A day of Katrina-scapes
Monday, December 3
Today we're headed for a visit with our friends John and Melinda Leach, who live in Grand Bay, Alabama west of Mobile. I'm looking forward to seeing the Gulf Coast at last, but uncertain as to how much damage we'll encounter. There is also a question as to whether or not all the bridges are open. And this more than two years after the storm!
We got on the road early and the road was rough. Almost immediately there were reminders of the damage.
Not having seen this landscape before the hurricane we had no basis for comparison, but it's clear something happened here. It's equally clear it was something bad. There's a surreal quality to the landscape now.
Some places are so clean and restored that for a block or two you can imagine nothing ever happened. Then suddenly in the midst of this normalcy you come to a place so utterly destroyed you can only stare in shock. Like so much in life it all comes down to money. Those who had it are making a recovery, and those who didn't are poorer than they ever were before.
We stopped for gas in Slidell, and a friendly guy at the next pump gave me directions to Highway 90 and the drive across Mississippi and the Gulf Coast to Alabama. He told me the gas station where we were standing had been under seven feet of water. He said all the bridges are open now, but one just opened and all of them are limited to two lanes while they are under construction.
I asked him what had happened to them, thinking that since they are concrete and steel maybe only the approaches had been damaged by the flooding. He shook his head and said, "They were all blown down!"
Armed with this information we continued east and a short time later we crossed I-10 and picked up Highway 90 to the coast. After several miles of scrub pine forest we got to the beaches and eventually the water.
When you reach the beaches the damage is less apparent because your attention is drawn to the water and sand. At first you think not much has changed - until you notice the railroad bridge has large pieces missing and a lot of trees are broken off. The boardwalk is still torn up and blocks and blocks of beach housing are gone with nothing left but the slab foundations. Traffic signals are blown off their poles, and the pedestrian walkway that used to take snowbirds over the highway to the beach is gone. And come to think of it - where are the snowbirds?
We were getting hungry and according to one of Madolyn's books there was supposed to be a good restaurant across the street from the marina in Pass Christian. The book was written before Katrina of course. The building is gone now.
There was a bar and grill in a new building and we stopped to check it out but it was closed - so we settled for taking pictures of the shrimp boats instead. There are great differences in fishing boats from various parts of the country, but the marina's they live in look pretty much the same wherever you go.
Back in our RV we headed down the road and a few miles later we saw the first of many little Waffle House's. It was a brand new brick structure and we stopped and went in. The main drawback to Waffle House is that they allow smoking in a place so small you can't get away from it, even in the non-smoking section. But they have pretty good ventilators so it was tolerable.
Their food doesn't look as good as the pictures, but it's quick and it tastes good so we actually enjoyed it. From then on we started seeing a brand new little Waffle House about every three miles. Waffle House's seem to be the fireweeds of the south - the first things to sprout and recover after any natural disaster.
There is still so much devastation it's hard to believe the hurricane hit over 27 months ago. Everything is either new or destroyed. There is nothing in between and when the work is finished the whole town will be all of the same age. There will be no continuity between it's past and it's present. It's very newness will be evidence of it's history though, and a constant reminder that it could happen again at any time. With the oceans warming any summer could bring a storm to flood it and blow it all away again.
Naturally the casinos get up and running first - even before the Waffle House's. We passed two stainless steel pieces of 'art' calling attention to the Ohr-O'Keefe Museums of Art, but they had to have been placed there since the storm or they'd be up in Rhinelander, Wisconsin by now. A storm would love playing soccer with two big hollow metal balls like these.
The museum building that stands behind them is so twisted and distorted that at first I thought it was a piece of sculptural architecture. But the rust, the empty windows and the gutted interior all made it clear what did the sculpting. A good deal of art was lost as the storm went about creating it's own.
At last we got to the bridge out of town, the latest one to open and still under construction. Crossing the new bridge you can see what is left of the old ones. On the other side there was no sign welcoming us back to Alabama, so either we weren't welcome, or the sign is in Rhinelander too - maybe both. Beyond the bridge is Alabama where the scenery started getting marginally better.
A short ways farther we entered the town of Gulf Springs and there we turned off the highway to check out the Gulf Islands National Seashore park. There is a long road in to it and while the forest shows obvious signs of loss and disruption, many trees there survived the storm. The woods here are an interesting mixture of deciduous trees showing some fall color, non-deciduous pines and semi-tropical plants like palmettos.
We watched a good video on the Gulf Islands and had a nice chat with a very friendly and helpful Ranger. Then we took a walk and a drive out to two of the viewpoints which are still quite serene and beautiful. We saw kites and an egret who was too shy to have his picture taken.
From the park it was only a few more miles to Grand Bay and we found Melinda's and John's place quite easily. It is out in the country and they have 30 something acres, some of which is in cotton and pecans. There is another field of very tall cotton across the street and it is quite colorful and inviting. They greeted us warmly, fed us and we had a nice evening visiting and catching up and getting to know John better. He is a fine man. They offered us electricity and water if we needed it, and a nice place to park right on their lawn.