Remembering Katrina and reporting on two wheels

(Ten years ago, tens of thousands of Mississippians’ lives changed forever.

Cleveland
Cleveland

Katrina blew a vast hole in our souls. Two days after the storm, editors sent me to my old hometown, Hattiesburg for a report. Later, I saw first-hand the destruction of Bay St. Louis, Waveland and the rest of the Gulf Coast. I had never seen anything like it. I hope I never do again. This was my report from Hattiesburg.)

HATTIESBURG – My assignment today: Paint a word picture of my old hometown — or what’s left of it after Hurricane Katrina. This will not be a happy piece.

I drove here Thursday morning after a futile search for gas in Jackson. With just enough fuel remaining to return home, I borrowed a bicycle. Maybe that’s appropriate, because my first explorations of Hattiesburg more than four decades ago were on two wheels.

We call this part of the country the Pine Belt – and with good reason. Hundreds of thousands of pine trees provide much-needed shade on hot, steamy summer days. Far too many have fallen on houses, across roads, onto cars, over fences and everywhere else you might imagine. Indeed, with nearly every turn, I see another tree that has crashed through another rooftop. Many times, I must dismount and walk around downed trees. And this, I know, is after two days of around-the-clock work to clear roads.

My first stop is in Hattiesburg’s lovely historic district, near downtown, home to so many mansions canopied by stately, old oaks. Two of those monstrous oaks – including one at least six feet in diameter – have fallen through the roof of the chapel of Hulett-Winstead Funeral Home, which looks like a Victorian castle and where services were held for my grandparents, my mama and my daddy.

Today, James Winstead, an old pal and a second-generation funeral home proprietor, has traded his dark suit for shorts and a T-shirt. The power is out and there is clean-up work to be done. He tells me the emergency generator provides just enough power for the preparation room, where nine bodies await services. One is that of national guardsman Sgt. Josh E. Russell, killed Monday when his vehicle hit storm debris on I-59.

“We’ve gotten really busy at a bad time,” says Winstead, who has no idea when power will be restored.

“You know those oaks were here when this building was built in 1933,” Winstead says. “They rode out Camille, which tells you something about Katrina.”

I ask James about his daddy, Buddy, surely one of the nicest gentlemen I’ve ever known and tears well in James’ eyes.

“He’s got trees down on his house, but he’s fine,” James says. “I just haven’t had the heart to bring him down here and see this.”

I pedal on to D.I. Patrick Stadium, where Hattiesburg High School plays home football games. The scoreboard is blown down, and the stadium lights are pointed every which direction. The stadium, itself, seems no worse for wear. A couple blocks away, at my treasured Little League fields, the backstops are bent over, almost as if in mourning. Not far from there are Kamper Park and the Hattiesburg Zoo, where Miss Hattie, the elephant once lived. If you grew up in Hattiesburg in the ’50s and ’60s, you knew Miss Hattie, whose best friend was a goat. The zoo flooded one time and the goat died. Not long after, Miss Hattie died, the story goes, of heartache. Yes, animals are affected by calamities, too.

Good news here: All 120 animals have survived Katrina, curator John Wright says. “It sounds strange when you look around, but it could have been so much worse,” he says. “We’ve got some animals who are stressed. We’ve got fences and cages that must be repaired, but the animals are all alive.”

I want to see the houses where I grew up, so I go first to Mamie Street, so named for one of Hattiesburg founder Captain Hardy’s three daughters. Captain Hardy’s wife was named Hattie – thus Hattiesburg. Hardy Street, named for the captain, is the main thoroughfare. Mamie, Adeline and Corrine, all named for daughters, are three of the oldest streets.

Yes! Our house on Mamie still stands, though it seems so much smaller now. There are no trees on it, but sadly the back yard magnolia tree, the best climbing tree ever, didn’t make it. Some kids are going to miss out.

I pedal by some of my friend’s old homes. Billy’s house has pine trees all over it. The trees we once rolled with toilet paper at Ricky’s house have crashed through the roof. Jay’s house, where I spent so many nights, is a mess.

Over on Laramie Circle, my parents’ last house seems little worse for wear. The big oak tree is down in the back yard but narrowly missed the house. Hurricane Camille blew away my Mama’s gorgeous willow tree 36 years ago. She planted two crepe myrtles in its place. She’d be thrilled to know her trees made it through Katrina.

The Southern Miss campus, where students began classes two weeks ago, is ghostly quiet. Classes are out indefinitely. Some of the oldest oaks on campus are down, ripped from their roots and leaving huge craters in ground. Those splendid, old trees would have provided shade for tailgaters this Sunday when USM was supposed to open the football season against Tulane. That game has been postponed, and the Golden Eagles have escaped to Memphis. I passed their buses on the way down.

My last stop is Roseland Park Cemetery, where huge downed trees – pines and oaks – are blocking all paths to the corner where Mama and Daddy stay. All over the grounds, trees have fallen on tombstones and markers. Katrina had no regard for the dead either. I park my bike and climb over downed trees to find my folks. A huge pine that provided welcomed shade at both their funerals has fallen, just missing their graves. The flowers have blown away, but those can be replaced.

Mama and Daddy died believing that by surviving Camille they had lived through the worst hurricane ever.

It was. Until this one.

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