Dispatch: In the footsteps of Katrina -- Biloxi

Katrina Dispatch series

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 Three

Tourism Cares for Tomorrow

Mississippi Gulf Coast Clean Up

You cant fully understand the euphoria the volunteers feel when they see the results of their work without some idea of how bad the situation is. They are lifted by something intangible, the knowledge that for one rare moment their motives and actions will be simple and pure. They came to lend a hand in a situation in which help is so sorely needed that there can be no doubt that what they are doing is worthwhile.

Earlier in the week when I called Tourism Cares for Tomorrows Executive Director Bruce Beckham on his cell phone, I happened to catch him as he was driving through the hurricane-ravaged areas in preparation for Tourism Care for Tomorrows cleanup project. There was something strange in his voice. He wasnt his usual cheerful self.

You cant believe it till you see it for yourself, he said, in a halting voice.

Now as Stephen Richer, executive director of the Gulf Coast CVB, drives me around the area, I see that even when it is right before your eyes, its impossible to really take it in. Not only is it beyond description, its beyond the capacity of the imagination to fully assimilate the depth of the destruction and human suffering that was inflicted by Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005.

There is no way to exaggerate the pervasiveness of the devastation. People often say its like a war zone. But rifles and artillery, even bombing raids could never wield such a calamity. No manmade force short of a nuclear blast could be comparable.

The forces involved were catastrophic. The casino barge of the Grand Casino in Biloxi, a hotel-sized building on a barge, was hurled across the highway and landed a mile away on top of the Ohr-OKeefe Museum of Art, crushing a portion of it. It was one of several flying barges. The brand new structure, designed by famed architect Frank Gehry, was mangled into metal monstrosity.

Even so, Bob Brooks, executive director of the museum, looked happy when we pulled up to the site. A small army of Tourism Cares workers were performing the tedious labor of picking up shards of metal, mortar and masonry from the grounds and sorting it into piles. These guys are great, he said, visibly elated. Look at the pile over there! And look at that one!

The Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum was also reduced to a frame and a pile of rubble. Robin Krohn David, executive director, said, One thing we didnt have with [Hurricane] Camille [in 1969] was the trees. Trees were uprooted from Deer Island across the bay and they came flying like torpedoes. They came root systems first and knocked the walls out.

Such stories are legion. And even if you could tell them endlessly, youd never portray the magnitude of the destruction. After a spiritually exhausting survey of the scene, I felt that I had preferred the feeling of clearing rubble.

After two days and nearly 5,000 contributed man-hours, the volunteers were finished. On Saturday night they gathered one more time for dinner, a ceremony of many thank-yous, some dance music and a final fond farewell.

Bruce Beckham told the volunteers, You surprised everyone but me with how much work you do. I know how much work you do.

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

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