Katrina +10: Echoes of the Surge
I never “met” Katrina.
At first she was little more than a distant tragedy to me. Through CNN, ABC, NBC and the rest I watched the disaster unfold from an air conditioned living room 1000 miles away. I heard the sound bites, I prayed for the victims and survivors and I saw the raw power of nature in all its glory…and terror.
I was, like the rest of the world, amazed and stunned at what I saw, but despite the emotional impact, I was disconnected. If you’ve only experienced Katrina in pictures and videos you haven’t even come close to being there. You haven’t come to close to fully understanding her place in history and what she means to the people who “knew” her.
Like most people outside the Gulf Coast I didn’t pay Katrina much attention when October 2005 rolled around and the news media jumped on to fresher headlines. With one or two exceptions, I’ve gotten used to watching disaster unfold from a distance. At the time I felt Katrina would be something I would remember not for any personal significance but rather as an important event in history like the Challenger Explosion, Columbine shootings, Iraq War and so forth.
Little did I know the hurricane known to almost everyone on the Gulf Coast as “the storm” would, in fact, end up leaving an inexorable mark on me like she did so many others.
It began with a chance meeting in Pittsburgh of a lovely young girl from Mississippi. She was part of the diverse Katrina diaspora that had migrated away from the Gulf Coast following the storm. Not many traveled as far as Pennsylvania but, with the support of fellow Katrina survivors who had already arrived, she decided to seize the opportunity for a serious change of scenery.
Being only 6 hours away from my native Canada, a relationship began to develop and before long we were engaged and I had begun the process of immigrating to the United States. At this time I fully expected we’d live in Pittsburgh together.
As it does frequently however, life had other plans.
In 2007, a number of factors led to my wife deciding to move back to Mississippi. Since I had already begun the immigration process I would have no choice but to go down there with her. On April 13, 2008 I became an official resident of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Now Katrina wasn’t some distant memory on a TV screen. It was the lives and history of my friends and family.
I remember the first time I visited Biloxi. It was July 2006, less than one year after the storm. I only spent a few days there but one of the things that left a lasting impression on me was a drive my then-girlfriend and I took along highway 90, a four lane stretch that runs parallel to the beach. At this time most of the major debris had been cleared but the waterfront was still a patchwork of gutted buildings, barren foundations and empty shells where a community once stood. As remarkable as the sight was to me it paled in comparison to the experiences of those who had faced the brunt of the storm head on.
On that same trip I was able to visit New Orleans for the first time in my life. I remember riding along the still damaged sections of I-10 that lead into the city and seeing hundreds upon hundreds of damaged, boarded up, abandoned homes and apartments, mangled road signs and those infamous spray painted markings, the Xs and numbers and various other symbols, that allowed rescuers to know who was alive…and who wasn’t.
It was incredibly moving to see for myself scenes that I had only seen before on TV. Katrina was now more real to me than ever.
I didn’t venture into the heart of the damage in the lower 9th ward but I’m all but certain it looked far worse than anything I saw first hand. Even today, ten years after the fact, much of that area still lies in ruins.
New Orleans was of course the media darling of Katrina. Watching the major news coverage would almost make you believe the storm was entirely localized over the Big Easy.
The water shortages, the unrelenting heat, the desperation and frustration of the people, the mismanagement by FEMA. All of this played out in Mississippi as it did in New Orleans.
The continued ignorance of things going on outside New Orleans is a definite sore spot among those in the surrounding regions who were severely impacted by the storm. It’s a common joke on the Mississippi coast that the media consider this area only as “the unidentified land mass between Alabama and Louisiana.”
When I met my wife I was totally ignorant of the havoc Katrina brought to Mississippi. Having learned the incredible truth I now find myself sharing in the frustration over the failure of the media to highlight what was another huge part of the Katrina story. The frustration from back then has returned a decade later, as most major news reports marking the anniversary of the storm are again mainly focusing on New Orleans.
Several weeks ago I visited the Crescent City again. This time there were far fewer damaged and boarded up buildings but across the city and particularly in the lower 9th recovery is a slow and incomplete process. Just about everyone knows no matter what things will never be the same again.
Back in Mississippi, it’s a somewhat similar story.
It’s sunset at front beach in Ocean Springs, just across the bridge from Biloxi. A brilliant palette of oranges and purples fill the sky. I’m sitting on a bench scribbling a few quick notes on to a scratch pad. A hundred yards or so from me, a group of teenagers is standing around a bonfire, laughing and dancing. Fifteen feet away from them a man and his daughter are playing in the sand, enjoying the last few breaths of daylight.
It’s a peaceful evening but, as with many areas along the coast, Katrina’s shadow lingers nearby.
Looking out into the waters of the Mississippi Sound one can still easily see damaged trees left behind in her path. Similar things can be seen on other barrier islands throughout the area, at least those that still exist. Thanks to Katrina, large portions of the island landscapes have been returned to the sea from which they first arose.
Ten years have now passed and still the echoes of Katrina linger in Mississippi like the warm gulf breeze on a summers night. Along the beach, although there has been much rebuilding, locals still pine for the many things that were which will never be again. The casinos are back, but much of the waterfront property which was so vibrant in the days before Katrina, remains either sparsely populated or completely barren. Driving along highway 90, which follows the beach for some 30 miles, you will still see many stone foundations and overgrown weeds where homes, stores and restaurants once stood.
My wife has frequently shared with me vivid recollections of the devastation she saw around her home after the storm. I tend to be excellent with words, but even with the greatest dictionary and thesaurus the world has to offer I could not even come remotely close to accurately describing how it felt to be there.
To get even a vague idea, imagine you came home from work tonight and not only was your home gone but your entire block was ravaged and several of your neighbors were missing and presumed dead. Now realize that what people on the Gulf Coast lived through was 100 times worse than that and you can begin to see the breadth of the storms impact. A nuclear bomb may well have done LESS damage had it been set off in the same area. In the days following Katrina, the vast majority of the Mississippi coast looked like a war zone.
Even when destruction abounds there are still symbols of pride and hope. In the case of Biloxi there is perhaps none more potent than the legendary lighthouse that sits just off the beach in the heart of the city.
It has adorned many a postcard and placard but its enduring legacy is one of survival. The rugged structure survived hurricane Camille in 1969 and survived Katrina as well. As tough as she may have been, there were some pillars the storm just couldn’t take down.
Today the lighthouse continues to stand as a powerful reminder of the resiliency of the City of Biloxi and its people.
On a warm August morning in 2011 a small but purposeful group of people gather on a grassy lawn in the Biloxi Town Green a block north of the beaches. Like most days this time of year it is very clear outside…and very hot. In a simple yet touching ceremony they offer prayers to commemorate those lost six years ago and ask God to bless the friends and family they left behind. Katrina claimed 52 lives in Biloxi. Ceremonies like this occur almost every year around August 29th. The trappings change but message never does: We lost our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers and daughters and sons to Katrina. The media may not remember them, but we always will. Indeed, at most any time of year, there is no shortage of Katrina memorials to be found around the coast.
The eight year old pick up truck rumbles down a bumpy road a few miles north of downtown Bay St. Louis. This small town of less than 10 000 in southwest Mississippi received some of the worst damage from Katrinas 30 foot plus storm surges. As the truck rolls to a stop the impact of the storm is laid bare in front of me. My tour guide today is a man named Eddie. A lifelong native of the coast, Eddie lost his home to Katrina but he and his family were safe, having evacuated the day before the storm.
As we look at the scene before us the wisps of gray in his hair and beard make him look older than his 38 years. Outside the truck, a stark contrast: Where a vibrant neighborhood once existed all that remains is an empty field full of grass and weeds. Above the field hang the branches of some of the ancient oak trees that were lucky enough to survive. There used be a lot more of them here. Similar scenes are repeated throughout my tour. Although the Bay has regained most of its pre-Katrina population it has a different feel to it these days.
Despite the upheaval, those like Eddie are happy to be back.
Of all the ways Katrina has touched me, perhaps none has been as unexpected as how I’ve come to respect and appreciate the people of south Mississippi for their tenacity. I really believe they are some of the strongest, proudest and most resilient people in the world. For these survivors, Katrina is the glue that bonds communities together. She is the fuel for the campfire stories. Like veterans of the greatest war they will regale you with amazing tales of daring rescues, untold desperation, incredible adversity and unstoppable perseverance.
As I meet new people on the Gulf Coast I make it a point to get their Katrina story as soon as I can and believe me, everyone has a story. Inevitable, they get pretty emotional when they tell it. Because they saw Katrina. They felt Katrina. They lived Katrina. She wasn’t just a hurricane, she was THE hurricane. The one people never forget no matter how long they live. The one about whom stories will be passed down to children and grandchildren.
Throughout my time on the coast, I’ve had the chance to see many of the “before and after” images of the storm’s impact. The devastation is almost unimaginable, but interestingly enough one of the most poignant features of those photos is the many American flags that can be seen jutting out of the rubble or hanging in front of ravaged homes.
The great flag has seen this nation through many a tragedy and here again, in the chaos that followed the storm Old Glory became a symbol of strength. Of Pride. Of determination. Now the Stars and Stripes carried a clear and powerful message for Katrina: You took a lot from us but you didn’t take it all. We will stand. We will go on. We will rebuild.
And so they have.
The Gulf coast is thriving again. Much of what was lost in the storm has been regained in one form or another and while residents accept that some things will never come back, they also believe Katrina, as devastating as she was, ultimately caused a lot of positive change for this region over the long run as well.
I tend to agree as there are times it’s still hard for me to fathom the same storm which took so much from others gave so much to me.
And that may be one of Katrina’s most subtle and enduring legacies: Yes, she devastated the coast. Yes, she destroyed so very much but she also, in more ways than one, built new foundations, established new connections and relationships, and, for thousands of people, reinforced the one basic tenet of humanity that has driven us all since the dawn of time.
We will survive.