Monday, August 29, 2011

Six years ago today

I wrote this article, about the aftermath of Katrina, the full force of which struck Bay St. Louis, Miss., on Aug. 29, 2005, for the Sept. 25, 2005, Atlanta-Journal-Constitution. The actions of people like Tricia Bliler bear remembering.

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- Tricia Bliler was wandering the ruins of her hometown, searching for a dry place to sleep after the squalls of Katrina, when she and a group of friends came upon the darkened gym of the Second Street Elementary School.

Like everyone she knew, Bliler, a waitress at the Good Life restaurant, had been forced into the open by the winds and storm surge of the hurricane, which flooded or blew away nearly every building in town. At this point the gym, though filled with stinky mud, beckoned. So her group cleaned out one corner to bed down for the night, then cooked what food they could scrounge on a reclaimed grill outside.

That is how it started.

"We were out there cooking, and people we knew would walk by and see us and I'd say, 'Come eat while it's good, we've got plenty,'" Bliler recalled recently, during a millisecond break in her work at what was officially known as an unauthorized shelter at the Second Street school. Bliler, a diminutive, focused, straightforward woman, soon found herself with far more than she had bargained for, although not more than she could handle. "People started bringing frozen things that were going to spoil, and we'd cook it on the grill, and from there it was like the fishes and the loaves; the food and the people just kept coming," she said.

Although something clearly went wrong with the official response to Katrina, it is not as if the storm's victims simply sat on their heels and waited. There was too much to do, and inevitably, someone rushed in to fill the void. In Bay St. Louis, one of the hardest-hit communities in the hurricane's path, no one was destined to do more than Bliler.

Within a week of the hurricane's passage Bliler and friends were cooking 300 meals a day on a single wood-burning stove, and the school had become a clearinghouse of information and goods donated to the storm's local victims.

Bliler began seeking aid from various relief organizations, but basically got nowhere. Undeterred, she found cots for the homeless and even began taking in patients evacuated from area hospitals. She adopted stray pets whose owners had vanished. She stockpiled and distributed clothes, medicine and other staples, gave whatever guidance she could to families looking for help in getting their kids back in school, somewhere, and in general offered every kind of aid and comfort she could muster. Finally, representatives from relief organizations including the Red Cross, FEMA and the National Guard began trickling in. Like almost everyone else, they initially just asked questions. But by now Bliler wasn't interested in questions; she wanted answers.

Ten days post-Katrina, the shelter's frenzied volunteers were scrambling to unload truckloads of donated items, tend to the evacuees and cook and serve meals, and Bliler had little time to talk about any of this. When Red Cross worker Liz Goodburn, hovering nearby with a notepad, asked how many meals Bliler was serving and said she might be able to supply a mobile kitchen if the shelter fell within her jurisdiction, Bliler said, "I've got three cooks. Talk to Andy. He's the one with the less stress." Then she was on to something else.

Behind her, stacked in the school cafeteria, were cases of Germ-X disinfectant soap, diapers, bottled water and canned food, all free for the taking. The day was suffocatingly hot and humid, inside and out, there was no power, and everyone was soaked with sweat.

A volunteer spoke to Bliler and she immediately sat down at her police radio and sent out a call for an ambulance. "I've got a diabetic who hasn't had insulin since the hurricane and he needs to go to the hospital," she said into the mouthpiece. There was no response. She repeated the request. Still no reply.

Then she looked up at the group standing nearby: A sunburnt National Guardsman, two Red Cross workers, a uniformed FEMA representative and a journalist. "Does anybody have a vehicle?" she asked. "We've got to get this guy to the hospital."

No response.

"I need a vehicle to take this guy to the hospital," she repeated.

Finally there was nothing to do but volunteer, "I've got a vehicle."

"Will you take him?" Bliler asked, and a minute later Mike McGee and I were off to a MASH unit on the hospital grounds, following directions from the guardsman. As one volunteer later said, "All you have to do is watch Tricia for five minutes, and if she asks you to do something, by God you do it."

Speeding through the ravaged town, bumping across countless downed power lines, with overturned cars intermingled with boats in the median and houses straddling the bent rails of railroad tracks, it was hard to imagine a clearer window into the problem of the notoriously slow response to Katrina. No doubt everyone had their hands full, it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the breadth and intensity of the need, and representatives of bureaucratically controlled agencies certainly needed clearance before undertaking what, on paper, might seem like a risky endeavor -- transporting a sick or injured person to a hospital. Yet everyone -- everyone -- was there, and who was really in charge?

Tricia Bliler, waitress.

Away from the strip malls on U.S. 90 and two garish dockside casinos, the heart of Bay St. Louis was a small, quiet village of narrow streets and alleys lined with arching live oak trees and Victorian mansions interspersed with cottages and stores.

Founded in 1818 and ruled variously by France, Spain, Great Britain, the Confederacy and the United States, the town developed a reputation for being racially and economically integrated, much like New Orleans, 50 miles to the west, and surprisingly open and tolerant given Mississippi's conflicted history.

Before Katrina, the beachfront historic district was home to art galleries, cafes and antique shops that managed to stop just short of being precious. More than 100 buildings were on the National Register of Historic Places. South of downtown, the beach was lined with multimillion-dollar estates and antebellum mansions overlooking the Mississippi Sound. It was, said resident Kevin Webster, "like a hip Mayberry."

"Not too long ago I was walking my dog through town and it just hit me: I am so lucky to live in this place," said Estus Kea, who was at that moment digging out a thick coating of muddy sludge from his 1880 shotgun house. "I realized, it's my great good fortune to be here, just walking my dog through this wonderful town, with these beautiful trees, these great old houses, and all these people who have so much joy in life. Now, it's gone."

Throughout that day people stopped by Kea's house to offer help. One family invited him and a friend to lunch, and to barbequed brisket and jambalaya for dinner. A policewoman stopped to ask whether the dog in Kea's yard belonged to him. When he answered that the owners were nowhere in evidence, the officer suggested that they might be dead. She later returned with a large bag of dog food.

A plumber stopped to check Kea's water meter after being told there was no water in the house. As he scooped soupy water from the meter box Kea asked about the man's house and he replied, "It was wiped clean. The yard was wiped clean. I don't have nothin' to clean up." A carload of strangers stopped to ask if anyone wanted anything to eat or drink. "We've got red beans and rice," the girl in the front seat said.

Despite the tragedy --- or perhaps because of it --- there was a beguiling sense of camaraderie in the days after the hurricane. "Every night on this street we have a neighborhood party," said one resident, Sandra Bagley. "We take that Hawaiian Punch the National Guard gives out at the Sav-A-Center and mix it with vodka and call it the Katrina."

But there was also work to be done. Back at the Second Street school, Tricia Bliler was grappling with an onslaught of new evacuees, enlisting the aid of guardsmen from Pensacola, Fla., and others to restore electricity to the entire school, and working with a church group from Oxford, Miss., to install a mobile water purification system.

Across town, Alorna and Richard Kay were probing the ruins of their house by the railroad tracks, searching for a cabinet containing important papers and worrying about their son, who had assumed a role not unlike Bliler's in his own community, the Desire neighborhood in New Orleans.

The Kays are from New Orleans, and it was there that they chose to ride out the hurricane, in their son's apartment. He spent the first days of the flood evacuating people in his canoe, and they soon found themselves helping victims, many of them elderly people who chose to stay or who could not leave. "He's not coming out," Alorna Kay said of her son. She and her husband only returned to Bay St. Louis after nine days to check on their house, she said.

Kay said the kind of support networks that had coalesced in Bay St. Louis had also formed within the neighborhoods of New Orleans. Such de facto communities came together in the Bywater and Desire neighborhoods, in the French Quarter, in the Garden District, even within the hell of the Superdome, where groups actually formed defensive enclaves --- circles of chairs with men ringing the outer perimeter to stand guard.

"There were pockets all over town," she said. "People are just trying to cope."

"It's unfortunate because of the circumstances," she said, "but something like this, in the end it draws people together, and you see who you can depend on."

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