It Was Such a Pretty Name

Katrina. I'm on the one available computer in the La Quinta Inn in Prattville, Alabama, just north of Montgomery. Most of the guests are, like me, refugees. I don't know at what point you get to apply that word to yourself without being guilty of hyperbole, but that point is fast approaching.

We arrived last night after a nasty couple of days. Coming from Laurel—NE of Hattiesburg, SE of Jackson and about 100 miles from the coast—we were elated when half an hour past the Alabama line we found a working gas station with little traffic. Until that point, we'd seen few gas stations open and the lines were 20-30 cars long. From Laurel past Meridian, one, sometimes two lanes were clear, with one lane often covered with felled pine trees.

Which pretty much describes Laurel itself. Yesterday, before we decided to run for it, we'd driven around north Laurel (a city of ~15,000) and seen few buildings down. Lots of roof damage, a few crushed cars, but mostly felled trees—on roofs, in yards, in roads. It's that latter category that made much of Laurel impassable. Old Bay Springs Road, which runs in front of the family home, was littered with pines, two of them from our property, both of which helped bring down innumerable power and telephone lines. Down the side street, transformers threatened incautious passersby, and catty-corner to our house a big old sycamore reclined against our neighbor's porch, dead.

Our yard (2.5 acres) was a game of pick-up sticks. Approx. 20 large pines were down, one of them blocking an entrance to the house, one providing an unwanted entrance to a shed, two blocking either end of the semicircular driveway, a few napping against the garage (the car "safely" on the other side) and the rest providing a surfeit of firewood for a passing Union army.

But trees are nothing compared to power, and power to water, and water to life. Our two-story house is big and old and sturdy, so we weren't too worried about dying. I say "too" because the eye wall passed near or over us (we missed the eye, unfortunately), spawning a fair share of short-lived tornadoes, which I suspect are responsible for the shredded homes you see on TV news.

But we were worried about power, and not enough about water. By the time we got up Monday morning, the power was already out. The water followed at noon, when the storm was throwing a tantrum in town. I'd meant to clean out one or more of the bathtubs and fill it with water, but they were so filthy (no one lives there now) and littered with dead bugs that I put it off till morning (we'd arrived anxious and tired that evening after a six-hour drive). While we were dithering about heading north (was it more dangerous to drive or to stay? the wind was getting harsh then), I filled up as many pitchers and bowls as I could find. Good thing, too, because the water stopped flowing around noon. I'd stayed in that house during hurricane Frederick, which was a strong storm, and we'd gone without power for all of a day and hadn't had a water shortage, so I didn't think the aftermath would be unbearable.

I was wrong. As the next day made clear, we were facing 1-6 weeks without power (more likely a month), in 90-degree late summer heat, with no running water for an indeterminate length of time and dwindling supplies of water and ice. (But thanks to my deceased grandmother, we had a month's worth of canned food.) I did find a working water tap in the pasture, which eased my concerns, but it had taken a bit of driving around and standing in line for ages just to get a couple of gallons of drinking water and three bags of ice (only six remained).

Communications were another concern. Luckily, we'd made it to Laurel just in time to ransack the local Kroger grocery store before they closed, and luckily I'd had enough sense to buy batteries. So we had working flashlights and a radio, which from Monday on was all we had. The problem was that, try as they might, the steadfast people on the radio just didn't know that much. We heard about outtages, closings, estimated damage and where the eye was from time to time, but during and after we heard little about Laurel, and after the storm passed, information was just as scarce. Like everyone else in central and south Mississippi, those reporting on the radio were having trouble with power and telecommunications, so few knew much of anything about what was going on.

We still don't know much, and we're waiting to find out if our apartment in New Orleans is dry. Even though we live in the high part of Uptown, it's looking increasingly likely that it's very, very wet.

UPDATE: Maybe not. Thank you, satellite imagery.

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