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Friendship Oak
University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast
730 E. Beach Blvd.
Long Beach, MS 39560

This live oak is 500 years old (it was a sapling when Columbus landed!), its trunk's circumference is over 18 feet, and its branches spread out 156 feet. Legend has it that friends who stand under it will remain friends for life. A perfect ending to Plucky Survivors, we thought, until we actually got there. We barely cared about our Hollywood movie ending once we saw this place.

We had no idea that the Friendship Oak stood on ground right next to the gulf and that virtually every building on this once idyllic campus was ravaged by the storm, lush grassy gardens replaced by sand and dirt. It's empty, desolate, unthinkable for those who worked, studied, and loved here.

We spoke to Trista, the security guard, who told of riding out the storm in her house with her kids and mom. They heard the roar of the surge, and when water started shooting up from the toilets and sinks, they headed upstairs to the attic. Trista looked out once and saw the water line was within two feet of their sanctuary, about nine feet rushing through the structure, but she pulled her head back in and said "Oh, everything's fine, Momma! Nothing to worry about!" She's rebuilding and looking forward to the big bathtub and nice kitchen she'll have in the new place.

We spoke to another security guard who also stayed-why? Because his house is farther back, and it went through Camile in 1969 just fine, as it did this time. We told him how we understood why people would live here in the first place, and he said, "Once you've lived here, you can't live anywhere else."

Apparently, it will take 5 to 9 years to repair the campus. In the mean time, classes are being held in nearby Gulfport, and so many students have returned that they are too crowded and need other quarters. Speaking of helping out, why don't you go to their web site and buy a school shirt or hat or something?

Because despite all this, the school may survive. It has a splendid role model in the Friendship Oak, which rode out the storm just fine. Plucky Survivors have nothing on that.

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