The rental trailer wasn’t in great condition before the muddy rivers spilled their banks in Columbus, Ind., but it provided a home for the family of five. The parents worked in the fields and their baby played happily on the kitchen floor in the evenings, surrounded by the chatter of the two elder siblings doing homework and the smells of supper being prepared. Then summer came, and with it came flooding rains — 11 inches within seven hours. Levees broke. Dams failed. Much of the Midwest was left underwater, with places in Indiana seeing the worst flooding the state had experienced in more than a century.
Contreras hadn’t gotten the phone call from her supervisor yet, but she didn’t care. She looked out the window again. Television reports indicated her area was out of danger, and though many roads were closed, she could make it to San Fernando High School, one of four shelters opened by the American Red Cross. Frantically, she ticked items from her list one by one. Play-Doh. Check. Coloring books. Check. Watercolors. Check. Puzzles. Check. For the hundredth time, she was grateful she always kept the blue suitcase packed with her Kit of Comfort. It made it easier to get to disaster scenes quickly.
The live oaks that sprawl across the Southern landscape are like no other tree. Their trunks are massive, the limbs long and twisting, drooping to the ground, stretching to the sky, spreading to touch other trees. Most are hundreds of years old. Some thousands. They’ve seen floods, droughts, fires, hurricanes. And still they survive, the wood growing harder, stronger, more resilient, through every trial they endure. In Pearlington, Miss., they’re everywhere, a fitting symbol for a town that refuses to die and 800 residents who bend, but will not break.
Jim Pollard, public information officer for neighboring Harrison County, says he remembers a chilling moment during Katrina when officials at Hancock County’s Emergency Operation Center — believed to be on safe ground — called him on the phone and told him the building was rapidly filling with water. “They all wrote numbers on their arms with indelible ink, then listed their names and numbers on a sheet of paper, put it in a Ziploc bag, and tacked it to the roof,” Pollard says. “We were taping final messages from them to their families.”
Only a few lonely cars were heading west Sunday morning beneath a canopy of gnarled oaks along Scenic Highway 90 in coastal Mississippi. To their right, stark reminders of Hurricane Katrina — bare slabs where homes once stood, damaged streets which once led to vibrant downtowns, trees still festooned with insulation and tarpoleons meant to protect buildings that no longer exist. To their left, a steady snarl of traffic snaked its way eastward as residents from Louisiana and Mississippi fled the wrath of Hurricane Gustav, expected to make landfall as a Category 3 hurricane Monday morning southeast of Louisiana in Plaquemines Parish.
A few vehicles dot the parking lot of New Hope Methodist Church in suburban Atlanta, but there’s no sound except the rumble of idling motors. Slow rain becomes a torrent, blowing in wide sheets, obscuring the pastor standing on the church steps as he delivers his sermon. Drivers flick their windshield wipers to life and stare straight ahead. They won’t leave their steel cocoons any time soon. They won’t need to: The sermon booms from their radios like Carrie Underwood.