Although before two weeks ago I had only driven through Mississippi a couple of times and never stopped, it was still a special place in my mind. I met Laurie at a church camp in Panama City, Fla. in 1992, and we instantly became friends. Her home was Moss Point, Miss.
We kept in touch throughout the years, updating each other on what was important in our lives by letters or phone calls (yes kids that was before the inception of email). We were each other's shoulder to cry on from 500 miles away.
I saw her only once after our initial meeting. She drove nearly two hours to spend a little time talking with me when I called her from Fort Walton Beach, Fla. in the summer of 1997.
We lost touch several years later, but never forgot each other. Life - school, family and marriages - took time away from keeping in contact.
Then about a year and a half ago, Laurie called my parents to find me. At the time, my family was still reeling from the death of my 16-year-old cousin. She had lost her best friend to a car accident at the age of 16 as well.
Right then it looked like God had prompted her to reconnect so she could offer words of encouragement during the grieving process. But it could have been something more.
Laurie moved to Pascagoula near the gulf coast, just south of her hometown. They have seen many hurricanes in that area, but when Katrina came through on Aug. 29, I knew I had better check on her.
I had called for nearly a solid month with no luck. Either the phones didn't work or there was no one home. Then I found her parents' number. She and her husband had been staying there since the storm came through and flooded their house with five feet of water.
The day I first talked to her after the storm was on her birthday. She said it was the best present she could get despite the fact that she had lost nearly all her possessions.
Then I told her some more good news. I would be coming to her town to cover a group from Thomson that was helping with hurricane relief. It was the third time we had ever talked face to face, but no one would have ever known. It was like the good old times we never had.
During the day I was able to go from house to house with the crew from McDuffie County and pitch in. As Keith Beggs said, "it was a very humbling experience" getting to help the people there by tearing out sheet rock and such.
Just standing outside near the bay where the storm surge was at its highest made me strangely sad. So many people had their lives ruined by this storm, and I was there to see it all. Houses were demolished, roofs sitting on the ground where the bottom floor should have been.
It's difficult to put into words. I found out that the clich˛© "You wouldn't believe it until you see it for yourself" that gets thrown around during live reports from the damaged areas really is a clich˛© for a reason. The vastness of the devastation is so encompassing that no picture or video can do it justice.
Neighborhood after neighborhood for miles inland were all flooded. Wind took the shingles off many roofs. Cars, boats, debris and even the occasional jet ski had floated into yards. And everything below the waterline was ruined. The storm had played no favorites. Rich and poor, old and young suffered alike.
My friends were glad that we came, even though they didn't need much help at the time. They were just thankful that we had taken time away from our lives to come help their neighbors and friends.
As it turns out, my purpose for going to Pascagoula was three-fold. I wanted to chronicle the First Baptist group's trip. I wanted to check on Laurie and catch up with her. And I wanted to help those who were struggling after the disastrous storm.
I'm so thankful that all three of those purposes were fulfilled. It was a trip and an experience that will stay with me for sure.