From paradise to disaster area in just a week

It never ceases to amaze me how fast life can change. A week ago I was sitting on a beach in Biloxi, Miss., with my girlfriend watching the sunset. Biloxi faces south, so you have to look down the beach to the west to watch the sun set over the trees instead of the water, but it's beautiful nonetheless.

Earlier, we'd walked down the beach, picking up seashells, talking and playing in the sand. I'd picked up a couple of hermit crabs, then set them free again. We watched the fish jumping and the gulls and pelicans trying to catch them. We were 400 miles from home, but it might as well have been a million.

After the sun went down, we sat on a couple of those big wooden chairs, the kind they rent to sunbathers for $20 during the day. Behind us the lighthouse on the strip flashed rhythmically. We sat and talked and watched people on the pier from a little before sunset until well after dark. I was up $125 at the casino. We were getting ready to go eat some fresh seafood.

Life was not just good - it was great.

Fast forward to today. A lot of Biloxi is gone. Just gone. Erased from the face of the Earth by Hurricane Katrina like words on a chalkboard.

The casino where I won about $200 has apparently been swept away, torn from its moorings. The Shell gas station where I filled up with gas, the Waffle House where we ate breakfast - it's all gone or nearly gone.

We drove to Gulfport that night looking for a good seafood restaurant, ultimately deciding to go back to eat at one we saw in Biloxi. I turned around near the President casino. It was on the southern side of the highway. Today it is on the northern side - the entire casino picked up and moved inland about 100 yards.

I saw an aerial view of the place where we ate that night, or at least where it used to be. It was called McElroy's. They had great fried oysters, and the waitress was friendly so I tipped her a little extra. I wonder what her life is like today or if she's even alive.

I've sat with my eyes glued to the television, watching in awe as the place where I just spent a few of the happiest days of my life was turned into a place of such misery and destruction. I wonder about that waitress. I wonder about the nice lady who rang me up at the hotel gift shop. The power had gone out from a thunderstorm, and we made small talk while she rebooted her computer. I asked her if she'd been through Ivan last year. She said it hadn't been that bad.

I wonder about the girl at the souvenir shop who gave me peanut butter fudge and took the time to carefully wrap the trinkets I'd bought.

I wonder about Wayne, the friendly old poker dealer who's dealt me cards every time I've gone to Biloxi. He dealt the last hand I played in the Grand - the best hand you can get - a pair of aces in the hole. I won the hand and cashed in my chips, leaving a winner for once.

I wonder if Wayne has a job, a home, a family, his life.

Mississippi blood runs through my veins. My parents are from there, my grandparents and great-grandparents. I've spent Christmases in Jackson and Columbus and summer days on the beach in Biloxi. I've hunted there, fished there, been to weddings, funerals and family reunions there.

And now Mississippi needs help. And I wonder what I can do.

The first thing I'm going to do is give the $200 I won at the casino to the relief effort. It's a pitifully paltry sum, but it's a start. Then I'm going to dig in my pocket and give some more. I'm not sure what else to do next, but that's where I'll start.

But in the end I know exactly what I'll do - I'll go back.

They will rebuild, and when they do, I will go back to Biloxi. I will stay in their hotels and eat in their restaurants and spend my money there again, and maybe, hopefully it will help Mississippi a little on the road back to normalcy. I'll do it because I know how good life can be in Biloxi.

And I know how quickly it can change.

Nate McCullough is the copy desk chief for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com .

To find out how to donate or volunteer for the hurricane relief effort, call 1-800-SAL-ARMY, 1-800-HELP-NOW or log on to www.salvationarmyusa.org or www.redcross.org .