8:41 p.m. September 10, 2005. I stood in the street with my neighbors as out-of-state electricians repaired the transformer. We had been without power since 5:13 a.m., August 29, 2005, the morning Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast with its direct hit. Eight miles inland and buffered by Interstate-10, our homes in the Orange Grove neighborhood of Gulfport experienced damage but not to the extent of those south of I-10. The residents south of the railroad that runs parallel to the beach had their homes and businesses obliterated by the ferocity of the storm America still does not know hit Mississippi.
Not that it matters. As a lifelong Mississippian, I am well aware that the rest of the United States hates Mississippi. The media never reports the good things about Mississippi. With America’s distaste for the “Magnolia State”, it is no surprise that the country does not want to render sympathy toward Mississippi for anything.
Mississippi is the birthplace of numerous Pulitzer Prize winners, Academy Award winners, world-renown scientists, the #1 state firefighter training academy in the U.S., the largest ballet competition in the world, and is the home of rock-n-roll, blues, and country music. My home area, the Mississippi Gulf Coast is home to 150,000 people, a Navy Seabee base, Keesler Air Force Base, the nearby training base Camp Shelby, Ingalls Shipbuilding that builds ships for the U.S. Navy, and the NASA and NOAA installations at Stennis Space Center. (Bet you didn’t know that.)
In the days after our power came back on, internet connection was spotty, but phone lines worked intermittently. I called friends to let them know we had survived, since Katrina had claimed Mississippi lives. I was told I was on the Red Cross’ “Missing or Dead” list because no one had heard from me. What an odd feeling it was to email the Red Cross so they would mark me as “alive”. One person I called was my theatre mentor in New York, a drama teacher at LaGuardia High School. I said, “I just wanted to let you know I’m okay.” He sounded confused, “Okay from what?” I said, “The storm, Katrina. We’re okay.” He replied, “Of course, you are. The storm hit New Orleans, not you.” I gasped, “What?! What do you mean? Katrina hit Mississippi.” He said again, “No, the storm hit New Orleans. It’s been all over the news for a couple of weeks now. Mississippi didn’t get hit by Katrina.”
That was the moment I realized that New Orleans had the world’s attention in regard to Katrina. Katrina was predicted to hit NOLA, so the media understandably went to the more famous – and more loved – area of New Orleans. The storm did minor damage, but the city was intact. It was the next day, Tuesday, when NOLA residents were coming back to New Orleans or about to leave the Superdome or other shelters that the levees broke. The Army Corps of Engineers had advised the Louisiana state legislature for over 10 years to repair the levees, but the ineffective Louisiana politicians always said it was not in the budget. Then in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi with storm surge as high as 48-feet, bringing the ocean onto the land and up into the rivers and waterways along the Gulf Coast.
What happened to New Orleans was horrible, made worse by the fact that it was a largely preventable, man-made disaster. Every one of the Louisiana state legislators who voted against fortifying the levees should be charged with a thousand counts of murder.
On August 29, 2005, Mississippi took the full-brunt of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. The rest is (an unreported) history.
Katrina had been a Category 1 storm when it went across Florida on August 25th. I was in rehearsal with one of my original shows, and we spent the last 15 minutes of rehearsal on Saturday, August 27th, debating whether we should cancel rehearsal the next day. This little Cat. 1 storm shouldn’t be anything to worry about, we thought. After all, nobody wanted to go through all the prep of a storm then realize you wasted time and money and have to take all that plywood down for nothing. This had just happened a month before when Hurricane Dennis threatened to be “the storm” only to fizzle out and bring cool breezes instead. We ultimately decided to cancel rehearsal, and as we disbanded, I said, “Enjoy your day off. See y’all at rehearsal on Tuesday.” That rehearsal never happened. Katrina landed that Monday morning, and our lives here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast were forever changed.
When hurricanes are in the Gulf, many Coast residents get excited. It’s the only time the waters are even remotely surfable, and hurricane parties on the beach are common. I don’t know how many hurricanes I’ve slept through or kept doing whatever I was doing. Spending hours sitting in a hallway or a bathtub isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds, but hunkerin’ down is usually better than buggin’ out. Plus, you have to pick up all those tree limbs afterward. So we stay for the hurricane. Also, many people do not realize how expensive it is to evacuate a family: gasoline (to drive at least a hundred miles away), hotel (for how many nights?), meals for everybody three times per day (hope you don’t have special dietary needs), kennel boarding for animals (microchipping is extra). It adds up. We stay.
The morning of Katrina, the power went out, and I got out of bed. As the hours went by, the wind picked up, and I could sense this was not a usual storm. With the power out, I had no way of checking the updated reports – how Katrina had changed during the night, both in intensity and in direction, and that it was now on track for a direct hit on Mississippi, nearly identical to the path that Camille had taken in August 1969. Camille was the storm by which all others were measured for South Mississippi. When I was 14, my family moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and one of the peculiar features along the miles of coastline were oddly-placed concrete and brick steps. We asked what they were and were told those were the front steps to homes and businesses washed out by Hurricane Camille. Those were “the steps to nowhere”. Their bare, ghostly presence told a story that was unimaginable. People who survived Camille remembered it as if it were yesterday. Little did they know, Camille was about to be surpassed.
After 8:30 a.m., the morning of Katrina, we were in the hallway. I made my daughter a sleeping bag fort in the bathtub. She had no idea how serious this was. I’ve never been scared of a hurricane, but as the storm went over our house, I was terrified of what might happen. The “steps to nowhere” were in my mind as the structure of our house shook. The sound of a hundred freight trains overhead blasted our ears as the very walls squealed from the strain of trying to stay connected to the foundation. I could hear all the windows breaking from debris flying off of my neighbors’ houses. I waited for the break – the eye of the storm – so I could go outside and assess the damage, but that break never came. The storm was steady for 12 hours, with the strongest beginning at 9:29 a.m. Later, I would check the coordinates of the eye of the storm, and sure enough, Katrina’s eastern eye-wall was directly over our neighborhood in Gulfport, Mississippi.
The sky takes on a strange look after a hurricane; it really is like no other sunrise or sunset you will ever see. There is also a quiet that is disturbing after hearing hours of wind barging down on your home. With evening coming and no street lights working, I decided to wait until the next day to see the damage. They always tell us not to drive around after a storm. We don’t listen. That next morning, I went out. What I saw was absolutely unbelievable.
Tuesday, August 30th, I drove down Cowan-Lorraine Road and stared in shock – not at what was there, but at what wasn’t there. Nothing was there. Everything I had known and places I had driven by and gone to and old oak trees I’d taken for granted for decades were all gone. I was in shock as I turned onto Hwy. 90, the highway along the beach, and slammed on my brakes. If I hadn’t, my car would have fallen into a huge cavernous pit where the highway asphalt used to be. The road was missing in places. The wooden piers out over the water were gone. The concrete and steel bridges were gone. How? How could wind and water decimate concrete and steel?
My incredulity only increased in the days after the storm as I drove around to the places not blocked by fallen trees and mounds of debris. Every day, I drove around the Coast, taking pictures of the damage. Entire schools had been leveled. Courthouses, fire stations, police stations, homes, stores, post offices – gone, nothing but concrete slabs. The tops of concrete pile-ons hinted where four-laned bridges had been the day before Katrina. Every town along the Mississippi Gulf Coast: Biloxi, Gulfport, Long Beach, Pass Christian, Diamondhead, Bay St. Louis, Waveland, experienced this to some degree. Destruction. Debris. Devastation.
Like so many others, I had been fooled by Hurricane Dennis and by Katrina’s first landfall in Florida. I had not filled up the gas tank, or bought non-perishable food, or bottled water, or candles, or batteries. The proverbial boy had cried wolf too many times. Katrina snuck up on all of us.
To get food for my family, I stood in line for hours at a time in the 94-degree heat with my young daughter, waiting to receive much-needed bottled water and a box of MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) that were distributed by our military. Knowing that these meals were intended for our soldiers fighting in the Bush regime’s war in Iraq added another layer of survivor’s guilt – if we are eating the food meant for our soldiers, what are our soldiers going to do for food?
The National Guard were the first to arrive to provide aid, after clearing downed trees and power lines on a 2.5 mile-stretch of Hwy. 49 so they could enter this area. Soldiers just back from deployment soon arrived to help as well. One soldier, who had just left Iraq a couple weeks before, told me the Mississippi Gulf Coast looked worse than Baghdad. Another day, a female National Guard member gave us a case of water and little stuffed animal for my daughter. It meant so much to us. I can only imagine what that kind of gesture meant to all the families who lost everything.
The key to our survival was the volunteers who came from around the world to help us. Every time I saw a volunteer, I thanked them. I got to hear their stories, how they came to help with the recovery in Mississippi. Most of them said they had hoped to go to New Orleans, but got re-routed to Mississippi instead, only to arrive here and be heartbroken at the damage they saw. They were amazed at the can-do attitude of the residents, how we got down to the work of recovery without complaining – a side of Mississippi they had never expected. I heard a few stories from volunteers who originally went to New Orleans to help, only to have their tools and equipment stolen from them at gunpoint. With no tools and only their truck, they came to Mississippi and saw people grateful for help.
Relief teams from around the world came to help us, both governmental and community-based. The roads into South Mississippi were still difficult to travel. The easiest way in was by water or air. Seeing the likes of the Royal Danish Navy and the Mexican Army landing on our beaches was like a scene out of a World War II movie … sans guns. The U.S. military set up camp on the beaches as well. With their tan BDU’s and sand-colored tents and equipment, they could have been in a Middle Eastern desert as easily as they were on an American beach.
My father had been able to evacuate to Elgin Air Force Base, so I went to check on his house. It had flooded but was still there. While in Long Beach, I wanted to see the damage of the surrounding area and drove down Espy Road. The railroad tracks had been lined with curling barbed wire to prevent people from going south to the destroyed areas near the beach. Just before the train tracks, I was stopped by U.S. military personnel in BDU’s, holding assault rifles with both hands. They told me to turn back. I gave them an earful about how this was my area and I had a right to see what had happened, all the while I couldn’t believe two U.S. soldiers with assault rifles were starting to treat me like I was an enemy they might shoot. This was America, and my taxes paid their salary. It was surreal. And yes, I won the argument and drove where I wanted to.
Many memories come to mind: visiting law enforcement riding horses to get around because horses do not consume gasoline; the tent cities that popped up to house locals as well as the volunteers; the task forces that came in to conduct search-and-rescue missions that eventually became search-and-recover.
I met a couple of New York firefighters, who were getting supplies at Walmart. I thanked them for their help. They said they could not stay away when word got back to them from other EMS task force teams of what South Mississippi was going through. I started crying. I shook his hand and said, “I’ve been there. I’ve seen it.” He knew I meant the remains of the Towers that fell on 9/11. I’d seen them in early 2003, when the bulldozers were still clearing the area. “I can’t believe you’d come all the way down here to help us when y’all are still hurting.” He responded, “That’s what firefighters do.”
My friends who are firefighters and paramedics had their own horror stories that actually began in the 24 hours prior to Katrina’s landfall. The firefighters were required to report to their stations and stay put. This meant they could not do prep on their own homes, nor could they go out and get supplies for the stations. I was later told by one firefighter that they had run out of food and water at the station; and yet, they had to do their jobs in the hours and days after the storm, responding to 9-1-1 distress calls. Ironically, the police were able to get water, food, and supplies because they were out in their patrol cars and filled the trunks with supplies. In the days after Katrina, when the firefighters complained to their command that they had gone a couple of days without food and a day without water, the brass replied, “Deal with it.”
My lifeline during this time was a hand-held, battery-operated TV with a 2-inch black-and-white screen. I watched the news coverage of the local TV station as the reporters were out in the field helping to tell the story of the Katrina aftermath. One reporter was in the middle of filming when a lady ran up to her and said, “Thank god, you’re here!” She went on to say there were several members of her family and neighbors who needed help. “We haven’t eaten in four days,” she cried. The TV station also live-streamed the emergency command meetings because it was the only way to get information about where to go for food, water, and medical attention.
A comment by one of the news anchors was the most telling of how politics might play into the Katrina story. He said it might be a good thing that Mississippi had a Republican governor because it might mean we would get help sooner since we had a Republican president. That Republican president was George “Dubya” Bush, who was on vacation at his Texas ranch when Katrina hit. Bush stayed on vacation for five days after the storm.
The Port of Gulfport was destroyed. The animals from Marine Life were evacuated or set free in the Gulf. The stench of the rotting chicken and shrimp decomposing in container crates filled the air along the highway. In the weeks after the storm, you could taste mold in the air. For over a year after the storm, people would get sick out of the blue, in ways they had never gotten ill before. Katrina had stirred up toxic chemicals that polluted the air, land, and water.
In the weeks after the storm, I saw so many random acts of kindness from my fellow Mississippians that pride in my state had never been higher. I saw one local white police officer who had pulled over a black guy because the guy’s back tail-light was out. The two of them were standing by the guy’s car. The guy was loud and angry. Any other time, the officer might have arrested the guy. The guy rightly argued, “Where do I go get a tail light right now?! We don’t have shit right now! We don’t have food or water!” But the officer remained calm, saying, “Hey, I know we’re all upset right now. I just wanted you to know that your light was out, so you can get it replaced as soon as possible. We don’t have street lights at night yet. I don’t want you in an accident.” The officer handed him his card and told the guy to call him if he needed help. That diffused the situation, and they started talking. They told each other their story of that day.
It was what we all did. No matter where you went, people gathered in a circle of four or six or more and related what happened to them that day. They talked about what they were able to recover and what they lost: photos of the kids’ birthdays, grandma’s wedding dress, grandpa’s medals from his military service, great-grandma’s cookbooks with her hand-written notes, the family’s 100-year old piano. Sometimes, people didn’t talk. They just stood there and were there for each other. Sometimes a person would be walking down the aisle at the store or standing in line at the distribution center and fall to the ground, crying gut-wrenching sobs. No one laughed or mocked. No one had to ask what was wrong. A complete stranger could come up to the person and just lay a hand on their shoulder. Suddenly, that person didn’t feel so alone. No one was a stranger in the weeks and months after Katrina. We needed each other since the media and the rest of America didn’t care. The PTSD was and is pervasive.
Somewhere in this timeframe after that day 10 years ago, an editorial in the Washington Post scoffed at the notion that several Southern states had declared emergencies and requested financial help. The writer went on to say that any state besides Louisiana who accepted federal funds for Katrina recovery was stealing from the poor people of New Orleans. The ignorance of this writer merely reflected what the rest of America did not know. Mississippi was suffering, but the national media did not care to report it. The local TV station, WLOX-13, and the local newspaper, The Sun Herald, covered Katrina’s devastating effect on South Mississippi, winning a Peabody and a Pulitzer, respectively. But I’m sure Peabodys and Pulitzers don’t count to the national news outlets.
As for my show’s cast, over half of them had to relocate to other states to find shelter and work. I was hired by the ACLU of Mississippi on a six-month grant to make sure the local residents had access to government. I attended city council and county command meetings all over South Mississippi. These meetings were held outside; the politicians wore simple clothing as did the rest of us. Many of the local mayors and elected officials had also lost everything; the clothes on their backs were all some of them had until the donation boxes arrived. Meetings started in the mornings and went on as long as they needed to every day. Every resident got to ask questions, and there was no time limit.
The biggest concern was the clearing of debris and rebuilding. The process of rebuilding was hampered by the insurance companies, many of whom tried every which way to get out of paying claims. When we called about the damage to our house – all windows and exterior doors to be replaced and the roof repaired, the insurance adjustor told us it was impossible for us to have had damage from Katrina since hurricanes break up once they hit land and we lived eight miles inland. What this yahoo did not know was the Katrina was still a Cat. 1 when it went over North Mississippi. Most of the state experienced some aspect of the storm, the spun-off tornadoes, and the torrential rains.
Repairs were greatly assisted by volunteer groups from around the country and from even overseas. With no electricity in most areas, the Amish volunteers were the best suited for working with old-fashioned manual tools. Another group that helped considerably were the legal and illegal immigrants from Central America. They were some of the hardest-working people and came to help rebuild homes and businesses for no pay. While brown immigrants are usually maligned in the United States, the illegals worked their asses off to help, while the unscrupulous out-of-state white contractors preyed on Mississippi’s Katrina victims, swindling many out of tens of thousands of dollars for supplies and work that never materialized.
Today, August 29, 2015, is the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. This will likely be the last time the media gives attention to Katrina until perhaps the 20th anniversary, and of course, Mississippi will not be mentioned then either. I waited to write this to see how I felt about all of this. I went to the store this afternoon, and the clerk told me, “Everyone is angry today.” I said, “Yeah. It’s Katrina Day.”
This is not a day of remembrance for us because we are still living the reality of Katrina. Katrina is not in the past as many are still recovering from the storm, and most of us still have PTSD to some degree. For the kids, schools were smart enough to use various disciplines in the arts to allow kids to express their feelings of loss and instability through painting, drawing, poetry, and songs. I started filming a documentary and interviewed mayors, city council members, and other officials, but I felt that the real story of Katrina was not only to be found in the immediate aftermath and the resilience of the ignored Mississippi residents but in the long-term recovery, as well as the legalities of the insurance companies’ corruption, the blunders of FEMA, and the varied success of governmental response.
Reminders of the storm and how far we have come are sprinkled around the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Many businesses have built back. Some of the broken oak trees along the beach were carved into sculptures that still line the coastline drive. The Frank Gehry-designed beachfront Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art has been restored, and to this day, the DMV in D’Iberville still operates out of a trailer. A new generation of “steps to nowhere” hints at what happened that day.
On this day, I wanted to honor the people of my home state, to tell a little bit of the story that is much too vast for any one blog post or online article. But if you want to know more about what happened to Mississippi due to Hurricane Katrina, there are 150,000 people who can tell you. You just have to care enough to ask.
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Trish Causey is an ArtistActivist, writer, composer, and singer. She is currently writing a book about her experiences running for Congress in 2014 and centers her feminist activism on her blog, radio show, and upcoming AW Magazine.
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