An experience like no other

T.J. Eisenstein, art director for The Hurricane, was one of the students that traveled to Biloxi, Miss., to aid in the hurricane relief effort. Here he recounts his experience in this two-part series.

I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. “It’s like a third-world country,” I was told. “You won’t have electricity, running water, a place to sleep.” I was going for “hurricane relief,” which is a pretty loose term, and none of us knew exactly what that meant. Everything was up in the air, except the vitals: 41 students, three days to Biloxi, back for Monday classes. We didn’t know what to expect.

Surely, though, we couldn’t have expected the damage we would encounter, the lives we would touch and the bonds we would form. Looking out the windows of the bus as we entered Katrina territory, the scene looked like something out of an apocalyptic movie. No one walked the sidewalks and barely any cars were on the streets. Trees still lay across roads, streetlights were either non-existent or not working, and debris and trash lay piled in all directions as far as the eye could see. Aneerie silence covered the streets, and I almost felt bad taking pictures of the people of Biloxi’s misery through the window of our air-conditioned coach. It was a ghost town.

What was supposed to be 12 hours on a bus had turned into 18, and we arrived at the Salvation Army makeshift headquarters in Biloxi midday Friday fueled on excitement and candy but very little sleep. After signing our lives away and being equipped with gloves, masks and plenty of hand sanitizer-all in an effort to reduce the risk of germs and airborne disease-we made our way to the house we would be cleaning.

When Katrina crashed into the shores of Biloxi, it sent a storm surge eight feet tall across the entire city. When eight feet of water flooded the homes of Biloxi, it didn’t just dampen the carpets and curl the pages of the coffee-table books-it picked up every possession in every house and held it eight feet above the ground, creating a stew of household possessions that was beat at and stirred by 150 mph winds for two hours. When the water receded, everything dropped back down to the ground to lie wherever it may have landed. The inside of every single home in the city of 60,000 was transformed into, quite literally, a trash dump-if the house was still standing, that is. Our job was to clear out the house. Everything had to go, from the silver ware in the kitchen to the beds and dressers in the bedrooms.

As I approached the house, the smell was the first thing I noticed. At first it was a slightly pungent odor, but that was from the street. The closer I got, the funk of 12 days-rotten food, mold, sewage, mud and decay, which had driven away a group of Marines a day earlier, permeated through my mask and nauseated my every move. Somehow Frank, the owner of the house, had lived on his porch amongst the chaos that was his home for the past 12 days and 12 nights, splitting time between his wheelchair and his La-Z-Boy.

He told us his stories of surviving the hurricane, as everyone in the city has their own heartbreaking tale, and we entered the house.

Part two of this series will appear in the Tuesday, Sept. 20 issue of The Hurricane.