he led me through the armed men onto Dauphin Island. Dauphin Island looked like it was in the process of being built into a pleasant, quiet beach town. The only problem was that it wasn't building, it had been built. And now it was un-built, buried, blown and drowned. The sand had come back to rule.
I say security forces, by the way, because that's the best way to describe the men and women with the big guns. Some are police, some are National Guard, some are officers from the state wildlife bureaus or the feds. Together, they are men and women in heavy uniform with weapons and black sunglasses--security forces.
After Dauphin Island, my adjuster asked me if I really wanted to see some damage. Being a glutton, I said yes, and he took me to Bayou La Batre. We saw a handful of shrimping boats parked in the reeds, stacked neatly like toys put away by a mother. They filmed "Forrest Gump" in Bayou La Batre, Earl told me.
When I got back to the hotel room, "Forrest Gump" was on the TV. What's worse, it's the scene in which Forrest is shrimping and a big hurricane hits the town and destroys everything but Gump's boat. I had shrimp for dinner.
Monday, Sept. 5, 2005
Out of the world of the adjusters, into the world of hurricane modeling firms. I tagged along with some guys from AIR, one of the modeling biggies. Their plan: to make it as far west as they could. We first went to Gulfport. I had wanted to see Gulfport. But it smelled like rotting crabs, dirty kitty litter, dead things, garbage.
While they were doing their damage estimates, the AIR modeling experts--Frank Fischer and Mohit Pande--stopped to talk with a woman who lived, luckily for her, seven or eight blocks in from the water. Her house, though, was "gift wrapped," as she put it, with the mangled roof of a nearby church. But God, she said, had blessed her with a little peep hole in the church roof, space enough for her to squeeze into her front door. "Thank you, God!" she sang and danced.
In Bay St. Louis, we didn't stop to talk to anyone. There were a few people around, but they were there to sweat, stare at rubble, photograph, mourn. Everyone else was gone. No reason for them to be there. Nothing was left of their homes. The businesses that lined the beaches, their remains stood despite the disembowelment they got from the surge.
On my way back to Mobile, alone, after having lunch with Fischer and Pande in the parking lot of an abandoned strip mall, I went back to Biloxi. The AIR guys told me the east end of town was the worst flood surge they'd seen anywhere. Uncertain whether I had seen that the last time in Biloxi, I went back, figuring I wanted to see the worst surge of Hurricane Katrina. Driving through it in my red Mustang, I realized I was an idiot. Storm surge damage all looks the same, no matter how many blocks of homes and businesses it devours.
Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2005
I needed a break from the devastation and the tales of floating bodies. I feel guilty for being able to take a break. I met a reporter from a top consumer magazine at the coffee shop, and she told me this is the first catastrophe she's ever worked where she's gained weight. The Southern food, she said.
Speaking of Southern food, I ate some good vittles for dinner. I met with a couple adjusters to cool down, David and Harry Clinard, and for the most part, we stayed away from the subject of other people's misery. Instead, I learned about buttermilk, cornbread and fried fatback while eating tender pulled pork in a sweet barbeque sauce. It was good to laugh.
They wanted me to eat a biscuit. The waitress agreed: She reckoned I couldn't be in the South without eating a biscuit. My problem was I lived in the South before, darn it, and I never found a biscuit I liked. Until now. This biscuit wasn't like a mouth full of chalk. This biscuit was crisp, and it almost had flavor even without the butter. By the time I get out of this place, you'll be able to slice fatback off me, cure it and fry it right up.
Wednesday, Sept. 7,
What day is it? I traveled with another claims specialist, Gary Callaway, back into Bayou La Batre. It smells worse there, as if the fish were still jumping out of the sea to die in the bushes. The shrimp boats are still in the reeds. If it wasn't for this hurricane, no one other than Forrest Gump would ever know about this fishing hole.
People were kind, though. I met with a few small business owners. Marshall was a hoot, the owner of the fishing gear/general store. The fellas straggling around his place were even more entertaining. One guy couldn't stop telling us to meander down the road, around the 100-year-old oak tree, to where all you can see were masts of the fishing boats deep in the swamp. In one of the boats, he claimed, there was a crew still onboard. They rode out the storm, even after their boat ended up half a mile inland. They were trapped on the ship because they were illegals, he said. People were bringing them out supplies and water.
He also told us about his great aunt in New Orleans who didn't make it to the attic.
Thursday, Sept. 8, 2005
I tried to return the Mustang. I really did. I had a whole reservation set up; I was supposed to drop off the Mustang and pick up another car, a modest, gas-efficient compact, for the trip to Atlanta. But the rental company had no cars--not even cars without gas. No cars. So I put the top down and drove as fast as I could--north. I was never so happy to be in Georgia. Sorry to gloat, but I am going back home.
MATTHEW BRODSKY is associate editor of Risk & Insurance®.
October 1, 2005
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