A PISTONS ASSIST

BILOXI, Miss. – Here in this coastal town, where the devil’s wind met the devil’s water, every breath you take is matched by a breath that is taken away, every stunned blink is met by a blink more stunning, a roofless house, a dog peering out a broken second-story window, an overturned casino floating on its side, red numbers painted on boarded doors to count the dead bodies inside.

Ronald Dupree, a Pistons forward, stands in the sunshine near the football field of youth, Biloxi High. The last time he was here, eight years ago, he was homecoming king. The girl beside him was homecoming queen. “Oh, the place was packed,” he remembers.

That was before Hurricane Katrina, of course, which means it was another town on another planet. The place is packed now, too, packed with hundreds of thirsty people standing in the blazing sun. Some have waited hours just to see a Salvation Army worker about supplies, food, medicine or money. The football field is covered in tents for the sick or homeless. The stands are littered with debris that washed up during the storm. A sign on the fence reads, “Welcome To Compassion Central.”

We have flown here on a plane from our safe and dry confines to deliver some of what our state has gathered for those shaken by Katrina, the most destructive storm in the nation’s history. We have brought so much. Around 20 tons of diapers, toiletries, tents, paper towels, baby food, brooms, trash bags, even giant cartons of Beanie Babies. We load it onto a truck. Another plane, filled only with cargo, has been flown down as well. The idea sprang from the Pistons’ front office, and some of them are here with us now, along with some businessmen from Art Van Furniture and Rock Financial, some TV and radio people, and pro athletes such as Dupree, Barbara Farris of the Detroit Shock and Lem Barney, the Lions’ Hall of Famer.

We have brought so much. The idea is to provide comfort.

But the discomfort is overwhelming.

Unforgettable impressions

“Ronald Dupree! Yo, dog!” yells a heavyset woman in a white T-shirt, who fans herself with a hand towel and announces her name as Sharon Laster. She says she is 34 and she used to work “at a hotel near the beach,” until Katrina huffed and puffed and blew her whole life down and the hotel “got washed away. Ain’t nothing but rubble there now.”

She snorts. “I’m still waiting to get paid. Ain’t seen my boss. Someone told me he’s been drunk every day since the storm.”

Laster and her mother huddled on the second floor of their house during Katrina. The water rose to within three feet of them. So now Laster is another needy person in a long line of needy people. Still, she smiles when she sees Dupree, whom she remembers from his high school days, and she hugs him and she says, “I wish y’all had won that ring!”

Dupree, 24, smiles and hugs her back. Later, away from the stadium, his face saddens and his voice drops. “I can’t do much for these people besides try to cheer them up,” he says. “This is my hometown. It’s like watching your whole family suffer.”

It is unavoidable depression from unforgettable impressions. We have brought so much. But what you see in these gulf coast towns will bring you to your knees. It is that overwhelming.

We are not talking about a few broken windows or some missing shingles. Whatever place this place once was, it is no longer that. It is now a place where things are stunningly out of location, like a stage that has been wrongly set, a truck resting halfway over a concrete wall, a pile of debris taller than the crumbled house from which it came, a slab of sidewalk attached to the bottom of an upside-down tree, a four-lane highway along the coast that has been sliced into pieces as if cut by a sushi chef, huge slabs of concrete poking out of the Gulf of Mexico like bobbing surfboards.

A place called the Boomtown Casino now has giant yellow tubing sucking water out of its windows, while its army of slot machines sits baking in the parking lot. Tall trees carry eerie debris high up in their branches, plastic bags, sheets, old clothing. When you ask how all that stuff got up there, a relief worker says, “That’s how high the water took them.”

One of the Salvation Army centers, just a few blocks from the gulf, was hit so hard by the storm that two-thirds of the building washed across the street. All that was left were four posts of the chapel and a roof that looked as if a giant fist had smashed it. Yet a few days later, someone set a table on the soaking lawn and someone dropped off piles of new clothing, as if the place were operational.

Meanwhile, beneath the stands of the football stadium, a 40-year-old bearded man named Carl recounts his day: He says he rose at 4 a.m., bummed a ride from two neighbors, and rode around trying to find a place that had food stamps. “Then we saw this Salvation Army truck, so we followed it here. We heard they were giving out breakfast.”

He has a cane. His right leg is in a brace. His right hand is in a cast. He says he is disabled and “my mind don’t work right, either.” Still, when a reporter is amazed that he has been waiting since 7 a.m. and it is now 11:05, he says, “Hey, I don’t mind. We’re out of the sun. That’s lucky for us.”

Staying at her post

Katrina’s waves, when they hit the coast here, were as high as 60 feet, people say. The damage to the new Hard Rock Café Casino was between $100 million and $150 million, people say. It will take, most likely, 10 years to rebuild, people say.

The numbers fly. Who knows what is true? Who can say if the waves were 50 or 60 feet, if it’s $100 million or $200 million, if it’s 10 years or 20 years? Who can say? All you know for sure is that anyone who thinks this tragedy has somehow run its course, that the two-week time limit on any big news story has been reached, that Mississippi and Louisiana should dry up quickly now and fix themselves so that we can move on – anyone who thinks that is more naïve than those who thought Katrina would be a rain shower.

The damage in Biloxi, particularly near the shoreline, is immeasurable. During our visit Tuesday, we saw no efforts at cleanup, let alone rebuilding. Many of the hardest hit areas are still accessible only to military vehicles or accredited media. Where are the people who called this place home? What becomes of the disenfranchised?

A few hours later, we fly to Baton Rouge, La. We unload more cargo. We have brought so much. At a nearby high school, a car door opens and Farris, the basketball star, gets out and lopes happily toward a woman nearly a foot shorter.

“Hi, Mom!” Farris says.

They hug. And they cry. Juanita Farris is a nurse at a hospital on the west side of New Orleans. When the hurricane was coming, her husband and son escaped, but she stayed at the hospital, deliberately, because, as she says, “I’m a nurse.”

For the next two weeks, she slept on the floor of her office, down the hall from the intensive care unit. She ate what food was available in the hospital and she wore the same uniforms several times and she went days without being able to talk to her daughter to tell her she was safe.

Now here she is, gripping her daughter and wiping tears. When asked why she stayed through all that horror, she says, “My place is with my patients. Anyhow, I’m fine. So many people had it so much worse than we did.”

And in the end, that is how people cope with this tragedy, by measuring their misfortune against the misfortune they avoided. Carl, who is disabled, is happy he’s not dead, and Sharon, who is homeless, is happy she’s not disabled, and Juanita, who slept on the office floor, is happy she’s not homeless, and the sweaty passengers who flew down from Detroit are happy to fly back at the end of the day to the loving arms of their family and friends. You take the blows life gives you and you remind yourself the water is always higher someplace else.

We have brought so much. All told, through this particular Pistons-inspired effort, 260 tons of supplies were collected, the rest to be delivered by truck. Two hundred and sixty tons? And yet, if we are honest, that is not what we remember. We remember a highway under water and a huge fisherman’s statue that was blown off its podium and was lying in the grass, as if praying to the heavens. We remember those Mississippi trees that measured the height of the storm with towels and bags that washed onto their branches.

We have brought so much. But here, at the intersection of hell and high water, even so much can seem like so little.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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