The images out of the gulf coast are alarming, nature once again showing who’s boss – and who ain’t!
The daily horror show — oil-slickened beaches, wetlands, birds, turtles and other critters – is a heavy price to pay for our inexhaustible craving and need for energy.
The area, of course, has been hit hard before, most recently and dramatically when hurricane Katrina roared onto shore, demolishing man-made structures and pristine beaches from the Florida panhandle, across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
New Orleans has yet to fully recover. And it’s the Crescent City that I’ve been thinking about lately, that jazzy happening of a place snuggled up close and tight against the mighty Mississippi.
A little over four decades ago – it was the summer of 1969 – I was working as an intern for my hometown paper, the Columbus Enquirer. I stayed busy taking obits over the phone, writing short features stories and occasionally tagging along with the cop reporter as he made his daily rounds.
The job was all about the basics – read and study reports; know the right people to interview and the right questions to ask; take good notes and transcribe them quickly; pay attention to everything that is said and everything to be seen. When writing, use active verbs and short, declarative sentences. Grab attention with the story’s lead, then explore and explain and finish with a flourish!
I learned more that summer in eight weeks about reporting and writing than four years in journalism school. But that’s another story for another day.
The last week of my internship, we began hearing about massive storm clouds building in the Gulf of Mexico, a deteriorating weather system that spilled across hundreds of miles of ocean. It seemed headed for the Texas coast, then turned on itself and sprinted toward Mississippi. It was called Camille, a monster of a storm, a category 5 Hurricane with sustained winds nearing 190 mph.
On the evening of Aug 17 and throughout much of the following day, Camille made landfall. When she finally moved inland, 259 people were dead, thousands were injured and tens of thousands were homeless. Back when the dollar was worth, well, a dollar, Camille caused $1.42 billion in damage.
There were no computers back then, no web to monitor the storm’s progress, or weather channel to broadcast warnings. It was a different time, when things happened and it took hours – sometimes days – to learn the facts.
Slowly news began trickling into the newsroom, press reports from the Associated Press and wire photos in black and white that detailed broken buildings and broken lives. It was days before the full extent of the damage was widely known.
Just a month later, I was on my way to New Orleans, traveling along a road that hugged the Gulf of Mexico through Western Alabama and Mississippi. The interstate system was still an idea in this region, so I meandered along the coast on U.S. 90, passing through major cities and little villages – Pascagoula, Gautier, Biloxi, Gulfport, Long Beach, Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis.
The destruction was massive. Entire blocks were reduced to rubble, trees uprooted and power lines snapped. Cars and trucks were tossed about like toys, pushed aside now into vacant lots to allow traffic to once again flow smoothly.
Two images linger.
A huge barge, tons of crumpled metal and broken glass, had been grounded by the storm in Gulfport. It rested atop a home, at least 100 yards from the beach on the far side of the coastal road. A bit further west, in Bay St. Louis, the façade of a two-story house had been ripped away by gale-force winds. The capricious forces at work, however, had left the home’s furniture in place and intact.
It only took a month or so to clear away the obvious signs of the storm, a year to rebuild most of the homes, offices, schools and resorts. Lives were lost, tears shed, families uprooted. But life went on. Camille became a distant, painful memory.
It’s been left to the poet to suggest that “time heals all wounds”. But nature has returned, offered an opening by our collective wants and needs. This time around time is killing us, an open wound on the ocean’s floor spewing death and destruction that apparently can’t be stopped.
If you’re the sort to cry, weep for a way of life slipping away in an oily slick that grows by the hour. Then take a little time to pray that the smartest and the brightest figure out a solution soon, before the Gulf of Mexico becomes a distant, painful memory.