Editor's Note: This is a blog of sorts, the final story in a three-part mini-series from Newswatch staffer Kerry Corum, on her recent volunteer trip to the Gulf Coast.
A chance encounter with Escambia County Police Sergeant Webber, at the Highway 49 IHOP, changed the whole Mississippi experience for me. He introduced me to two deputies from his county's sheriff's department in Pensacola, Florida. I only approached him to get the latest on Harrison County relief, or any other information he could provide - but he floored me by asking if I'd like an aerial tour of the coastline. Are you kidding?
Trying to hide the grin, not really appropriate but I couldn't help myself, he pointed out two men in jump suits sitting at the adjacent table. Air operations - for the first time, I was envious of someone else's occupation. Introductions by way of business cards (they didn't say much, I think they were as surprised to see me as I was them) told me they were Deputy Aaron Brown and his partner, Deputy Tim Murphy.
I later learned, Brown has served with the Escambia County Air Operations for 2 1/2 years, Murphy for one year. Their primary function is to support patrol officers, or as Murphy puts it, "To help catch the bad guys." Their "bird" as they refer to the helicopter, is primarily used in support of both county and city patrol officers, and to search for marijuana crops.
But a call for help from the Harrison County Sheriff's Department in Gulfport changed all that.
They were sent to aid Gulfport's law enforcement in shifts, lasting an entire week per crew, leaving their own homes and families behind to help others.
I gave them my number and waited. Late in the day, I was sure they'd forgotten about me, when I found my cell phone under the seat of our truck. In a message, the deputies told me to be at the Harrison County jail at 7:00 AM Sunday morning for a VIP tour. I called Evansville Building Commissioner Roger Lehman in the truck ahead of us, barely able to conceal the excitement. Although this isn't the type of sightseeing you do on vacation, this was no vacation and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - so I asked Roger to accompany me.
Waking on my own on the floor of the newly-tarped church Sunday morning, I jumped into jeans and a ball cap - grabbed my camera and headed to the jail - an intimidating, razor-wire and ten-foot fence lined structure with a long winding drive. In the middle of the yard, I could see the helicopter. This wouldn't be my first helicopter ride, but it sure felt like it.
Unsure of what to expect, and not real sure I wanted to see it, Roger and I were buckled in tightly and asked not to rest our arms on the door handles - even though the deputies in the front seat had no doors at all - and we were off, leaving behind what I thought was the worst of the damage.
Any written description of what I observed for the next 30 minutes wouldn't do it justice. I can only tell you it made me feel as if I were patrolling a World War I movie set. Surreal, intangible and impossible. That's the best I can muster, unless you could've seen the slack-jawed expression I must have worn throughout the flight. (Good thing they couldn't see me from where they were seated.)
But Roger's background gave him a different kind of understanding. "My impression was the immensity, the power of nature in this case. The fact that it could wipe hundreds of buildings off the map - off the foundations - in a single swipe. How it could move huge barges with multi-story buildings on them, seemingly at will, and put them wherever it felt like putting them."
Some of the buildings are still standing. It makes you wonder about the cost of creating something so strong, that could withstand a force that brings towering hotels to the ground in moments. Roger explained, "And from the building perspective - you cannot design a building that could withstand that type of power economically." So it could be narrowed down to cost alone.
One fear that stuck with him, "Some people thought they could ride it out -there were probably people in those homes who thought 'I've got a concrete-block home, I've withstood other ones.' And those people are probably still in there." But not alive. There were many homes marked with a large, orange 'X' to indicate a deceased person inside.
I'm disappointed to hear their crew will pull-out of Gulfport the day before we arrive for our next mission, September 30th. It was definitely a trip I'll never forget.
We returned to our church where the crew had completed covering another home. Everyone was in good spirits as we packed up, but it was hard with so much left to be done. Most of the talk on the trip home centered around 'when' we would return and the list of homes that would be waiting for us.