Rich Cooper

Aug 30, 2010

Bay St. Louis, Waveland and Gulfport, Mississippi

It’s hard to say what the real ground zero of Hurricane Katrina was. For most Americans, they think of the City of New Orleans. They remember the raw and emotionally powerful images of human anguish at the Superdome, the Convention Center, the dramatic rooftop rescues by Coast Guard helicopters, as well as the watery carnage of the Lower 9th Ward.

For as awful as each of those events were, similar catastrophes were experienced by St. Bernard and Jefferson Parishes, as well as Plaquemines and Slidell, LA. While the media certainly covered the earth-shattering events that occurred there, it seems to me that the Gulf Coast of Mississippi seems to have been lost in the coverage. Five years ago, I distinctly remember taking a helicopter trip from New Orleans over to Gulfport, MS. As heartbreaking as it was to hover over broken levees and destruction in southeast Louisiana, it could not compare to what I saw in Mississippi. The only word I used to describe what I saw back then was very simply Hiroshima.  Areas that I had long known from my time doing work at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, long before 9/11 and DHS ever happened, had literally been wiped from the face of Earth. The destruction was beyond catastrophic.  

From the helicopter, the only discernable structures that you could identify were the makeshift tents that emergency personnel and National Guardsmen had put up. In scanning the area, I wanted to see about one piece of property in particular. The more than century-old bed and breakfast along North Beach Blvd in Bay St. Louis that I used to stay at during my extended stays was nothing but shattered debris. After surviving the “big storm” that everyone in Mississippi had never stopped talking about (Hurricane Camille) and countless other storms in its 100-plus years of existence, Miss Ann’s Bed & Breakfast, like thousands of other homes and businesses, finished their lives in destructive ruin.

In returning there today, the only remnants of one of the storied old homes of the South is the old oak that stood at the corner of North Beach Blvd and deMontluzin.

As sad as it was for me to see that, it can’t compare to the lingering heartbreak that residents there have for their lost homes. A longtime friend of mine who lives in Bay St. Louis, Lynn Francis, took me to the place where the first home she had ever purchased once stood. Turning onto Adrienne Court, Lynn seemed to catch herself becoming emotional and quickly apologized.  Telling her to not worry about it, she parked the car and pointed out the car window and said, “This is it.”

Behind the overgrow weeds and shrubbery rested a concrete slap with broken tiles all around it.  While the debris of what had once been her home with its inviting screened porch had long since been removed, the place that had once been a source of warmth and pride for Lynn was now a scar upon the land as well as her heart. For as personal as the visit was for her, it is the same for any number of residents. It was not an unusual sight to drive around the area and see brick staircases going up to nowhere because there was no porch or home to connect them to. 

Driving closer to the beach, steel beams driven into the ground to anchor the frame of the home against the wrath of Mother Nature were all that remained from any number of places residents of the Mississippi Gulf Coast called home. Another set of stairs, these being spiral, again led to nowhere.

While barren concrete slabs and stairs to nowhere are around for all to see, there is also tremendous rebirth in the area. The once shattered bridge linking Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian now rises high out of the Gulf with artistic brass plaques at points along the walkway telling the story of the area. Stately homes that had been wiped out have been replaced by gleaming structures that would probably send most of the hosts of Home & Garden Television into utter euphoria. Brightly colored condos and beautiful new Catholic churches rise up across from the beach. It was hard not to be inspired at the turn around for the devastated but for every high there seems to be another low around the corner.

Walking along the beach were BP crews looking for oil. With screened shovels, rakes and buckets, nearly a dozen people with bright neon vests and rubber boots and gloves were combing the sand for any remnants of the event that truly ruined the entire region’s summer. What they found appeared to be minuscule, but it was enough to remind me as a visitor of what these people have been through. In speaking with restaurant owners, wait staff and others during my visit, any lingering angst they may have had about Katrina and the area’s recovery was replaced by pure venom for BP. 

No one I spoke to believes any of the promises that BP has made in their television and radio ads. Mississippi residents, like their Louisiana neighbors, fully expect BP to find every possible way of getting out of their responsibilities to the region. They see the oil spill as one more knife into the heart of an economy that depends on fishing and tourism. As to the forthcoming claims process being led by Ken Feinberg, the people I spoke with echoed complaints that I heard in Louisiana about what value a forthcoming damages payment for this year’s losses would be if the oil still in the Gulf prevents people from coming to vacation or eat the fish in their restaurants in future years. If the oil washes up again in future years, residents and business owners fear what they have left will become a waterfront ghost town.

As Jimmy Trapani, the owner of Bay St. Louis’ famous Trapani’s Eatery shared during lunch, “I can handle a storm and move on from that but there’s no moving on when that stuff [the oil] is still out there and people won’t come here to eat in restaurants, go into the water or visit here. What the hell am I supposed to do to prepare this place [his restaurant] for that?”

Despite his frustrations and those of other MS residents, the citizens of the Magnolia State have proven their abilities to reclaim what was lost as their own. They are one with the coastline and have built smarter and stronger as a result of the lessons learned from the natural fury five years ago. As they look west to their Louisiana neighbors, many take great pride that their recovery seems to be coming along at a better pace, even if they are not receiving the lion’s share of media attention and recognition. Many of them are OK with that, but others fear they will remain overlooked by their noisier next-door neighbors.

Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, has always made for more compelling media attention than the people of the Magnolia State. In the end though, everyone knows that it’s the end results that matter. The Mississippi Gulf Coast has come back from oblivion before, and the residents there are more than confident in their ability to remain steadfast against lingering threats.  They’ve done so in a fairly quieter fashion for some time now, and that’s OK.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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