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grass fire tornado

A 150-foot tall fire tornado approaches Highway 6 on its way to the community of Kokomo in Eastland County east of Abilene. The community was totally destroyed.

--Photo by Steven J. Hetrick

Ruffin Researches Hurricane, Fire Devastation

Paul Ruffin
Paul Ruffin

Paul Ruffin, regents distinguished professor of English at SHSU, recently returned from trips to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, New Orleans, and the site of large grass fires near Abilene.

"I wasn't driven by morbid curiosity, as many might think," Ruffin says, "but rather by the desire to hear the stories of people who lost essentially everything they owned and how they snapped back.   I wanted to observe the human spirit rally against dreadful odds."

In mid-December he spent two days in Waveland and Pearlington, Mississippi, judged to be ground zero when Katrina came ashore for the last time.   Then he drove down to New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, which was so devastated by the levee breaks.

"My intention initially was to find children on the Coast and talk to them about what Christmas would be like for them, since most of them had lost their homes and all their toys and were living in tents and FEMA trailers and with kin.   But, alas, the children were gone from that blitzed landscape, where in most blocks not a single building was left standing.   A thirty-two-foot storm surge does not show much mercy."

David Skagerberg

Dr. David Skagerberg, retired orthopedic surgeon, stands on all that was left of his home at Waveland, Miss. The rest of his house is scattered behind him.

--Photo by Paul Ruffin

After interviewing a handful of homeowners in Waveland, he finally did find children at St. Clare's Catholic Church, right across from the beach.   The church and school had been completely leveled by the hurricane, but the diocese had arranged to have Quonset huts erected for administrative buildings, classrooms, and eating and restroom facilities.

"It was quite a surprise to me to find that those kids, almost all of whom were living in tents and FEMA trailers and who had lost all their toys and many of their pets, were very enthusiastic about Christmas.   I interviewed grades 3-5, and they were like kids anywhere.   They didn't mind telling their stories, about what had happened to their homes and pets, and they were very eager to tell me what Christmas would be like for them.   No shock, no sadness: just the kind of joy you expect for children with Christmas coming on."

Those were the only children he found in Waveland and Pearlington, just to the west.

"I found not a single child in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.   There was plenty of evidence that children had lived there--bikes and stuffed animals and what was left of swing sets and trampolines-but that was a childless land."

Ruffin did find a few homeowners to interview.   "I ran across a black lady named Jackie Gresham, who runs a tatoo parlor-calls it Tat-2--and we had a nice conversation.   Her place had been flooded, and a city bulldozer had knocked a chunk out of the wall of her building, but she was totally upbeat.   Even offered to give me a free tatoo."   He declined.

"Most people think that the Lower Ninth suffered only flood damage, but I'm here to tell you that the three to five blocks just down from that levee looked like Waveland and Pearlington.   Walls of water nearly as high as the Mississippi Coast storm surge slammed into that neighborhood and swept away houses and cars and anything else in their path.   I'm talking total devastation.   Nothing but slabs and steps left.   Complete ruin.   And all this happened after Katrina had gone on off to the north and people were beginning to return to their homes.   I stood atop the levee in the two places where breaches occurred, and what I saw was unbelievable destruction-water so strong that it snapped telephone poles."

Ruffin says that a thick, acidic sludge coated everything.   "I found a quarter that had been so etched by that water that I could barely make out GW's face.   In places the copper core showed through."

He says that he does not know what will happen to the Lower Ninth.   "But I'll guarantee you that the few people I talked to are going to put up one hell of a fight if the city does decide to bulldoze that neighborhood and build up the level of the land and place casinos and high-rises there, as has been rumored.   You know: turn the city into the Las Vegas of the South."

Shortly after Christmas the Cross Plains fire broke out and destroyed a good part of that town, and five days later, on New Year's Day, the great Eastland County fire burned over 35,000 acres and literally vaporized the little community of Kokomo.

"I just had to go up there and talk to those people," Ruffin says.   "I got to thinking about how the folks back on the Mississippi Coast and in the Lower Ninth could find a few pieces of their lives scattered among the ruins-wet and banged up, but still salvageable.   But when a wall of fire as tall as Katrina's storm surge roars over your place, there can't be anything left to salvage.   Not a single photograph or scrapbook.   Everything is ashes."

He visited Cross Plains first and photographed slab after slab where houses had recently stood.   "It took everybody by surprise.   The fire broke out four miles outside town and, driven by winds up to forty-five miles per hour, roared to the northeast, simply demolishing everything in its path, but the territory was rural, with few buildings.   Everybody in town thought they were safe.   Just as the head of the fire was northwest of town, an expected cold front came through and turned the monster back toward Cross Plains.   The timing couldn't have been worse.   Then the heavy winds of the cold front were driving it just as fast as the southwest wind had been driving it.   Within less than eight minutes of its ignition, the blaze reached town and roared through to the other side.   Two elderly ladies died in that one, and a big section of the town was destroyed."

Ruffin spent two days covering the Eastland County fire, which cut a swath nearly thirty miles long and destroyed fifty houses and over a hundred outbuildings.

"In terms of size, this was the Cross Plains' fire's big brother," Ruffin says.   "Nobody died in it, but the loss of property was unbelievable.   Nothing was left standing in its path, except for an occasional house where the owners or a volunteer fire department truck managed to keep enough water on it to save it.   Essentially no outbuildings escaped burning.   And nobody can begin to calculate how much livestock and wildlife died."

Ruffin interviewed a number of landowners in the burned area, including Larry Bryant, whose two sons lost houses on one side of the highway and his daughter lost a house on the other.   Bryant managed to save his own home but lost every outbuilding.   "Then there was a guy named Bond, who lost all his outbuildings and a good portion of his herd of Angus.   The fire drove them down and pinned them against a   fence and caught most of them on fire.   He had to shoot several.   I saw four or five in a trench that he was getting ready to fill in.   Their hair was completely burned away.   And there was a dazed heifer walking around, her legs and underside and rear completely seared.   He's probably had to shoot her by now." The Bonds saved their house by mounting sprinklers on the roof and at the periphery of the yard and running them every day.

"And then there was Oren Webb, who saved a neighbor's home.   When his water was shut off--he was on a community water system--he realized that his own place was doomed, so he raced up the hill and saved an elderly lady's house with water hoses.   Luckily she had her own well.   Now, that was heroic, in my eyes.   And the volunteer firemen, who risked their lives as they took stand after stand against those walls of flames and fire tornadoes, saving homes when they could, are all worthy of some sort of national citation for their efforts."

Ruffin says that what he saw in those areas of devastation in Mississippi, New Orleans, and Texas was the human spirit boldly declaring itself in the face of adversity.   "That's what I was looking for, and that is what I found."

Out of his travels, Ruffin has generated five feature stories, which have appeared in several newspapers, and he has at least three more to write.   He hopes to put together a book, a pictorial essay on Waveland and the Lower Ninth Ward.  

Since he has published two novels, two collections of short stories, five collections of poetry, and   a book of essays, the question that had to be asked was whether he has become more of a journalist than a literary writer now.

"Hardly," he says.   "I have a book of short stories with the University of South Carolina Press right now, and I have two collections of essays under consideration.   I'm working on two novels as well.   So, no, I still love my other writing, but I have to tell you that I really do like doing feature stories and columns."

During spring break Ruffin intends to head to the border and conduct research on the Minutemen for a series of feature stories.                                                                                        


Text by Dan Sellers

SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
Jan. 23, 2006
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