St. Simons to New Orleans on Interstate 10
Don't drive through the heart of Jacksonville, Florida. A humble warning to all weary East Coast travelers. They have apparently decided to continue their construction of that City by ripping apart all the inside interstates without warning people before they miss the ByPass.
Of course Interstate 10 through the Panhandle is one of the most boring sections of Interstate one can encounter. Its like Interstate 16 but much, much longer. One thing of note are the convoys. Tree service vehicles and emergency services are moving East. Like an army to ward off our next unwelcome visitor in Wilma. Onward to Gainesville and Lake City this army moves. Moving eastbound with us are the semis loaded with construction material. Five tons of drywall here. Overloaded lumber there. A flatbed with nothing but new glass windows. For every one that turns off into Alabama, two pass us on the way to Mississippi. It is mostly empty dump trucks that follow us to New Orleans, as telling as that is. But there were a few bringing the new stuff in.
A very interesting anecdote is that the main drag through Tallahassee, the Capital of Florida, is named "Tennessee Street."
In Pensacola, you start seeing the damage. But this is damage from Ivan, a hurricane from 2004. Escambia Bay is spanned by steel instead of concrete roads. Especially in the Eastbound lanes. While just as sturdy (I'm sure) as their concrete brethren, these steel spans give the impression of flimsiness. But the concrete spans of the bridge, if you look just close enough, are just a few inches off kilter in some spaces. They aren't terribly noticable, but once you see them, you can't stop looking. This is terribly distracting to someone driving this bridge.
We stopped in Fairhope, Alabama, where my cousin Elizabeth and her boys have taken up temporary residence. More on this little city later, but it is build hard against Mobile Bay. This is a little town, shops and bed and breakfasts, one pub aptly named "The Pub." It may be as close to 'Perfect' as any Walgreen's commercial.
Every pier on the East side of Mobile Bay, it seems, has collapsed. The Grand Hotel will not open for another year, and people here in the coves lost their homes to the sea. That's what I heard, but I didn't see much of it. Many New Orleans exiles have taken up residence here, especially ones with children, and they have been welcomed into the town with open arms.
The George C Wallace Tunnel is still open, and the USS Alabama looks as defiant as ever (though I always wish they'd turn her around so her face is to the open ocean). In western Mobile you start to see houses that have shingles missing and tarps for roofs.
Outside of Mobile, you start to see the trees.
The great stands of Southern Pine look diminished now, as foliage and weak branches were downed. It is odd that evergreens take on the look of November oaks, and canopy starts disappearing. Every once in a while, you see one that has been snapped in half like a matchstick. For some, you never see their tops. For others, their upper halves point to the Northwest.
This continues to get subtly worse the further west you drive. Then you cross the Mississippi line.
"Mississippi, It's Like Coming Home" the sign states. As if to underscore what has happened here, the first thing you see is what was once a billboard of strong black metal. It is now heeled over, mangled, and bent back towards the ground. With the frame of the sign twisted, it reminded me of the bones of a bird's wing. Broken on the side of the road.
The newest hotels hard by the Interstate betray the worst damage. Particleboard roofs ripped away and discarded, replaced with flapping blue tarps. Piles of debris line the parking lots of the gasoline stations. The twisted metal alludes to what was once signage, walls and things that were moved out of the way so traffic could get through. Road barrells, trash cans. Boards and what looks to be the remains of wall. Though these piles are smallish in nature, you can't really tell where the contents originated.
Here, the damage to the trees becomes noticably worse. Instead of diminished, the pines are decidedly wounded. Broken trees become fewer and further between. Hardly any green is left below the actual canopy (why that is must be a natural phenomenon I can't imagine). With this curtain lain bare, you can see the communites usually shielded from Interstate eyes. They also become easier to spot, even to my colorblind eyes, by the striking blue of their tarpaulin roofs. Almost every home has them. The ones that do not stand out. These houses are the lucky ones to have sustained, for whatever reason, less damage. (Or maybe the owner has not returned to contract the roofer yet?) They are as common to the eye as other houses that no longer need a roof, for they are the unlucky ones: nothing but piles of lumber and memory.
Every open shop within sight has a "Now Hiring" sign on its door.
Gas station patrons, to those stations that actually have gasoline, can be seen with three and four containers they are filling in addition to their muddy wheeled trucks. If there is a reason we've had an SUV and truck frenzy in the past years, it is paying off in dividends now.
Just north of Biloxi, the trees are down in rows. Like the hand of God came down and started ripping out chunks of forest. You now start seeing uprooted trees, down whole to the the ground. A new sight: trees down pointing North and east. These are the ones that survived the northside of the storm, but were weakened enough to fall once the eye had passed and the wind changed direction. They interlace in moments like latticework. You start to realize that those white trees you've been seeing in ones and twos, that are now coming in fours and fives, aren't white trees at all: they are Southern pine laid bare of bark by the howling wind.
Have you ever peeled bark off a pine tree? Imagine a wind so strong it could lay almost a whole forest bare. That wind lived here for a time.
Again, the foliage being gone gives a view to that place just beyond the trees we usually aren't privy to. The FEMA trailer parks for the dispossesed come into view. They are brand new with no signs of life, appearing more Orwellian than post-Apocalyptic. There are hundreds within our sightlines alone.
The debris also becomes more pronounced, here in Mississippi. Shingles, trash, sheet metal. Mattresses and chairs: the discarded items of a population in flight, realizing that their lives are more important, or perhaps just knocked off the car's roof by the rising wind in those failing hours?
Outside DeLisle, Mississippi, the damage becomes extreme. I have already spoken of broken billboards, and I will do so here again. There are strong steel structures that reach into the sky. Here, the ones that remain standing are missing at least their sign, if the frame itself isn't heeled over. If you're not looking, you will miss the many that have simply been slammed to the ground. Sometimes in half, more often whole. Most tragically onto nearby homes. Was someone in there when it happened?
Racing towards the Pearl River, where the monster came ashore her final time, it appears that the angry hands of giants had grown weary of ripping out chunks and decided here to take up the scythe.
Over the Pearl River you look down onto a forest lain bare of leaves. It looks like a northern winter instead of a Gulf Coast Indian Summer.
We cross into Louisiana at the end of this bridge.