HATTIESBURG, Miss. — In an instant, parts of this ravaged city almost rejoined the 21st century: Two Wendy’s fast-food restaurants reopened, the dialysis center got power and the electronic sliding doors of the Hawthorn Suites motel whooshed open.
After four long days, the lights went on in sections of this Southern Mississippi city. Just a few hours before, water had come out of the taps. Granted, it was brown, but it was water all the same. And after a few minutes, it ran clear.
“I’m fixin’ to get me a cheeseburger and a cold drink,” Willis Dillon said Friday, seven people back from the Wendy’s counter on the west side of Highway 49. “It’s been a long time since I had a hot meal. Sunday, I think. Or was it Tuesday?”
As patches along Highway 49 blinked to life, there were screams of joy and fulfilled dreams: Air conditioning. Hot showers. Hot food. Clean hair. Eventually, ice.
In the parking lot of the Hawthorn Suites on Thursday night, a man holding a coffee pot filled with rum and Coke shouted “Yeah, baby! Yeah, baby! We got power!”
‘The phone just rings and rings’
On Friday morning, manager J.W. Smith smiled broadly and wiped his sweating brow. “Whew. It was rough going there for a while,” he said, with some understatement.
But Smith is a kind and patient man who had opened his doors to all since Sunday though he had no power, no water, no maid service and no phones. But he had enough supplies to offer peanut butter sandwiches, makeshift pizza and “cowboy” coffee cooked atop a gas stove.
The advent of power, however, brought another set of worries. “I’ve got people begging for rooms,” he said. “Because we have air conditioning. The phone just rings and rings, and every time we pick it up, the first thing that people say is, ‘I’ll pay anything.”’
But money is not everything, Smith said. “I’m not going to kick anyone out,” he said.
Despite newly flowing electricity, gas lines remained the same long, twisting, patience-testing ordeal. Those stations that used generators Wednesday and Thursday to power their pumps now had dry tanks. At the few places that reopened Friday with utility company power, cars backed up for blocks in the oppressive heat, creating snarls that required traffic cops.
But at the Hattiesburg Clinic Dialysis center, where the old and the infirm waited outside in wheelchairs and leaning on canes, no one minded waiting in line. It had been running on generators since Wednesday, offering the only dialysis for miles and miles in a powerless area that stretched across county and state lines.
On Friday, patients from New Orleans were headed to the clinic.
Earlean Kagins, 61, wearing a straw hat and dark glasses, sat in her wheelchair waiting to hook up to a machine that would cleanse her blood. She lives in Columbia, about 60 miles to the west. She has only one kidney, and hasn’t had a dialysis treatment since Sunday. She should be treated every other day.
“I feel pretty good,” she said, fanning herself. “I don’t feel bad at all.” A diabetes sufferer, she has lost her sight to her disease.
But she is glad to be alive, and glad to have survived Katrina. So is her stepsister, Annie Leggett, who stands beside her. “I’m just happy to be here. Happy to be here. I don’t have no complaints. God kept us here for a reason. We just have to figure out what it is.”
Kagins chuckles. “Might be a good one, might be a bad one,” she chimes in.
“But here I am sitting here, blind, with no feet — missing one foot and part o’ the other. But I’m still here. Mmm-hmm. I’m still here.”
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