Reporter's Notebook-Driving Through Katrina's Wake

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Like most reporters who came to the hurricane stricken states, I was taken aback by the extent and violence of the damage that followed Hurricane Katrina. Growing up in South Florida, I have been through more storms than I can remember. But as CU Journal readers can see for themselves with the accompanying photographs on pages 26 and 27, seen from the ground the destruction is much worse than on television.

Driving west out of Pensacola on I-10 was easy until about nine miles east of Moss Point, Miss., when traffic was cut to one lane as the bridge ahead was damaged by Katrina. Along the way I passed military convoys, cops, Red Cross trucks and a Boy Scout troop in three SUVs carrying their own batch of relief supplies.

As is often the case with most reporters, what really stays with you is the people you meet and how they reached out to help one another. Far from being rude or short with people, the good folks of Mississippi stuck with their traditional Southern manners even with strangers, i.e., me.

Walking into the Pascagoula, Miss., Wal-Mart, for instance, the woman working checkout counter No. 2 looked me straight in the eye and welcomed me. On the way out, two Coast Guardsmen were pushing shopping carts with more food and supplies than I thought could fit into one. Just as they were about to leave the store a woman called out to them and said she needed to see their receipts. Even after the largest storm to hit the United States and the large effort by the U.S. military, in Mississippi, even the U.S. Coast Guard has to show proof to get out of the local Wal-Mart.

In Biloxi, Miss., I stopped at a large shopping center parking lot that had nearly an acre of donated clothing, shoes and home supplies just sitting in the hot sun. People were quietly going through the piles taking what they needed and driving away.

Far from a looting situation, people from around the country were sending in tons of supplies, so much so that distribution was a problem, so it was set on the ground for all takers. What struck me first was the pile of shoes. It reminded me of the discoverers of the Titanic who knew they had the ship when they found old leather shoes that don't deteriorate in cold water. I wondered who didn't need them anymore and who in Mississippi needed them desperately.

An older woman was stuffing her SUV with anything she could use. I spoke to her, and she told me how hard it was and how she lost 11 pounds in the heat during the first week.

"My power came on and that fan started to move and I told God I was thankful and I would never ask for anything ever again," she said.

She told me she was taking clothes for her neighbors who were too old to leave their homes. The remaining clothes she placed in her front yard for any and all takers. She had made several trips as a one-woman relief agency, but she did seem a little embarrassed that she had to resort to this method in the modern world. I asked her for her name but she declined to provide it.

"You can call me 'the willing worker' cause that's what I am," she said with a smile.

I went to the same Moss Point gas station more than once because I liked them, quite frankly. They weren't gouging people on prices; gas was nearly a half-dollar cheaper than back home in South Florida. As I placed a pint of bottled water on the counter I told the owner I'd pay five bucks for it after a hurricane in South Florida.

"Why?" she asked in her soft Mississippi drawl. "Heck, we haven't even raised gas prices since the storm."

In tiny D'Iberville, it looked as if a giant had walked through the streets, its feet crushing houses and businesses with every step. I can't say how odd it was to see a pile of 20 television sets sitting out by the road for trash pick up. On the other side of the street, three young boys were holding signs that read "FREE SUPPLIES." They waved at me like crazy so they could get needed supplies to someone else.

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