Chris began to question the wisdom of his trip. It had been just three days since Hurricane Katrina struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast, leaving more destruction than he had anticipated. He picked his way on foot through the rubble and down Howard Avenue toward the eastern edge of Biloxi to find his grandmother’s house, and hopefully, his grandmother, whom everyone called Baba.
On the one-hour drive to the Coast from his college dorm in Hattiesburg, news reports on the radio only briefly described the damage in Mississippi before focusing on the progressive flooding of New Orleans and the plight of thousands of refugees at the Superdome. No more was reported of what Chris might find when he got to Biloxi, where he, his four brothers, both his parents, all his cousins, aunts, and uncles were born and called home.
Baba, his only remaining relative from a generation of Yugoslavian immigrants, had lived eighty-two years on what the locals called The Point, a low-lying spit of land that separates Back Bay from the Mississippi Sound. The Yugoslavian neighborhood was slowly being replaced by a new wave of immigrants, the Vietnamese. But Chris’s grandmother would not move from her house and the ancient oaks, dripping with Spanish moss, that surrounded it. She vowed she would never leave as long as she could still crack a bushel of pecans, shuck a sack of oysters, peel a mess of shrimp, or slow cook a pot of gumbo for Sunday supper.
That morning, Chris had left his car at a National Guard checkpoint on the far side of the only remaining bridge into the city. When he got to Biloxi, he found the streets covered in flotsam and rubbish. Boats littered front yards, and cars perched on their sides against tree trunks. Washed-out homes had been tagged by first responders with red markings—like some demonic game of tick-tack-toe—to indicate that the structure had been searched, and how many bodies had been recovered within.
Before the storm made landfall, before 180-mile-an-hour winds ripped the leaves off the trees, and before a thirty-foot wall of water came crashing over the seawall, bringing with it boats and barges and piers, the mayor of Biloxi had issued a mandatory evacuation order for the Point. Before the wind picked up, while the hot, humid air caused Baba’s light housecoat to cling to her thin frame, she would not leave. When the authorities were about to close the bridges, and her nephew stood on her porch and begged her to come with him, she said no. Her house had survived Hurricane Camille in ‘69, the worst possible storm ever, and she was not going to evacuate for this one.
As Chris made his way to the Point, he saw tracks of homes that were toppled and washed into adjacent lots. With only a few more blocks before he came to his grandmother’s house, he picked up his pace; sweat dripped from his neck and stained his dark blue shirt. His hope to find Baba sitting on her porch, making snap beans or sorting laundry, began to fade. He remembered her telling that her husband had built the house eight feet off the ground out of cypress logs. It was as solid as a schooner. No storm could knock it down, not even Camille.
Chris turned the corner and stood at what he believed was Pine Street and suddenly felt disoriented. The Shell station was missing, a slab was all that was left of the package store, and the Slavonian Benevolent Center, where he had sneaked his first kiss after a cotillion ball, was gone. Or was he mistaken, at the wrong intersection? No, down the street, he could see the remaining skeleton of St. Michael’s Catholic Church. Across the street, he recognized his grandmother’s pecan tree, uprooted and laying on its side where her house should have been. Chris then realized that he was alone on the Point. Where there was a vibrant living neighborhood three days ago, there was only open land, washed clean by the ocean. Vacant slabs, concrete steps, empty pilings, and sturdy oaks were all that remained—nothing to even pick through: no photographs, china dishes, or mementos. Everything had been swept into Back Bay. Chris feared his Baba had as well.