Ardie's Story: Direct Hit (Diamondhead, Mississippi)
This is me. This is my life.
Here is my daughter Colleen
with President Bush’s Secret
Service man acting aloof.
Here’s Haley Barbour.
This is St. Stanislaus,
pretty much leveled.
Here’s my daughter’s classroom in
Our Lady Academy which
they’d just built. Each year we
had to give $250 to pay for this school.
Colleen went here from 7th
grade to graduation. Here
it is after the hurricane.
These are all her weird friends.
They wrote plays at our house,
put them on in different classes
Colleen and this girl combined characters—
Alice in Wonderland, the Titanic,
Shakespeare and Greek myth.
They were really cute.
This is graduation. The floorboards
were this far apart. We saw grass growing
underneath. Here is St. Claire’s,
the school, the church, the nunnery.
This is the Highway 90.
This is the beach.
This is the Gulf of Mexico
backed up to Bay St. Louis
which backed up to the Jordan River.
And we flooded
right here north of the I-10.
Monday morning, Colleen’s father
woke me about 8:30. Our backyard flooded
right up to the patio. Then the carpets started
buckling from below. I opened
the bedroom door and yelled,
“You girls better get your
asses up because the water is
coming into this house.”
My daughter was in a pair of softies
and a swimsuit. Virginia had on shorts
and a T-shirt. I grabbed insurance papers,
my coin purse for tips—I was a bartender
at the casino—a little medicine, put them
in a mudbag I tossed in
the attic. We had our two
cats, Virginia’s cat, a Pekingese
we were taking care of for someone
who’d gone to Chicago, Colleen’s goldfish
that she won, which had grown this big,
and we all went to the attic and looked down.
The water rose to the top of the bottom
window in the living room,
my TV, leather sectional,
floating around so we went downstairs
and my ex broke the window and we each
crawled on the sill and jumped in the water.
By 9:20, we’re hanging on the gutters
off the roof. My ex pulls himself up,
then Colleen, Virginia’s a little
heavy and he popped the bone
out of his leg hauling her up.
Then he helped me—we did all this
in 5 minutes—and crawled up the peak
because the water had reached the roof.
We found a sheet of tin floating by
that we used to keep the wind
from blowing us off in the rain,
and we clung close to four hours
listening to pine cones and needles
from the pine trees zing by,
watching my new Altima, my daughter’s Acura,
Virginia’s mother’s Suburban,
and the neighbor’s pickup truck playing
bumper cars in the cove.
Then all of a sudden the cars
The girls said, We need to swim over
to a higher roof, and I said, You girls
are crazy. You see that wild boar?
A wild boar back of the house
was swimming for his life in the direction
they wanted to go. We’re not going
anywhere. By 2 p.m. we sat in the
hurricane’s eye in dead calm.
My ex found a 2 by 4 in the water
and poked a hole in the roof,
pulled us into the attic with the animals
where we sat on the rafters until the storm
turned and pushed the water back to the Gulf.
We were across the I-10.
We weren’t supposed to be hit.
On the other side of Diamondhead,
there was not one thing left—
the airport, all the people with their planes,
the yacht club—
My daughter’s friend and his father clung to a tree.
Donnie got to the I-10 bridge,
waded to our house, and called, Anybody there?
Close to 6 o’clock we reached the church.
They had a grill going,
and water, soft drinks, wine.
A man on oxygen
was dying. A little girl,
I think, too. I don’t know what was wrong.
The paramedics came, but no doctors.
We tried to sleep on the pews.
People coming all night,
talking and talking, no peace possible.
In the morning, the Baptists made breakfast.
A man who owned a bunch of McDonald
franchises in Tuscaloosa, who didn’t know
we were dirt poor, invited us to his big house,
which only lost a few trees. His hurricane
preparation was 6 bottles of water, peanut butter,
crackers and a can of tuna.
This man was obviously
a big business person
but he was a mess. My daughter went
for two weeks to the land of no
electricity, no running water, no
flush toilets—Salteo, Mexico—as
president of Our Lady of the Gulf
Catholic Youth Organization with two
busloads of mostly black kids from
St. Rose of Lima to do
community service. A month
after she got back, Katrina hit.
She knew just how to brush teeth
using little water, how to disinfect hands
with Listerine. She’d bought a guitar
in Mexico, which survived. With our jacuzzi.
My ex had been—you can turn that off
and I’ll tell you. Lots and lots of people
got divorced. Lots gone crazy.
Here is my boyfriend I met here.
Here we are together. I wouldn’t
make it without him. I should show you
a video of this guy getting deluged
and dying in his truck. My girlfriend said
she’d send me a copy but she hasn’t yet.
Here is a datebook that starts the day
Katrina hit. Here is my trip across country.
This is my story. Can you believe
somebody has a datebook starting
the first day of the rest of her life?
I thank the Katrina evacuee who shared her story of duress, courage, and survival with me: Ardys Cooper, former resident of Diamondhead, MS, where she bartended at the casino. This an interview-poem and her words are used with permission, part of an ongoing interview project in collaboration with the photographer, Rebecca Ross, the work-in-progress entitled Voiceprints: A Katrina Elegy.