Dedicated to Bunny, George, and all the residents (and former residents) of the Gulf Coast.
City of Blue Roofs
It's Spring Break. It's supposed to be the best week of the school year, because on top of no school, it's the week where everyone flocks to the beach in droves and finds the one spot on the sand where the sun hits just right and the resulting tan could tide a person over until summer. Unfortunately, that's not my family's speed. My mom, my sister, and I are going to Mississippi to visit my grandma, spending every waking second either driving there, driving back, or driving her around.
As soon as school is out Friday afternoon, we pile our stuff into the car, attempt to find room for ourselves, and drive off. Our hometown fades into the horizon as we speed along a road dotted with mini-towns, all having hokey old-cowboy-sounding names, none of which I can recall after the fact.
We stop overnight in a fairly large city that my parents used to live in. By eight the next morning we're on the road again. I avoid the window like the plague, preferring to keep my headphones on and my eyes glued to my laptop screen, until my mom pulls out one ear bud with one hand. "Look," she tells me, "look at the trees."
I oblige. The trees have been massacred. Only about half are left. The other half lie fallen, piles of wounded soldiers shoved to the side of the road to serve the convenience of drivers. I gawp at them until Mom tells me, "It's from Hurricane Katrina."
Of course. Now I remember. Since my grandma lives on the Mississippi coast, my family followed developments about the storm religiously. However, it's been a few months, and I've mostly forgotten about it. Now, seeing the trees at least sixty miles off the coast, I don't want to go any further. I don't want to see the damage.
But there are no turnarounds on I-10.
Forty minutes later we pull into my grandma's yard. It's pretty blank except for two or three sturdy trees and a speckling of tree stumps. Last time we were here, for the fourth of July, it was a veritable forest. The house is mostly undamaged, thanks to my uncle's foresight. He had the twelve closest trees chopped down at the beginning of the hurricane season. At the time my mom protested, saying it ruined the landscape of the yard. She hasn't said anything about it since Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
The first thing my grandma does after a heartfelt greeting with tight hugs and pecks on the cheek is offer us dinner. I decline for the time being. I've lost my appetite.
Three days later it's time to go for a drive, partly because my grandma has to go to physical therapy, but partly because my mom wants to check out the damage for herself. I have no choice in the matter; I don't have my driver's license yet. My sister doesn't care either way. She'll be on her Game Boy the entire time.
On the way to my grandma's physical therapy, we pass through what could be called a neighborhood in suburban Mississippi. Practically every other house has a blue tarp stretched over it in some grotesque semblance of a roof. The electric blue is like a shock to my system against the rural Mississippi colors. My grandma explains that a lot of people's roofs were blown clear off, and FEMA put up these temporary roof substitutes until real ones could be reconstructed. It's been seven months, and I wonder why in the world they don't have construction teams out here right now working on this. Sure, I forgot about it for a while, but surely the rest of the world couldn't have done so too?
As we get into Pascagoula, building after building is empty or half-crushed. A few construction projects are going on – not many. A couple of businesses are monopolizing their field and thriving. Our favorite bakery is still there, thankfully. We turn onto the right street. The post office has been mostly washed away. My grandma tells us they're using a trailer in the back as headquarters. All Mom can say is how she can't believe that the water got all the way up here. I can hardly believe it either.
My grandma gets out at a physical therapy office across the street from the post office. I take her seat in the front. We're off again.
The damage is more frequent the closer we get to the coast. Half of the Payless Motel's sign is gone, making it the "Pay Mo" as we drive toward it or the "less tel" when I turn back to look at it again. Mom tells me about my uncle's old office building, of which there are a few wooden planks left; the emergency center he and the rest of 911 telephone operations crew were evacuated to after the office flooded; the courthouse they escaped to when the emergency center, of all things, was submerged; how they had to go to the second floor when the water covered the first floor; and so on. There's a stretch of road we go through that's all brown and gray, dead, uprooted trees, most of them held upright because there isn't any room to fall down.
We turn onto another road, closer to the waterfront. Three decorational palm trees have had their tops ripped off savagely, as if the wind had come down and bitten them off like broccoli heads. I feel a chill inside me.
Ever since I was seven, my dream house has been a Pascagoula waterfront home. Every house there is beautiful, an anachronism stuck on the least beachiest beach ever, facing the horizon over a nearly endless stretch of the bluest water. No matter how much I want to live in California or New York, the house I want to live in is on the Mississippi coast.
The ruins rush up to meet us as we drive on. Halves of houses abound; the landscape has been ransacked by Mother Nature's wry sense of humor. For the first time that day I look at my mother. She grew up here. I think she's biting the inside of her lip, but I can't be sure.
We take a last turn onto the waterfront.
I nearly choke. Gone. All of it. Most of it: One house nearby has the second floor intact, but the first floor has been swept away. If a house if left, it sports a blue roof. Trailers dot the yards, trailers barely bigger than my living room, trailers meant to house whole families. Little grass is left. Every one of my dream houses is destroyed.
"The water looks pretty," my sister says.
I turn to look, remembering the last time I was here. It was the fourth of July, and I was sitting on the meager water barrier, watching fireworks turn night into day while behind me, the beachfront residents let off sparklers. They've moved away now. Moved away, or been washed away.
The end of the street bears a warning etched in graffiti: HOMEOWNERS ONLY. WE WILL SHOOT.
The disbelief hurts. I know that in a week I will be back at school having forgotten all about it, but right now I have to swallow around a painful lump in my throat. The coast as I know it is gone forever.