August 20, 1969. I should have been preparing for my first classes. I was a new teacher, and would soon be facing classrooms full of eager teenagers. Tenth grade was a tough grade for them because it was their first year at the high school. Instead, we were all facing a nightmare that none of us would ever forget.
Just days before, I had been enjoying myself at Katlinburg, Tennessee with my young daughter and my in-laws. We were on vacation and then they would take us home…or so we thought at the time.
As we drove down the highway toward the coast, we were stopped for identification checks. I still had my Maryland driver’s license, so I didn’t have any ID with my new address on it. I explained, “I just moved here; I’m a teacher at Long Beach High School. I live on Pecan Circle in Long Beach. This is my daughter and these are my in-laws; we’ve been on vacation out of town.”
When we turned right onto Highway 90, I burst into tears, uncontrollable tears. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I was dreaming, wasn’t I? Were those ships on the highway? Alligators! On the beach! Yes. All these things were true. We were facing what was left behind after Hurricane Camille passed through this area on the night of the 18th.
“I don’t know if I can find where we lived.” I cried. We kept on driving west until I saw the traffic light. It was still strung up over the highway! How it survived was a mystery, but I knew this was the street to the little sleepy town of Long Beach, Mississippi. The shopping centers were gone except for part of the roof of the A & P that sheltered nothing…just a washed out hollow store. We drove past homes that should have been there. We passed the little city where a few buildings still stood surrounded by tons of debris. I was still crying and praying at the same time. Would we still have a home? Was the high school still standing? We drove on. We crossed the railroad tracks and turned left. “Now right. Turn right here!” Trees were down, but I knew where to turn.
When we got to our street, we had to get out of the car and walk. Tall pines blocked the road. The air was muggy and hot. Down the road, I saw our turn-in. The house on the corner had no roof and it was collapsed upon itself. At this point we started to run toward our house. RonnAnn ran ahead and said, “It’s still here, Mommy!” I looked for my keys to the door. We rushed in and I heard my dogs barking in the back yard! “Thank goodness, the dogs are still alive!” I had someone feed them daily while we were gone, but never dreamed they would have to endure a hurricane.
We had very little damage compared to others. Our windows had been blown out on one side of the house. Our chain link fence was gone and both my pecan trees were rubble in the backyard. The rain damage was from “blown” water, not rising water, so the insurance covered everything. I had ceramic floors that were affected, but still had lots of unpacked boxes that now stood in water.
We looked in on our neighbors and heard their stories of surviving the terror. They had all ridden out the storm in their homes. At one point during the eye, police in trucks came and took them to the high school shelter. The house behind ours had lost its roof, but no one had died in our neighborhood. In order to stay, we would have to have tetanus and typhoid shots. We decided to get my car and go back to my folks in Maryland until some of the needs were met here. There was no clean water and no electricity for several weeks.
We drove to Pass Christian where I had left my car to the young woman who was taking care of the dogs. She had filled the tub with water so the animals would have clean water for awhile. She had also boarded some of the windows for me. Amazingly, my car was not damaged even though all the others in her neighborhood had been. I left the car for her so she could continue to care for my little Critter and Sugar. We drove around the town where we could. We saw the destruction first hand. The house where I had lived when we first moved to Mississippi was damaged. Many trees were down and the road in front of the house had been rolled up like a jelly roll up against the railroad tracks. There was a house in the middle of the street, washed there from a block away. We talked to neighbors who told us about the church being gone (Trinity Episcopal) and the dead bodies being washed up from the graves at the Live Oak Cemetery.
We drove passed the once beautiful Richelieu Apartments. The only thing left was the hole where the pool had been. I think I was in shock most of this time. I still cried a lot all the way back to Maryland. I watched the news and called until I found out when the school would open. I couldn’t imagine what my students had endured, but I would soon hear about their ordeals first hand.
That, dear readers, is another story to tell.