Dispatch: In the footsteps of Katrina -- Beauvoir

Travel Weekly senior editor David Cogswell traveled to Gulf Coast, Miss., to participate with Tourism Cares in a volunteer clean-up effort March 16 to 19. He filed the following dispatch from the scene:

Day Two

Tourism Cares for Tomorrow

Mississippi Gulf Coast Clean Up

After breakfast at rows of folding tables in Tourism Cares for Tomorrows headquarters tent, the 330 volunteers were dispatched to nine sites for cleanup efforts. The mood of the crowd was infectiously upbeat.

At 9 a.m. it was still chilly for just a t-shirt, but soon after my group arrived at Beauvoir, the sun came out and it started to warm up. I was excited by the prospect of working on Jefferson Davis home, where the former Mississippi senator and president of the Confederacy had lived his final years. But unfortunately there wasnt much left to see. The house was gutted, roped off in places for danger of collapse, presumably, patched here and there with plywood. You could see right through this once-glorious example of Greek Revival architecture, now little more than a battered shell on a devastated rubble-strewn patch of land. The trees that had hidden the home from the highway were mostly gone or denuded. The rich botanical gardens had vanished without a trace.

My group of 35 people were met and briefed by Patrick Hotard, the director of the Beauvoir museum. He gave some background on the house and thanked the volunteers for offering their help.

According to Stephen Richer, executive director of the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, with so much urgent need along the coast, places like Beauvoir might fall through the cracks if it werent for an organization like Tourism Cares, which came specifically to help clean up the historical and cultural sites.

Most of the large-scale rubble had been removed by heavy equipment. Now were down to what can only be done by human hands, Hotard said. We were to comb the grounds for rubble, picking up everything and putting it in buckets and wheelbarrows, then dumping it in a few centralized piles that could be removed by trucks.

He organized the group into a line near the highway, much as one might line up a search party, and instructed us to work our way across the plot. I grabbed a wheelbarrow, found a place in line and started picking up bricks, twigs, branches, pieces of paper, broken dishes, rocks, chunks of cement, springs, cans, bottles, bolts, wires, you name it.

As the sun grew hot, conversation died away. I imagined that the others, like me, were becoming immersed in the meditation of manual labor. After the initial efforts, my body moved from the lethargy of the morning into the pace of the work. I started to sweat and to feel little pricks on my cheeks, ears and arms. Gnats, someone told me. Sometimes Id be pushing the wheelbarrow and would feel compelled to suddenly drop the handles to smack a bug that was pricking my cheek. I started seeing little red welts form on my arms before I realized that some people were handing out insect repellant.

They aint friendly, one woman said. They mean business.

After saturating my skin with Cutters, the bugs turned away in disappointment, and I continued triumphantly. The army of volunteers concentrated on the task and became so quiet you could only hear the sound of movement, an occasional cracking, scraping or clanging here and there.

As the morning progressed, the crowd moved slowly across the field, the piles grew taller, and with every barrel full, the land, miraculously, became cleared. It was work that could only be accomplished by manual labor. By days end, I had discovered that the amount of difference a group of people could make working together was astonishing -- and indescribably gratifying.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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