Reporter’s blog: Hooters and the end of time | AspenTimes.com

Reporter’s blog: Hooters and the end of time

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

SATURDAY, OCT. 1 ” It comes as no surprise that goods and services are scarce in a hurricane disaster area. One month after Hurricane Katrina whacked South Mississippi, it remains impossible to find a hotel room.

Aspen Times photographer Paul Conrad and I saw a handful of hotels that were blown apart from the hurricane winds in Hancock and Pass Christian counties, where we are concentrating our coverage.

Hotels in Gulf Port, the nearest large town, are full. A public information officer laughed when we asked if we would find a place in Biloxi.

Hotels rooms fill up quickly when an estimated 103,000 of 200,000 homes in South Mississippi suddenly become uninhabitable. The Sun Herald newspaper in Biloxi/Gulf Port reported this week that 500 trailers are getting moved into the area daily by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Even at that pace, it will take 28 weeks for the housing needs to be met.

In addition to the homeless, hotel rooms are filled by about 600 FEMA workers and countless insurance adjusters who have flooded the area.

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Without a hotel to crash at, we camped our first night at the Emergency Operations Center established at the high school in Kiln (a town everybody keeps reminding us is the home of Green Pay Packers quarterback Brett Farve.)

The ground was soft with dried mud. Generators purred all night, flood lights made the area look like a landing strip and vehicles came and left at all hours. It’s hard to complain about your accommodations, though, after witnessing incredible destruction all day and talking to people about what they have suffered. Besides, after being awake for more than 36 hours, it was easy to sleep that first night.

We were fortunate to meet Joseph Runnels, who works as an attorney for the state of Mississippi. He had been assigned after the storm to field complaints about price gouging in South Mississippi. He was based in the same office where we borrowed an outlet to plug in our computers.

Joseph insisted that we stay at his house in an old town called Pass Christian. He and his wife, Vicki, and son Trevor managed to stay out of harm’s way even though other houses all around were damaged and destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

The Runnels put us up in the bedroom of their sons. Two of their three boys are attending school in Oklahoma because it’s uncertain when classes will resume in Pass Christian. Thanks to a good night’s sleep and a shower, we were able to hit the trail refreshed Friday. Their generosity is on-going.

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There has been a lot of religious symbolism in Southern Mississippi. A headless statue of Mary the Blessed Virgin on the steps of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Pearlington was one of the first odd scenes to great us after our arrival. We passed by another Catholic church in Pass Christian that had glass blown out on all four sides, metal roofing stripped and walls crumbled. Somehow the stained-glass windows, with their scenes of the crucifixion, remained intact.

But the strangest event came when we got lost while searching after dark for the Runnel’s house. We stopped at a gas station and sought directions from a woman filling up at the pump. The place was eerily lit on the inside and dark on the outside. The lights and canopy above the pumps were worse for wear from the wind.

After describing how to get back on track, the conversation veered toward the hurricane, as they all do. The woman claimed the Bible describes how at the end of time, plants will bloom out of season. She claimed that’s happening in Mississippi after Katrina; we sort of wrote her off as a zealot. Lo and behold, Friday we saw blooming flowers. Ana Weidie had Mexican heather blooming in a few brilliant patches of purple around her yard. Not only that, but there was a yellow butterfly checking the flowers out.

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Ana might be the most remarkable person we’ve encountered among a crowd of very memorable characters. When we met her Friday at a food and supplies distribution center in Pearlington, she had on a red and white stripped dress with blue tennis shoes. A large crucifix was hanging on her neck. Ana, who was born and raised in northern Mexico and moved to the United States in 1960, said she is 66 “going on 80 this month.”

Actually, the short, peppy woman with beautiful blue eyes seemed to be handling the storm’s aftermath quite well.

Her stately mansion, one of the nicest homes in Pearlington, is structurally sound. The two-story Victorian-style house is painted green with white trim and lattice work. She has porches on both levels in the front.

Ana already has a crew of Pearlington men working on reconstruction of what she said is a nearly 200-year-old home. She has a house full of antiques, less than half of which are salvageable. But of all her possessions that were lost, Ana missed one the most. The devout Catholic said she scoured her yard after the hurricane for her statue of St. Teresa, “The Little Flower.”

“I have 33 saints that I love,” she said. Her statue of Mary survived, though it lost both hands. Joseph seemed to be in one piece.

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The most surreal moment of our trip so far came Friday. After spending all day at a distribution center in Pearlington, we went to a Hooters for dinner. At the distribution center, hundreds of homeless people were collecting essentials like food, cleaning supplies and tools. People were frustrated when they couldn’t get everything they wanted. Many raised doubts about when their lives would return to some normalcy. The heat and bugs sent people scurrying for the shade of cars.

About 20 miles away in Gulf Port, Hooters was doing booming business. Locals, relief workers and national guard troops crowded the restaurant. Smiling southern belles, dressed in the restaurant chain’s signature orange shorts and tight white tops, kept the place hopping.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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