Dispatch: In the footsteps of Katrina -- Tent City

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 One

Tourism Cares for Tomorrow

Mississippi Gulf Coast Clean Up

My home for the next three nights is Tent B8 in an ad hoc development known as Tent City in DIberville, Miss. Hundreds of volunteers from the travel industry have gathered here today. They registered, were assigned to their accommodations, then met at the big tent for a dinner of hot dogs, hamburgers and gumbo.

Mississippi Live, a local combo with a tight horn section, introduced the volunteers to Mississippi music and reminded us of how many music greats the state has produced, artists as diverse as Robert Johnson, Tammy Wynette, Bobby Gentry and Elvis Presley.

For most of the flight down here we were above the clouds, but as we began our descent into Gulfport, traces of Katrinas devastation quickly came into view: abrasions on the earth, rubble scattered about, gnarled, scraggly trees, blue tarps covering damaged buildings like patchwork.

But it wasnt until I was riding from the airport to Tent City that I got a real close-up, gut-wrenching look at the heart of the devastation.

Rodney Jordan of Hotard Transportation Co. drove me from the airport, along the coast where once thriving casinos are now piles of rubble. Where peoples dream homes lay crushed like matchboxes. Where the piles of debris and the gouged earth still looked as though the banshee of death had passed through only yesterday. A visitor gropes for a way to frame the destruction, to make sense of it, to diminish its overwhelming scale so as to make it manageable, even conceivable. The storys much-needed happy ending is clearly still a long way off. Its been six months, and Jordan said most is still in the clean-up stage. Theres barely any sign of rebuilding.

Even so, what I am seeing now is not nearly as bad as it was just after the storm, when the entire beach was strewn end to end with mattresses and other detritus ripped by wind and water from gutted homes, offices and stores.

The devastation runs along a strip that runs from one- to five-miles-wide that spans the states entire 75 miles of coastline, from Alabama on the east to Louisiana on the west. This is not a proud portrait of America, hardly our vision of the can-do land of opportunity weve come to expect. It leaves a visitor wondering: If were still the resilient nation ready to meet any challenge, conquer any adversity and rise above any calamity, why is Biloxi still in ruins six months after Katrina blew through -- and only three months before the next hurricane season starts?

Yet, back at Tent City, the mood is a living affirmation of that spirit. The volunteers are rolling in, the cleanup is about to commence, and there is a sense of jubilation. For a group of largely typical Americans who often feel we are passive onlookers to tragedy, TV watchers who sit numbly while the world suffers one calamity after another, the opportunity to really help, even just a little, is tremendously uplifting.

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

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