CAMP SHELBY, Miss. - The plane from Dallas touched down at the Jackson airport at 9 a.m. Friday and I was home, back to the state I was born in and lived my first 35 years.
Back home to the place that novelist and Mississippi native Willie Morris called "Poor old whupped down Mississippi.’’
That description has never been more accurate.
It is now five days since Hurricane Katrina visited her fury on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, turning the picturesque coast cities into endless piles of rubble. As far north as Jackson, 160 miles away, the storm splintered trees, ripped through roofs and unraveled power lines like a kitten playing with a ball of twine.
And there is an edge in those sugary drawls of the Jacksonians, a note of terror, a sense of dread that the worst may be yet to come. And it’s hard to imagine to what crescendo the suffering has reached on the coast, where stunned residents sit among the ruins, hopeless, helpless. Whupped down.
The outer echoes of despair begin at the rental car counter at the Jackson airport. A 40-deep line of would-be customers crowds in on the harried rental agents, desperate for transportation. For some, a car represents a chance to flee the misery to points north. For others, a car is the means of rescuing family members from the devastation to the South.
A major gasoline shortage in the South, created by two pipeline ruptures, has created an added element of misery to the areas along the Gulf Coast. By Friday, rental agents are renting cars with as little as a quarter-tank of gas. By 10 a.m., the agents are trying to turn customers away, not for the lack of cars, but for the lack of fuel.
"We can’t rent you a car. They’re all on empty,’’ an agent says.
"Rent it to me anyway,’’ a customer pleads. "I know a place that has gas.’’
By a stroke of luck, I meet Lt. Col. Terry Knight of the California National Guard. Knight is being deployed as a public information officer at Camp Shelby. Camp Shelby is near Hattiesburg, 70 miles from the Gulf Coast and is the staging area for the National Guard troops dispatched to the Gulf Coast. Knight has secured a rental car with fiveeighths of a tank of gas. He says I can ride along.
As we drive down Highway 49 from Jackson it is easy to note which stations have gas. Lines of 100 to 300 cars are clogging the highway in front of the stations. It is an obvious sign of desperation: The gas supply will be exhausted long before many of the people waiting in line can get their turn at the pump. Yet they wait anyway, clinging to hope alone.
In Magee, Miss., 110 miles from the coast, food and water have joined gasoline as rare commodities. The Wal-Mart Supercenter here is open, but the store is allowing only 20 customers to enter at a time. Sixty or so people wait in line outside the Wal-Mart. A lady nearest the entrance says she’s been waiting over an hour. There are no restaurants open. People buy whatever is available at convenience stores and gas stations.
As we drive south, the landscape begins to resemble some sort of battlefield. Thirty-foot pine trees are snapped in half, laying over power lines. Hattiesburg is just beginning to get electricity in some parts of town now, five days after Katrina’s arrival.
In Collins, Miss., Rusty Lenoir has arrived at a gas station that is only selling gas to military personnel and emergency workers. Lenoir is from Poplarville, one of the many little towns along the Gulf Coast that seem to have simply disappeared into the abyss. He has driven to Collins in his search for gas. His reports are not encouraging.
"Dead bodies washing up everywhere, people arming themselves,’’ he says. "It’s ugly man. You don’t want to go there.’’
I worked 14 years on the coast. And with every mile, a sense of dread washes over me. For I know it can only get worse as I go south.
I should arrive on the Gulf Coast today.
Then, I’ll be home, where I learned my trade. Where my children were born. Where good friends and family are suffering.