Notes from the Ground

by Will Olivos | 10/17/05 5:00am

Today marks the first time in a week that I've had downtime between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Today, I've been assigned basecamp at our headquarters (the community center of a church left standing from Katrina). Admin has consisted of a few points today: (a) manning walkie talkies and coordinating debris crews, (b) informing the public works department, to their chagrin, that one of our chainsaw teams uncovered a "furiously gushing" water main break, (c) answering the phonecalls of anxious survivors and potential volunteers, and (d) most recently, signing onto Facebook. There was a statistical issue that has been nagging me for days, and I wanted Mark Zuckerburg's assessment.

Facebook Search -- People Who Live In MS. Displaying all 8 results. I quickly discerned that 2 of those 8 were, in fact, not real people.

With another free moment, I Mapquested. Hanover to Biloxi is approximately 1,549.4 miles. However, that isn't entirely accurate; an expeditious traveler would be upset to find that the last leg of that proposed trip, Beach Boulevard, is inaccessible due to vehicular and arboreal litter of mass proportions.

I don't mean to patronize with statistics. These numbers are accessible to us because they're easy to take in. Where we're from. How many miles. Numbers are life's Cliff's Notes. They make it all easier to swallow and they make us aware. Since Hurricane Katrina demolished hundreds of miles of Gulf coastline and inland, we've put an ear to the media, and empathized to an extent. And this is dear old Dartmouth I'm speaking to, young and old, sharing that same Green combination of cleverness and caring that draws us in and shoots us out. We joke about the bucolic bubble, but at heart if we weren't worried about getting it all done before Wednesday night, watching the sun come up outside Novack during finals week, or (for alumni) paying the lease and raising a family, I believe a good number of us would be out making things happen. There's more than numbers, and although life can be a bit frenetic under Baker Tower's Fitzgeraldian green light, the Dartmouth soul is good and it sticks. So, Dartmouth to Dartmouth, let me contextualize some numbers, just from my experience here thus far.

  1. Hours I spent aboard and in bus stations along the route from D.C. to Biloxi.

  2. Hours I slept in that period.

  3. By my count, the approximate number of separate elderly refugees returning home to the South that I helped carry bags and boxes for along the line. Most of them had their life's possessions with them and as the particular bus line I took had a no-baggage-help policy, it came down to young passengers to help transport luggage around the stations.

2,000. Number of dollars that my seatmate from Charlotte to Atlanta had on a check from the U.S. Treasury, courtesy of FEMA. He lost almost everything, and was literally traveling back home to a Rita-ravaged community to find a bank to cash this check. He showed me only after a 30 minute discussion we had of the intricacies of contrasting styles between Andre 3000 and Lil' Jon, and our respect for the Dunn-Duckett combo of Atlanta football.

  1. Kitchens from which I tore drywall, sheetrock, and aesthetics two days ago. It's all part of a primary effort to get the molded sections out of houses before the rot penetrates the foundation. In other words, emergency deconstruction. Derrida would be proud.

  2. Degrees from perpendicular normalcy that most trees are angled.

  3. Gallons of water per box that I loaded into cars working distribution in Long Beach, Mississippi yesterday.

1.5. By my estimate, the average number of boxes per car. 1,500. The number of cars that came through the supply center that day.

  1. The number of Dartmouth alumni putting up 150 street signs that Hands on USA has put up for residents so far. The mayor of Biloxi signed our request to undertake that project among a myriad of others last week, and yesterday a crew spent all day on ladders with a staple gun helping re-establish direction.

Variable. The number of extra volunteers we can house if anyone's interested. Bring a sleeping bag and a tent if you've got it. Food's hot. Beauvoir United Methodist Church on Pass Road is homebase for HOUSA and can take everyone that's willing.

Indefinite. The time I'm personally planning on spending down here, minus holiday excursions to see my family. Pictures and media are great (albeit maybe a step or two above numbers), but it's pretty hard to tear away from once you see, hear and smell how ravaged these communities are. There's going to be work to be done for a long time, in a whole slew of phases, and what we're doing now is just the beginning. Awareness, right?

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