The World According to Tiff Sniff

Meandering ponderings and wonderings on the state of things.

Sweet Home Alabama

Day One, Friday: We load up and leave Franklin at about 7:30 a.m. We fill up at a Shell station on the way out of town. So far, so good. The drive down is uneventful. For a Labor Day weekend, that's a nice change. During our drive we pass a handful of convoys, presumably headed to the coast to help with cleanup. There are mostly military groups, camouflaged trucks with unknown contents. But there are also convoys of presumably private truckers, carrying construction equipment and building supplies. I am moved to tears to see the way everyone is headed to help. On the way, we stop to get gas every chance we get. We never have to wait in line, although there are some stations with no supply. Prices are still reasonable, about $2.79-2.89 a gallon. By late afternoon we are in Orange Beach. There are two cars besides ours in the condominium parking lot. The beach is practically deserted. We go out for a little while, and come in when it gets dark.

Day Two, Saturday: We sleep in a little, and take our time eating breakfast and getting ready. We finally head out to the water about 11:00. From our eleventh-floor balcony, we can see families trickling out to the shoreline, but so far there aren't very many. We conclude that the crowds must be on the way. The wind and rain from Katrina have cause some problems here, but not as much as in other areas. This area (between Pensacola and Gulf Shores) is still mostly worried about recovering from Hurricane Ivan, last year's big storm. Our unit has hurricane-proof windows that didn't break under Katrina's force, but some water did seep in around the edges, leaving the area rug damp. It had been cleaned by the time we got there, though.

We walk out to the beach, and settle in just in front of the complex's lounge chairs; it costs $20 to rent a set of chairs and an umbrella for the day, and we have our own, so we decline the rental. Katrina has brought to this beach some extra sand: about 10 feet from the water's edge, a sandbar sticks up out of the water. Inland of the sandbar, the water is shallow, with a weak current. Perfect as a play area for the younger kids out there. Small fish swarm through it, looking for food, and running from nets wielded by excited 4-year-olds. Beyond the bar, the water is calm and incredibly clear. Twice we see a small shark (a different one each time) come close to shore, after those same small fish my cousins are chasing. There are also scattered jellyfish and an occasional stingray.

The woman who sets up her beach accoutrements beside us is from just outside of Buloxi. She and her immediate family evacuated here. Her extended family (parents, siblings) stayed home. Some of them were lost in the storm. The ones who survived lost everything. She is lucky, because her house is still standing, albeit with a tree in the roof. Over the next two days, she sits on the beach, watching her kids play in the surf, and making phone calls back to Mississippi, trying to find someone who can help her get her house fixed, so they can return home.

Every morning, a dozen or so military helicopters fly overhead, flying west from Pensacola to help with the rescue efforts. Every afternoon, they fly back. Every time, most of us standing on the beach stop what we're doing to wave at them. It's not much, but we want them to know we see what they're doing, and we are all incredibly proud of what they have accomplished. We know, too, that they will do this for an untold number of days, and want to encourage them.

Very few people arrive during the day. We have the beach mostly to ourselves. It is wonderfully relaxing.

That night, we decide to go out to dinner. Baldwin county is still under a curfew, but we aren't planning to be out too late. We clean up and get dressed, and decide to go to Lulu's in Gulf Shores. Lulu's is run by Jimmy Buffet's sister Lucy; he is her principal investor. Saturday night, Labor Day Weekend, 7:00 p.m., a popular restaurant owned by a celebrity, with live music. And we didn't have to wait for a table. There were only a handful of cars on the roads. My mom and uncle both called it a ghost town at the same time. It was quite eerie.

As I said before, the region is still cleaning up from last year, and Katrina has slowed that effort down. Resources are being sent west, where there are more immediate needs. We drive past rows of dark buildings, where the power hasn't yet been restored. Cranes tower over half-built and half-repaired structures, their crews also sent west. Sand has been blown and washed in for half a mile; in places, you can't tell where driveways and parking lots are. Most of the vegetation is dead. The trees are brown, having drowned in last year's onslaught. The newer, younger plants are yellow, having just perished. The beach houses are beautiful - new, colorful, interesting, and large. In good times, this must be a gorgeous place. But for now, it's just creepy.

We eat a wonderful meal (Jack has the aptly named Cheeseburger in Paradise; Charlie throws up his grilled shrimp, having drunk too much soda with it) and head home.

Day Three, Sunday: We forego church services in favor of one last day on the water. We get a little earlier start today, heading out at 9:30. The beach is still lifeless. There are people out there, to be sure, but not nearly what you would expect on this weekend. This should be the busiest weekend of the year for this town, and it looks like the middle of the week during the school year. The sandbar is still there, but smaller, and the water has become a little more active.

The guy in charge of the lounge chairs and umbrellas walks over to where we're setting up. He begins to install an umbrella, and my aunt tells him we didn't want one. He says it's okay, he's not going to charge us. Apparently, the day before, no one had rented one all day, and he's now bored. We accept the umbrella and give him a good tip.

Charlie and I take a walk down to the seawall by the marina. It is clear that the condominium complex we have rented from has made a real effort to clean up the beach it is adjacent to. Beyond it, the sand is filled with trash, seaweed, driftwood, and general stuff. There are dead fish in the water. It is just gross. It doesn't take us long to decide to go back to "our" beach.

That night, we again head out for a nice meal, deciding on the Crab Trap. My aunt and cousins had eaten there before, and enjoyed it. It's a casual seafood place, right on the beach, with a small playground for the kids to enjoy while we waited for our food. (Again, there was no wait for a table.) The special of the night was all-you-can-eat crab legs for $14.99. The manager told us he was losing a lot of money on the deal, but it was at least getting people in the door, and they were ordering other things as well, so some money was coming in. Again, for Labor Day weekend, a pretty bleak story.

Day Four, Monday: I got up early to spend one last morning on the beach. The waves were much higher, and Charlie and I finally got some use out of the boogie board his dad had bought him. One more wave at the helicopters, one more sting ray chased by a bunch of excited children, one more hour spent lying half in the water, soaking in the sun and salt and wind. Mom and I pack up and head out. I have to be in court this morning (and am about to go back this afternoon), so we come back a day earlier than the rest of them. We stop for food and gas on the way out of town: $2.97 a gallon.

We don't hit any traffic at all until we're past Montgomery, and it never gets too bad. Which is nice for a holiday. We stop for gas a couple of times on the way back. Gas prices never go about $3 for regular until after we cross into Tennessee. We get home in less than 8 hours, unpack and return to reality.

This weekend was so relaxing for me. I needed 4 days on the beach. I didn't see any real devastation, just some minor damage, but it was still easy to understand just how much of an impact Katrina will have on this region for years to come. And so I leave you with a simple request: Beyond whatever help you're giving - donations, packing supplies, whatever - if you are already planning on going to the beach this year, and don't know where you want to go, please consider this area. They are in desperate need of tourist dollars. Labor Day Weekend should have been a huge time for them, with a lot of extra income that most of the businesses depend on to make it through tighter months. They didn't get that this year, and with the effect the storm will have on the economy along the coast, many of these restaurants and stores are probably in real danger of not lasting another year. So, if you can, consider a long weekend down there. It'll do you some good to get away; you know it will. And it will go a long way toward helping the coast recover from this tragedy.

1 Responses to “Sweet Home Alabama”

  1. # Blogger Michael Hickerson

    Reading the story about this area recovering slowly from the effects of last year's big storm makes me worry about what the future holds for NO and those areas when the coverage slows down and the interest wanes. We need to remember that it will take months or years for some to reclaim thier lives in this area--if ever.

    I am glad y'all had a good time even it was a bit subdued.  

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