Gulfport, Here We Come
Every time a contingent is sent out from HQ, everyone in the building stops what they are doing, stands, applauds, hoots, hollers, and whistles best wishes to the outgoing gang. It is a heartwarming, emotional moment for all. It reaffirms what everyone is doing in that cavernous old K-mart building.
That Thursday morning, two buses are filled with nurses and mental health workers. We get on the road and head down Interstate 10 to Gulfport. The chatter dies down on the bus as we begin to roll past billboards stripped clean and hanging at asymmetrical angles, boats overturned, boats resting on land, a boat wedged up in tree branches that are eye level with the highway, parts of bridges damaged and washed out, trees on one side of the highway sheared and bent, and buildings mangled. Even Interstate 10 is missing some pieces of roadway and the 4 lane highway, in places, becomes 2 lanes. I keep looking and think what is wrong with this picture. It is all very eerie, normal things out of place. It reminds me of paintings by Rene Magritte.
We are delivered to the Biloxi-Gulfport HQ and parceled out to assorted shelters. I am sent to a community center with no potable water, no meals, no showers, but happily with a few toilets and central air. We set up army cots and create a staff shelter. They are maybe 75 of us in one room. Lights out at 10 p.m., lights on at 6 a.m., briefing at HQ at 8 a.m.
Mental Health briefings are held in the parking lot where we shield our faces from the sun and swat away the bugs. My first assignment is sector 17, a neighborhood in Gulfport that has street after street of rubble, branches, tarps, twisted wreckage amidst still-standing houses. The local shelter has just been closed and we (my partner for the day and yours truly) have a box truck filled with water, diapers, limited food, stuffed animals, etc. We comb the neighborhoods distributing goods from the back of the truck and talking to people. One of my colleagues later quipped, “Do you want counseling with that?”
At Day Two’s briefing, there is a call for volunteers to work the staff shelter at the Navy Seabee base. It is considered an intense situation that is turning sour. I raise my hand as did another woman who became my Red Cross partner in crime; we are immediately redeployed. Our mission is to set up a mental health “office” and get the place calm and under control.