Gulf paradise takes beating but not lost yet

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Nov. 10, 2005

Dear Julie,

I am on Dauphin Island off the coast of Alabama. Fog is dimming the sun. Across Bienville Boulevard from my room in the Gulf Breeze Motel, large earth-moving equipment redistributes the thousands of tons of sand Hurricane Katrina displaced from the public beach. The west end of the island is closed to everyone but property owners and construction workers, who must show a pass from the police department at the checkpoint.

People seem shellshocked. Many businesses remain boarded up. Some have posted signs saying "closed until further notice." At this moment, they told me at city hall, my hotel and a B&B are the only places for visitors to stay. The campground is full of RVs.

At Barnacle Bills, the only eatery I could find open last night, the manager said a few die-hards whose houses were on stilts and behind huge dunes remained on the island during the hurricane. Part of the causeway from Mobile and the mainland disappeared but has already been repaired. Two miles of the island on the west end were wiped out, like an eraser named Katrina cleaning a blackboard named Dauphin Island. And Dauphin Island was 150 miles from the eye of the storm.

Dauphin Island is a barrier island with dunes, salt marshes and freshwater lakes. Fort Gaines at the east end is still standing from the Civil War, complete with cannons that are still fired during festivals.

Union Adm. David Farragut uttered his famous command "Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!" during the Battle of Mobile Bay.

The island also has an aquarium, an Audubon bird sanctuary, lots of charter fishing boats and a golf course. As you'd expect, I was most interested in the last and drove out to it on my arrival. No one was there. The fairways adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico look like 400-yard-long sand traps. Surely they will have to be replanted.

Despite the amenities, Dauphin Island is a funky little place. Only about 850 people live here full time. The official buildings look unofficial, and the primary landmark is the three-way stop in front of the water tower. "Go to the three-way and turn left," the locals will direct you.

At first I thought I was stuck with Barnicle Bill's oyster po'boy, which is nowhere as good as the one at Broussard's in Cape Girardeau and costs more right now because the oyster fishermen here are sending most of their catch north since Katrina decimated the Louisiana coast. But someone told me about the Lighthouse Bakery, where they make scrumptious pastries and coffee drinks and Cajun roast beef sandwiches.

The Cajun influence here is strong. The south end of Alabama is one big bayou. Many of the people look and speak like people I knew in Louisiana. They never net a fish they don't know how to cook.

DC didn't come on this trip. She has teaching responsibilities, but I wanted some time off and some sunshine. Once in a while it's necessary to disconnect, to not worry about anything or anyone but yourself for a while. To sit on pearly sand and let your breathing slow to the rhythm of the ocean's waves.

I have come to shellshocked Dauphin Island to unwind, perhaps to get a glimpse how stress really feels.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is managing editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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