Biloxi, My Love

August 6, 2007

Autobiographical note: I spent four months living and working in Biloxi Mississippi as part of a sort of ad hoc study abroad program this spring. I went down there because my conscience told me it was the “right thing to do�? but I found more than a charity case. I think its fair to say that I left my heart on the Gulf Coast. The work I did, the friends I made, the trains of thought that began there will be with me for a long time.
This thesis is, among many other things, but perhaps above all else, a love song – to Biloxi; to Hands On, which sheltered me from various storms; to the EBCRC, EBCRA, Hope Center or whatever-the-hell its called; to New Orleans and Mona’s Café; to the Shed (which is ironically my favorite restaurant in creation despite the fact that it serves not a single thing I can eat); to the damn casinos that I loved at sunrise, if at no other time; to the beach; to house on Nixon Street and to the whole Gulf Coast.

On August 29th, 2005 Hurricane Katrina made land fall near New Orleans with results that everyone saw publicized for days on CNN and Fox news. Shortly thereafter it slammed through Biloxi, MS; blowing off roofs, washing building-sized casino boats onto the shore and flooding the whole peninsula of East Biloxi feet deep. The disaster in Mississippi got less attention in the national media but did as much damage or more. In its wake streets were left impassable by the debris – houses down the block from their foundations, downed trees and the detritus of a community shaken like a snow globe littered the city. FEMA estimated that 39.9 million cubic yards of debris were generated in Mississippi alone. “As much as one-third of the debris is vegetative matter that can be burned or chipped for compost. The rest must be recycled or land filled.�? This is seriously problematic as Mississippi didn’t have enough landfills to accommodate that load.(1)
By the time I first set eyes on the city in March of 2006, most of this had been cleaned up, at least on the surface. The streets were clear and passable, although sidewalks were gone and houses still stood at odd angles in front yards, often not their own. During the week I worked in Mississippi that spring break I watched several condemned houses demolished and saw the remnants of many more – piles of rubble filling the space between chain link fences. A year later, when I returned to Biloxi, this time for a four month stay, even more of the visual evidence of the storm had been cleared. All those demolished houses had been transformed into empty lots with grass and weeds growing up to cover the concrete block foundations, stairways rising pitifully to nowhere and defunct driveways.
[Where did all that trash go!] [look into that EPA don’t ask don’t tell policy on all the moldy crap from New Orleans – where did I hear that rumor?]
To the uninformed Biloxi today might even appear to be a run-of-the-mill, run down community in any part of the country, albeit with rather more empty lots than normal. To me, though, the vacant property stood out like missing teeth in the face of an accident victim whose bruises are beginning to fade. I never saw Biloxi before the storm – but I know it didn’t look like this. The chain link fences are twisted and broken as evidence of the trees and buildings which collided with them. The sidewalks are heaving and crumbled, often missing, showing how the soil bubbled and churned under them.
And Biloxi is still a city filled with blowing trash. Most of this is no longer the detritus of Katrina but the carelessness of its current residents – social impulses worn down by the body blow that the community has taken. The city of Biloxi will pick up any construction waste that is Katrina related so people clearing moldy houses, demolishing sodden drywall and moldy rotten 2x4s, and knocking out broken windows carry their debris to the sidewalk and dump it there. Trucks come around irregularly and the piles grow large and flow out past the parking strip and into the lanes of traffic. People simply learn to live with it, walking down the center of streets rather than on sidewalks even if they still exist. Some of the trash is more circumstantial. Volunteers, construction workers and residents go through palates of bottled water every day, partly due to nerves about the city supply and partly because it is still arriving by the donated truckload on an almost daily basis. They down a 12 oz bottle in one long, thirsty gulp and then drop it on the nearest trash pile. Then the lightweight plastic bottle is caught by the next gust of wind and blows into the street proper. [This is on the generous assumption that such bottles aren’t dropped directly onto the street by their users.]
Biloxi, for me, was a laboratory and wake up call on any number of fronts, but for the purposes of right now, it really clarified the idea of waste in America and especially in the construction industry.

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