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Hattiesburg or Bust 

by Casey Johnson & r & It wasn't an impossible journey. On any given day, hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of U-Hauls are crisscrossing North America. It was, however, an improbable journey. Three Spokane sisters piloting a 27-foot moving van loaded with Hurricane Katrina relief supplies 2,600 miles to Hattiesburg, Miss. It was part aid mission, part road trip and two parts pure improvisation in the face of an unexpected roadblock named Rita. And I went along for the ride.


"I suppose it was just an accumulation of images I was seeing on the news," Sharon Larson tells me while cramming donations into the U-Haul parked in front of her South Hill home. "That, and Mississippi wasn't receiving the attention that Louisiana was. I realized there might be a need."


Between this realization and the eve of departure a week later, Larson and her sister, Angela Geiss, had contacted St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Hattiesburg, mobilized a community and collected so many donations they had to rent a bigger truck.


"The effort was spearheaded by parishioners," Father Jim Kuhns of Fatima Catholic Church tells me at a pre-departure party for the sisters, "but ultimately it involved disparate parts of the community -- from schools to businesses to private citizens. That kind of involvement is unique."


Involvement ranged from wholesale contributions by Spokane wholesale grocers URM, to one retiree's "ill-gotten" winnings from a night of gambling at a local casino. While donation bins filled at Fatima Church and Hamblen Elementary School, Larson and Geiss took the U-Haul on practice runs up and down the Freya Street Hill, argued over proposed routes and finally decided that to meet their ambitious three-day time frame a third sister was required.


"I had an hour to get ready," Debbie McWilliams tells me while we're out on the road. "They said go pack, and I said, 'OK.' And thank God I did come, because we couldn't have done this trip with just two drivers."


Through a refined system of tag team driving and roadside pit stops Larson, Geiss and McWilliams -- better known by their maiden moniker, the Fish Sisters -- spent 16 hours on the road the first day, Sept. 19. Fueled by truck stop coffee and Hot Tamales, the convoy, which included a Mazda 626 sedan, passed through the Bitterroots, across Montana and down to Sheridan, Wyo.


Two thousand miles south of Sheridan, Hurricane Rita was entering the Gulf of Mexico.





Out of Gas & r & "The middle of nowhere" is probably as accurate a description as any of the prairie land along the Wyoming/Colorado border where the van ran dry. But by the time Angela returned with three full gas cans, Larson and McWilliams had flagged down a Colorado Department of Transportation truck and bartered a case of beer -- one of a dozen donated for weary volunteers and parched Red Cross workers -- for five precious gallons of gas.


With directions -- and souvenir baseball caps -- from the DOT crew, the U-Haul skirted Denver rush-hour traffic on a series of back roads that would terminate, sometime after midnight, in the town of Boise City, Okla. A typical life-size steel Brontosaurus greets us, as does a typical roadside motel with typical vomit-stained walls.


Statistically, the relief mission read something like this: Two days, seven states, 1,400 miles, one ominous hurricane, one Brontosaurus.





Tex-Mess & r & "I want a steak," Larson announces after crossing into the Lone Star State. By now, the Spokane Express is poised to roll triumphantly into Hattiesburg late that evening or early the next morning. Everyone is feeling a bit cocky and, because they haven't had dinner for two days, a bit hungry. But at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Amarillo later that day, everything changes. Alejandro Barquero, director of the Hattiesburg relief center, calls to say that an affiliated parish in Belle Chasse, La., is in desperate need of aid.


"Please come," says Carol Becnel, the director of Our Lady of Perpetual Help relief center in Belle Chasse. And with that simple request, the Fish Sisters inhale platefuls of enchiladas, phone family members and set a course for the Bayou.


Oh, and "There's another hurricane coming?" Becnel says.


Now all the sisters have to do is drive across the state of Texas, find a hotel room in Shreveport, La. -- which is packed with Katrina refugees and Rita evacuees -- then pick their way around New Orleans with the help of a promised National Guard escort, drop the relief supplies and either beat a hasty retreat to higher ground or else ride out a hurricane on the Gulf of Mexico.


It isn't the questionable wisdom of racing a hurricane that is troubling Angela that day -- it's the wisdom of bringing supplies to an area that could be wiped clean by another storm. "I just hope we're not taking this stuff down to a place that is going to be destroyed," she wonders aloud as the Mazda and the U-Haul chase each other across northern Texas.


The following afternoon, the Fish Sisters surrender to Rita. Word that roads into New Orleans are closed stops the convoy an hour south of Shreveport. In Natchitoches, La. (say: nak-a-tish), a hotel manager takes pity on the wayward Yanks. The sisters are given the last room at the Comfort Inn, and from their window they watch as the Burger King parking lot next door fills with families who aren't so lucky.


With nothing to do but wait, Larson, Geiss and McWilliams keep the cabin fever at bay by volunteering at a nearby evacuation shelter, holding a nightly cocktail hour in their single room and, at one point, digging through the U-Haul to get bottled water for thirsty evacuees -- some of whom are displaced for a second time in a month.


New Orleans resident Bell Thomas is one such person. Forced into Texas by Katrina, she and her husband have now been pushed into northwestern Louisiana by Rita. "I am about ready to move back to Wisconsin," Thomas says, while the Comfort Inn's 40-foot sign cracks and groans in the wind.


On Sunday morning, Sept. 25, when the storm has passed -- leaving knee-deep puddles and downed power lines -- the trip to Belle Chasse looks doubtful. With no accurate information about road conditions and a growing desire to get home to their families, the sisters revert to the original plan and head east to Mississippi.





Last-Minute Compromise & r & They reach Hattiesburg at five that evening. It is a damp 90 degrees. The air is thick with love bugs -- loving each other in swarms and dying together on fenders and windshields. Along the interstate, and in gated subdivisions and cramped apartment complexes alike, trees snapped in half by Katrina's 120 mile per hour winds have been chain sawed and stacked in ditches and driveways.


The "shit tub," as Sharon now refers to the festering Mazda 626, arrives 15 minutes ahead of the U-Haul. It isn't a triumphant entry, but the Fish Sisters were never in it for the fanfare. All they wanted was to get Spokane's aid to the mothers, children, husbands and grandparents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. All they wanted was to get the U-Haul to Hattiesburg. The front grill is blackened with a week's worth of bugs, and the whole thing is listing severely to the left; but it hasn't flipped or flooded, hasn't been impounded or hijacked... it has arrived. All three share a moment of quiet accomplishment before a fog of utter fatigue descends.


Box by box, the U-Haul is slowly unloaded; and box-by-box Sharon can't help but feel that those most in need are still 150 miles to the south in Belle Chasse. In the end, Larson reaches a compromise with parish priest, Tommy Conway. The St. Thomas Aquinas relief center will take only the supplies it immediately needs, while the majority of the food, water, shoes and cleaning supplies are loaded directly onto a smaller moving van departing for Belle Chasse the next morning.





Save Your Pennies & r & Lined with pallets of bottled water and bins of clothing donated from as far as Boston, the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church parking lot is every bit the hurricane relief center. Inside the warehouse/command center, a mountain of diapers, rows of baby formula, stacks of canned goods, coloring books, toiletries and tins of Spam are arranged on folding tables. Volunteers are taking inventory, answering phones and cracking the kinds of jokes necessary for surviving two weeks of sponge baths, barbecued eggs for breakfast and the psychologically draining task of feeding and sheltering those who have been left with absolutely nothing.


Emily Barquero, a 29-year-old grade school teacher with auburn flecked green eyes is the first to welcome the sisters. She and her husband, Alejandro, are feeding, clothing and distributing basic necessities to an average of 650 people a day.


"At first we let [the hurricane victims] come inside and take what they wanted," Emily explains, "but then it was just like they were shopping -- taking whatever they could get. Now we have them make a list outside of the items they need, then one of the volunteers goes inside to fill it. So they still get what they need, but it's not a free-for-all."


It has been a month since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. In towns and cities like Hattiesburg, the community-based relief efforts that focused on meeting basic survival needs are shifting to the long-term task of rebuilding.


When asked how the Pacific Northwest can best contribute to this phase of the relief effort, Father Conway replies immediately in his thick Irish brogue: "We need teams that can start to build houses for those like the elderly or the sick who are unable to do so." As for donations: "Save up your pennies, dimes, quarters and dollars, and send us cash... or price a bundle of shingles and send a check for that amount," Father Conway says.


Or you could just rent yourself a U-Haul, mobilize a community and drive directly into an oncoming hurricane. Improbable? Yes. Impossible? Not if you're a Fish Sister.





Sharon Larson is the aunt of Casey Johnson and Kyle Larson.

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