19 September 2005

After we had our comm towers up and our cots set up in our temporary digs, they split us into two shifts and paired us off. I drew day shift. My partner was Ofc. Burke, who will be a recurring character in these little vignettes. Burke is a good friend of mine since my first days out of the academy (he fixed me up with the last lovely and charming woman to become my ex-girlfriend). We've worked together many times, and we've developed a pretty effective Good Cop/Bad Cop routine. A few of you will no doubt be shocked and dismayed to learn that I am generally the Good Cop.

We met our liaison, a very tired command-rank officer with Gulfport PD whose house had been destroyed in the hurricane. He thanked us all for being there and told us that our gig was going to be directing traffic. The power was out all over Gulfport, so even the traffic lights which weren't embedded in the pavement weren't working. This type of thing is actually a huge manpower headache for police forces in hurricane-hit areas, though it doesn't get a lot of press. So Burke and I took over a four-way intersection along one of the main downtown thoroughfares, and got to work.

If nothing else, the experience taught me that police officers everywhere owe this guy an enormous debt of gratitude. The sun was merciless in a cloudless post-storm sky, and after about four solid hours in what was supposed to be a 12-hour shift, I was sunburned, dehydrated, and fairly delirious. I would space out for a second or two, always a good thing when standing in the middle of traffic, and find myself staring stupidly at a row of drivers staring stupidly back, waiting for my instructions. At least I didn't cause any wrecks.

One nice thing, though, was the number of people who stopped in the middle of the intersection to ask if we needed water. Others, without saying a word, would roll their windows down and hold a bottle out at arm's length as they passed. To the citizens of Gulfport, I say: thank you for that. Now learn to use your damn turn signals.

One guy stopped near Burke and asked him if we wanted any pineapples. "We've got 'em, we can't use 'em, and they're just going to go bad," he explained. "Take one for your buddy, too." It wasn't the last we saw of pineapples, either - they had quickly become a staple of the hurricane economy. We would find out later that a fleet of Dole trailers had been destroyed in the storm, spilling crates of the things. Dole wrote the whole load off, and just gave them away to any passers-by who wanted them, rather than letting them spoil. We gave them to the people running our field kitchen back at the CP.

The day shift supervisor came by at one point, asking if we needed anything. Burke needed to use the restroom, so they went off and returned after a pretty long time. They were delayed because a report had gone out of looting in progress at a convenience store along one of the main boulevards of Gulfport. They pulled up on scene in time to see people running out of the store with armloads of cigarettes. Before they had a chance to touch nightstick to goon, however, they discovered that the owner of the store was on hand. He had decided that since his stock was all likely to spoil, go bad, or be stolen, he was better off just giving it away to random members of the public, who, presumably, were just trying to get out of there in a quick manner before he changed his mind.

Luckily for us, we got pulled off the traffic detail early. Our homeless liaison had argued to Gulfport commanders that they were wasting us on traffic control, when we could be better used on patrol chasing looters. We agreed. Frankly, we would have agreed to chase the elusive Gulfport Yeti, to get out of a week of 12-hour days directing traffic.

A side note: for more on Katrina, check out Jack Jackson and Cerberus, some other cops who went to the Gulf Coast to help out.

Ofc. Krupke at 9:10 AM
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12 September 2005

As we headed down the highway and into Gulfport, we saw our first few indications of what the storm had done. We pased a heavy-duty Ford pickup truck which was lying on its side, pushed off the right shoulder of the causeway we were driving over. Further on, we could see the bridge of a tugboat which had been rammed up against the side of the road where the waves had pushed it. Luckily, the causeway didn't seem to have taken much damage. Someone made a crack over the radio to the effect that "That boat is docked." Nobody laughed.

Elsewhere, we passed what looked like a group of abandoned cars by the roadside, but which turned out to be the tail end of a gas line that stretched about a mile down the highway, up an off-ramp, and off to some unseen gas station at the exit. Near the end of the line was a woman whose car had evidently limped just far enough before going bone dry. As the line crawled slowly forward, she would push her car along with it. How she planned to get up the off-ramp I have no idea. The line was in any case not moving very fast, as there was a large number of people standing outside their cars talking, looking up in wonder as our convoy of flashing lights rolled past. One lady waved at us. Another guy gave us the finger. Welcome to the Great State of Katrina, y'all.

We came into the city by U.S. Highway 49, which cuts through Gulfport perpendicular to the coastline. The power was down, along with a lot of the power lines. A pair of National Guard MPs were directing traffic, and a roadwork sign cheerily flashed that there was a 24-hour curfew in effect. A warehouse or store of some kind had its entire front ripped off, its sodden merchandise spilling onto the parking lot, garnished with a sign hand-painted on a piece of cardboard: OWNER HERE W/ GUN.

We established our CP in the unused cafeteria of a local school. There was no power or running water, but the floor in that part of the building was dry and the roof was in place, so we were pretty well off, all things considered. We rigged up a trio of generators to power a construction light and a pair of heavy-duty fans borrowed from GPD. They even set up a satellite dish on the communications trailer and plugged it into a TV found in the A/V Club closet, so we could watch ourselves on the news, I guess.

Dangling from the cafeteria ceiling by a piece of fishing line was a cutout evidently made in one of those give-a-damn, global-citizen classes the kids are forced into these days. It was a drawing of an anthropomorphic monkey wearing a T-shirt and shorts. On one side it read GIVE ME FOOD. On the other, SAVE MY HOME. It spun desultorily in the cross-breeze. If I had seen something like that in a movie, I would have snorted at the heavy-handed symbolism of it. But there it was. And so were we.