Recovery of the barrier islands six months after Katrina

Wind and waves are always rearranging barrier islands. If you’ve ever stood on the beach at the edge of the water and watched the sand sloshing around your feet in the waves, you’ve seen it action. On breezy days you can feel bits of the island blowing by in the form of sand against your face. Hurricanes are the most radical versions of this constant movement. When Katrina’s giant storm surge washed across the barrier islands of Gulf Islands National Seashore, it leveled their dune systems, scoured out new channels, and washed away sand flats at the islands extremities. It also swept away and drowned plants and animals.

In February I rode out to the islands with our park biologist to take photos. The islands looked pretty bleak. Little of the massive dunes of Horn Island are left: eroded rumps clustered around broken trees. The trees that stood up to the surge are gray and dry, and only sun-bleached and leafless stems remain of many of the smaller plants that covered the islands’ interiors.

But I didn’t go to take pictures of destruction. If you’re like me, you’re probably tired of looking at the devastation. I was looking for signs of natural renewal, and evidence that Katrina might even have been beneficial to the islands or to the life they host. After all, these islands have survived hurricanes since the first day of their existence.

The first living thing I noticed when I went ashore on Petit Bois Island was a small indestructible mustard plant called sea rocket. Sea rocket lives on the margins of the habitable island. It is found on the bare, infertile sand of the upper beach–the part of the beach that is closest to the water but doesn’t get wet during most high tides. It lives exposed to extremes of summer heat and windy winter cold, to the frequent pelting of airborne sand and the occasional pounding surf. It lives there because it is the best adapted plant at doing so. It has tenacious roots that soak up scarce fresh water during rains and thick rubbery leaves that lock in moisture against evaporation. (Sea rocket is one tough plant. I once found one growing on a beach in New York, its tiny purple four-petal flowers blooming in defiance of the howling, sub-zero winter day.)

It turns out that sea rocket can grow anywhere on the island. The storm surge moved a lot of things around the Mississippi Sound: refrigerators, roofs, casinos, etc. But it also moved sea rocket around the islands. I found sea rocket growing in an unusual place: in the middle of Petit Bois Island, under the shade of some pine trees, through a heavy litter of pine needles. It is growing there now because it took hold ahead of the island interior’s usual inhabitants. Those other plants may come back later, fed by nutrients washed ashore by the storm, and push the sea rocket back to the beach.

Signs of natural renewal are everywhere on the barrier islands. Besides the amazing sea rocket, beach grasses are now poking through the sand, and saw palmettos and prickly pear cactuses are re-sprouting. Around the island’s brackish ponds and marshes, plants like cord grass and black needle-rush that live partly submerged during high tides are doing just fine. A close look at a stand of yaupon holly reveals new growth. Even many of the slash pines, reddened by the initial burn of wind of salt water then fading to a drab gray, are showing a little green these days.

Island animals are clinging to these little bits of green. Dragonflies still buzz around the ponds and marshes. There are monarch butterflies and song sparrows in the bushes, and footprints of herons and raccoons around the tidal pools. A pair of bald eagles is already nesting in a tree on what’s left East Ship Island. This spring we’ll be looking for ospreys, skimmers, and terns to return to their island breeding grounds.

You can see it all for yourself. Ferry service to West Ship Island will resume on April 14, though amenities on the island will be very limited. If you have your own boat, you can also visit Petit Bois, Horn, and East Ship Islands (Cat Island is still closed). You can help the islands recover by being a low impact visitor. Stay off the dunes and steer clear of osprey nests and ground-nesting shorebirds.

The hardest thing for us people–park staff and visitors–to cope with out there will be the loss of our facilities and the damage to our monuments. Work and money will heal those wounds. If we let nature take its course the islands, and their plants and animals, will take of themselves.

March 20, 2006. This article appeared in Arrowhead, the newsletter of the Employees and Alumni Association of the National Park Service, published by Eastern National, Spring 2006, vol. 13, no. 2.

Employee assistance after Katrina

While Hurricane Katrina pulverized the Mississippi Gulf Coast early on Monday, August 29 I visited the little shotgun shack in Tupelo where Elvis Presley was born. I waited out the diminishing storm that night with a friend in Oxford as it passed through northern Mississippi. Though I was having an uncommonly good week hanging out with graduate students at Ole Miss, the inability to communicate with the coast was maddening. I didn’t drive the six hours back to Ocean Springs until Saturday, when I knew that an NPS recovery team was in place and I’d have a regular supply of drinkable water. I wasn’t sure of the condition of my apartment but had heard third-hand on Friday that it was “fine.” Continue reading Employee assistance after Katrina

Gnasty gnats and other irritants

The swarms of biting insects made unpleasant an otherwise beautiful day. It was slow at work as usual. Sometimes I feel like a social worker for park visitors. I listen to their hurricane stories. I’m also noticing more of these Route-66 types: people who are traveling through the area and want to work for a little while in return for a place to stay. We’re definitely not running that kind of operation at work. I think its funny that some guy can come unannounced and from out of town and expects have a hammer or something put in his hand for a few hours so he can have a place to stay for the night. One guy today was clearly waiting for me to take pity on him.

I’ll say it to you here, man, because I can’t speak the blunt truth to you in uniform: There are 65,000 families here who have lost their homes. I am not sorry that you didn’t plan your trip more carefully, and that the only door you knocked on at 3:00 in the afternoon didn’t have any work for you. Get out there and pound the pavement if you want a job.


A quiet weekend at work

I spent much of the last two weeks preparing for a program nobody attended today. I’m pretty disappointed.

The curiosity-seekers who visit here are starting to get to me. These people are not visiting the park because they are interested in the park, they are visiting because they want to see destruction. I’m getting tired of their personal questions and their mock symapthy. If they didn’t pretend to care I could handle it. I can sympathize with the Amish.

I guess this is human nature? Did I do this when I visited Indian country a couple of years ago? I was genuinely interested in the landscape and the culture, and I made a point of being polite and sincere and not condescending to the people who lived there. Is that enough?

Get back to work

A cross-section of post-Katrina tourists came through the visitor center today. Today’s attendance included a trickle of out of town visitors not involved in any relief efforts. At Mammoth Cave I enjoyed not having to satisfy people’s curiosity. I find myself answering questions about the destruction with as few words as possible. These people are tourists in the most negative sense of the word.

Then there were some people who wanted to enjoy the outdoors. These are the people I work in a park for. I describe the trails for them, tell them what they’re likely to see, and answer their many other reasonable questions.

One man, in town this week working with a Christian volunteer group, said, “This is overwhelming. I can’t get over it. I’ve seen tornadoes but this is worse. How do you people deal with this?” I don’t know how to answer that, but I said there is nothing else to do but deal with it.

Another man said, “A lot of people living in FEMA trailers I guess.” “Tens of thousands,” I answered. I’m not sure why he felt this was worth mentioning, as he seemed to be local, but I believe it’s an oblique Southern way of asking “Are you living in a FEMA trailer?”

His wife asked me after looking over our salvaged exhibits decorating the trailer, “Why didn’t you just move all of the valuable stuff out of the building when you heard there was a 30-foot storm surge coming?” I said I didn’t recall hearing before the storm that there would be a 30-foot storm surge, and anyway it would have taken days to move everything out. I didn’t ask her where she thought we should store everything. It turns out this couple was from Ocean Springs. She should know better than to ask that.

I couldn’t say this to her at work, so I’ll write it here: Fuck you, lady. Fuck you and I hope the next time you second-guess somebody whose home or business was obliterated by this hurricane that they kick you right in the crotch.

A-okay today.

I actually had a pretty good day. What’s going on? My boss gave me a good year-end evaluation and I now have a work plan for the next year. This is the first real direction I’ve gotten from work since August 27, 2005 when they said, “evacuate.”

Went to yoga this evening. I am sore, but good sore.

There’s a funny song playing on the radio here. It is called “Downtown Got Run Over by Katrina (to the tune of “Grandma Got Run Over…”)”, recorded by the Pascagoula High School Chorus.

Sea stars and a sad little boy

Back to work in Disasterland. Carol, our volunteer, and I hosted about twenty little kids and their parents who are living on a cruise ship in Pascagoula. FEMA and some Americorps volunteers arranged for them to visit the park. Carol taught them to make Christmas tree ornaments out of dried starfish (ordered from a catalog; wouldn’t it be funny if they were harvesting them from the islands and selling our poached resources back to us?) I took them on a little walk on the trail. There’s not much else to do there right now. Man, they were noisy but I got them to quiet down on the way back. One little boy didn’t have enough money to buy a souvenir from our bookstore. He was beside himself with disappointment and hung his head. On the trail he quietly asked me for a dollar.

Search and rescue

I notice today for the first time a search-and-rescue mark on my door. When I open the door I usually have my head down looking at the key, so I never saw it. Today I just happened to be admiring the hurricane shmutz still adorning the building exterior. It’s not a proper SAR mark-in an “X” like I saw spray-painted on houses in the flooded areas-but in permanent marker:

Checked 9/5
JCSO (Jackson County Sheriff’s Office)

It gave me a brief chill.

Apartment drama

The apartment complex management held a meeting for the tenants last night with their insurance rep. They decided the entire complex needs to be rehabilitated and we’re all going to have to move within the next few months. The plan (a very loose plan with no real specifics) is to shuffle us around as they rehab a couple of buildings at a time. We are responsible for moving expenses; a very big deal given the extreme shortage of movers and related equipment. They say nobody should have to move more than once.

The people with the worst damage are screwed, though. They’ve already moved out because their apartments are uninhabitable. Since they’re not paying rent and don’t live here, they aren’t tenants and aren’t part of this plan. They will remain homeless until perhaps they can rent a vacant apartment after the repairs are finished.

They won’t start moving us for a month or two, and they intend to start with the two-bedroom units. Which means I won’t move for a few months. However, my lease expires at the end of December. I was up most of last night considering the prospect of my lease not being renewed. I learned today that they won’t renew it or sign any new leases, but will allow me to live here without a lease until they move me into a repaired apartment.

The recovery continues

My boss and I marked out office and storage space with masking tape in our temporary visitor center, a massive prefab-trailer thing. I made up a list of boat supplies we’ll need to start marsh tours again (our boat house is in pancake form down in the marsh). Today the district biologist learned that most of his data from this year was not fully backed-up on the LAN. That’s like flushing work down the toilet, a real bummer.

Longish day

I spent most of the work day preparing a shipment of soggy, moldy files. I can’t believe how long it took. I had trouble finding dry ice, something I have no experience using. Apparently when Wal-Mart is out of dry ice you’re out of dry ice. I was afraid we no longer lived in a capitalist economy but a Walopoly. Then I found a place in Gulfport that sells it.

La a. is driving me crazy. We still talk, but it’s the same situation.

All I could eat

The park’s neighbors at the Gulf Coast Research Lab donated two hundred and something pounds of live shrimps to our camp today. The shrimps were raised in a pond as part of an aquaculture experiment. The facility was badly damaged by the storm and the lab needed to get rid of them. So we ate them for dinner.

It was a lot of shrimp and took a long time to prepare. We made an assembly line to clean and dehead them. I was working alongside firefighters from places like Wyoming and Montana. They thought the whole thing was pretty funny and I’m sure they’ll be talking about it for a long time. The shrimps were boiled with red potatoes and corn on the cob and we had an all-you-can-eat seafood feast. It was just piled up on a table and we filled our plates. The logisitics section got fried some fish as well. Our carpenter even constructed an impromptu table with holes in the middle so we could just stand around, peel, and throw the shells away. My stomach is about to burst.

That was some good stuff. Which goes to show you that good stuff can come from bad stuff.

Island visit

I went out to West Ship Island again to take photos for the incident information officer. It was blazing hot, as always. The seas were still a bit choppy from Rita. In fact, the storm surge on Saturday destroyed the temporary walkway on the damaged pier and washed the massive wrack line away. I rode back to the mainland on a very small and very underpowered boat and nearly got seasick for the first time since I moved to Mississippi. I’d have been quite embarrassed but it was a rough ride. I redeemed myself by helping the pilot navigate back to Davis Bayou.

A green tractor is upended and partially buried in the sand.