The closer you are to the coast line, the closer you are to areas where the air smells of death. It is the unforgettable stench of decomposing bodies. The scent stays with you, haunts you into remembering what has transpired on the land. The land holds memories, energies, and unfinished business. There are two points of geography that called to me and, later, followed me home.
The downtown Biloxi-Gulfport casino area and adjoining coastal areas are secured by the National Guard with armed, manned posts at every intersection point. There are double columns of concertina wire that run next to the railroad tracks and parallel to the coast line. These huge coils of wire prevent intruders from entering these decimated areas that look as if a bomb has exploded. We are in a Red Cross van and the driver has the gift of gab, so we are allowed entrance into this devastation, which renders us speechless, outside of the occasional profanity of exclamation and horror. We drive through and witness the destruction and breathe in the smell of death. Casinos have been shoved off their foundations. Street blocks are skewered into a mountain of giant pick-up sticks. The once-bustling metropolitan area is non-existent; it is merely rubble. There is no sound, no noise, everything is dead quiet. Silently, I say prayers for the dead.
The days we visit and assess shelters, we find ourselves on Interstate 10 headed towards New Orleans. My Red Cross partner intentionally pulls off the Interstate at the Waveland exit. (She told me later that she had felt compelled to take me to Waveland.)
The main road into town is punctuated by seemingly abandoned cars. Actually, these cars once held families who had attempted to flee the force and onslaught of Katrina; cars that now serve as burial sites.
As we drive into the town the decomposing death smell is potent and more pungent, as if the sea breezes refused to dilute the reality of what had happened. There is the deadly quiet and the total destruction. There are foundation slabs, the remaining testimony to a once standing house. Mattress pads are wrapped around tree limbs. There is the odd teddy bear bearing witness to what was once a family home. There are boards propped against trees and partial structures with boldly spray painted red symbols by FEMA that indicate the dead found in the remains and status of the house. There is one lot, amidst slab, trees, and wreckage, where there is a black spray painted piece of plywood propped up facing that street that reads: “The So ‘n So’s House–Bayberry Street– We are ok.” I cry when I read their sign, such a declaration of life and spirit.
We drive through a neighborhood of once lovely homes, nestled by trees and situated in a scoop of coastline. Everything has been reduced to pieces of rubble; everything is twisted, broken, shattered, upside-down, out of place, and out of context. There are no people. What once was is no longer standing. It is like a Stephen King movie or a Salvador Dali painting: surreal, grotesque, and eerie. We drive onto a roadway that intersects beach and waterfront homes. There is a young man, looking more like a boy than man, sitting on an aluminum folding chair with a rifle, presumably loaded, across his lap and a sign lettered in orange that says “Beware, Keep Out.” An orange painted skull and crossbones accentuate his message. The National Guard are clearing debris from one end of the beach.
Other than the young man guarding at what was once a stately home amidst moss draped trees and the National Guard, I am alone. At my request, my colleague has dropped me off. I walk to a point on the deserted beach. I intend to do a ritual for the dead. I move into an altered state as my arms immediately lift up in invocation. I call in everyone who has died on the entire multi-state stretch of coastline. I call for any soul who is lost, in trouble, traumatized, or can’t find the light. I say “Rest in Peace, Rest in Peace, Rest in Peace” again and again, until I feel empty. The force of this energy is such that I am knocked off me feet with my knees buckled and body swaying. I reposition myself, stand strong, raise my arms and continue to say my litany of “Rest in Peace” to all the souls. I say it over and over again, until, once again, I am knocked off my feet. I am told I am finished for the day.