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My sister called at about 8:20 last Friday morning. She was in Eden Isles because there was a rumor that there was cell service there. There wasn’t. She was able to borrow a satellite phone from an NBC reporter and she called me.
"Tony, you’ve got to come and get Mom and Dad. Things are deteriorating quickly. Please come get Mom and Dad."
I was reluctant to go as my wife and I had just had our second child 6 weeks earlier. I talked to my folks on the day of the hurricane, before, and during the storm. They seemed okay. They looked around their house while the eye passed over and while their fence was destroyed and most of their trees were down, the house was fine. No power, but they had phone and water. Apparently those were now gone, after 5 days, still gone, and not expected back any time soon.
"Tony, you’ve got to come here. You’ve got to get Mom and Dad. Please."
"Okay Chris, I’ll be there by Monday at the latest. What do you need?”
I spent Friday planning. I didn’t want to go alone so I called my father-in-law Greg. He agreed to come. I shot off a few quick e-mails and phone calls asking for donations and folks responded. We packed approximately 200 pounds of food, containers for 18 gallons of water, 8 gallons of Coleman fuel, 2 cook stoves, 2 lanterns, 10 flashlights, 50 batteries, 2 gallons of hand sanitizers, 3 first aid kits, 2 empty propane tanks, 10 boxes of Pepto Bismal tablets, a 5 gallon gas can, 6 2 gallon gas cans, 3 1 gallon gas cans, a tarp, a hand crank radio, a boy scout handbook, a water purifier, 32 water purification tablets, a chainsaw, and about ,700, all in less than 24 hours.
I got on my computer and did some research. Where was there phone service, cell phone service, gas stations with gas, open hotel rooms?
I began to realize that most of Mississippi was in the dark ages. The last place I could expect to get gas was Tuscaloosa Alabama, 256 miles away. I did some calculations and figured we could get to Pearl River with a tank full but then would need at least another tank full to get out. We had put a plastic shell carrier on the roof of the car for the combustibles so we figured we’d hide the gas there. My sister suggested we bring a gun but I felt that to have a gun increased the chance we’d use a gun.
Greg and I left at 8:30 the next morning. Greg driving first. Nancy, my Mother-in-law had recently taught my 18 month old daughter Aubrey, the phrase "right back" meaning, wait here, I’ll be right back. That was the last thing I told her, my 6 week old, and my wife. Right back.
The first day we intended to drive to Chattanooga, Tennessee. But in the Virginia mountains the car started to sputter, not always, just on hills. I used my cell phone to call Kate who got on the Internet and got me numbers to call to arrange a rent a car in Knoxville, a Ford dealer to leave the car at, and a hotel room for the night. We were about 200 miles away from Knoxville and we hoped the car would make it. The car was low on gas so we stopped and filled it up. I speculated that premium gas might for some reason help so I filled it up with premium. later the car ran fine. I cancelled the rent a car and we headed for the hotel. After checking in we headed over to Wal-Mart to exchange the empty propane tanks for full ones, and then bought razors, more batteries, rice crispy treats, two non-electric phones, disposable cameras, STP gas treatment, and fuel injector cleaner. We stopped at the Burger King for dinner and then went back to the hotel. After wolfing our dinners and talking to our wives on our cell phones, we tried to go to sleep. We had hoped for 4 hours. 8 to midnight. My brother called my cell phone at about 9. "Bob, I’m on my way to get Mom and Dad. I need to sleep. I promise I’ll call you tomorrow." But I didn’t sleep. This was the second night I didn’t sleep. I got up and went down to the lobby.
The hotel had a business center. I realized I didn’t have soap for Chris and asked at the desk for some. The lady gave me a bag with about 5 tiny bars and a couple of shampoos. I started drinking coffee. I looked up more hotels on the route and called them. They seldom answered with "Hello, and thank you for calling BLAH hotel. This is XX how can I help you?" Most calls were answered reluctantly "hello."
I asked if they had rooms. I asked if there was gas in their town. Did they have cell service, did the whole town have land lines, did they have power.
Things hadn’t gotten much worse from Friday, but nothing had gotten better. I got reservations for the next night in Tuscaloosa. Some places in Tuscaloosa were out of gas.
11:30. I went to the car and got the Gerry cans to fill with water. The lady saw me heading back to the room with the containers and pointed out a spigot in the parking lot. Returning them full to the car, I headed back to the room. Greg was stirring and I grabbed a shower. We were back on the road by 1. I drove through dawn. A little outside of Birmingham we stopped for gas. I figured this was as good a time as any to fill the gas cans. Only a few hours from Tuscaloosa and the dead of night. It seemed a good idea to avoid attention. We filled the 20 gallons we had and I bought the 4 gas cans they had at the station. We put the gas and camp fuel in the cap and the propane tanks in the back and covered them with a sheet. We topped the car off with premium and hit the road. Once in Tuscaloosa we continued down 59 to the last Tuscaloosa exit. We got off and toured the 5 stations at the exit. All were out of gas. We got back on the highway and headed back east, the next exit had the same results. Back to the first Tuscaloosa exit and the fourth station, a giant Pilot station and they had gas. We topped off the tank, grabbed a couple of four-pacs of Red Bull, and headed toward Mississippi.
Sun broke at about 6:30. Approaching the border we began to see broken trees.
We turned on the radio and started listening to the local news. The insurance companies in Meridian were advertising their 800 numbers and urging policyholders to call. But they didn’t have phone service. I assume a previously scheduled ad for a funeral home ran. We’d look at the exits and saw lines. Lines at gas stations, lines at the Home Depot, the Wal-Mart. On to Hattiesburg. One of my colleagues near Hattiesburg had communicated to the rest of the U Press community that they had no or intermittent phone, power, or gas. More broken trees, road signs, lines. Then the long stretch down to Pearl River, just outside Slidell.
More ahead. Part 2