57 Bags of Tomatoes

Along North Slade Road just a few miles south of Sumrall, Mississippi, there is a squat white house with grayish blue window panes and a rich indigo porch sagging from the wear of bare feet and years of sweeping.

For most people in the Pine Belt, living without electricity and running water for an extended period of time proved to be a life changing, eye-opening experience. But, for those who grew up without electricity and indoor plumbing, like the lady whose feet wore down that porch, it was a return to the simple days of her youth.

Flossie Bell Lott is 92 and has been living in that squat white house since 1935.

Outside the home, a 72-year-old man in an oversized jumpsuit tirelessly cleans up debris left behind by Hurricane Katrina nearly a month after she passed overhead. Between the porch and a battered 100-year-old cedar tree, his mother swats at love bugs with a handmade broom.

She would have barely noticed Katrina if only her freezer had survived. “I still keep a garden,” lamented Lott. “So I hated to lose my freezer. It had 57 bags of tomatoes in it, and I also had peaches and corn in there.” Like most people in her community, she tried to save her frozen foods with a generator. But after a few days she had to abandon the idea and allow her son to empty the contents into the woods behind her home.

Having lived in rural Mississippi her whole life, Lott never became accustomed to air-conditioning, so she does without. She was 35 when she and her husband first got electricity, and the two had lived off the land around their home as farmers until the ‘60s. She said that for the two weeks she was without power she did what they used to do back then – sweat and suffer it out.

“People were more civilized back then,” she said. “We could leave our doors open and our windows up to cool the house off. Now, I fasten all my windows and doors before I go to bed at night.”

Her homestead would have had fresh water had her husband not given in to progress in 1960 and fitted their old bucket and rope well with an electric pump so as to pipe the water into the house.

Lott said that she was ready for Katrina. After all, she vividly remembered going through Hurricane Camille in 1969. But she said that Katrina turned out to be much worse, if for no other reason, because it ruined her freezer.

“It took about a week to get our power back after Camille, but Sumrall had electricity in three days,” she said. “Everyone took their freezers to the old Movie Star plant in town, and they let us hook them up. Every day we would just go out there and get some peas or whatever and cook them on the gas stove. Then the power came on and we took the freezers home.”

Lott added that Camille didn’t knock over oak trees or last nearly as long as Katrina did. Perhaps that’s why her son, James, who lives behind her in a mobile home, believed he could ride out the storm in their potato cellar.

Between Lott’s house and her son’s are a series of small log buildings her husband built in the ‘40s - a smokehouse and tool shed, both of which remind one of miniature frontier cabins with the sunlight peeking through the gaps between every beam and trellis. There is also an old corn crib with a cellar beneath it for storing sweet potatoes.

“I stayed in there eight wonderful, bad hours,” said James Lott. “I had a little hole in there to look out where I could just barely see my house and my truck, and it was mystical, let me tell you.”

According to Lott, after a few hours of enduring roaches the size of his hand and spiders moving around him in the darkness, the water streaming in from the cracks above him had reached as high as his knees.

“I was afraid to stay in my trailer,” he said. “They always tell you get out of one in a storm. But, it took sustained 150 mile-per-hour winds and didn't budge.”

Both Lott and her son were certain that Camille was no comparison to Katrina, and according to early estimates from FEMA they are correct.

Camille, which struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August of 1969 is reported to have caused around $6 billion dollars in adjusted dollars, while the early reports estimate the damage caused by Katrina will reach at least $200 billion.

But, for Flossie Bell Lott, life continues much the way it always has for her. She no longer has cows, chickens or a mule, but she does have a garden that needs to be re-planted

As her son hammers away at a stop sign that was ripped out of the ground near her home, she sweeps love bugs from the porch with sweat pouring from her temples.

“Oh, it don’t bother me none. I’m used to it.”