A native of Bay St. Louis and a 14-year veteran of its police force, Officer Ernest Taylor has seen the town through integration, growth and, now, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Click Play to hear him talk about how the town will never be the same.
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – If you are Officer Ernest Taylor, life in this small Gulf Coast town has been pretty good to you and a lot of others. So far.
You were born here, a child of the ’60s, in a place where people know their neighbors and care about them. It’s a place where jumbo shrimp are available at four or five bucks a pound "right off the boat" just across the bay in Pass Christian, where you can fish away summer evenings while the sun hangs low over the gulf, where you can marry your girl and buy a nice house in Spanish Acres and raise three sons and live a full and gentle life just like the kind of man you are, a trustee and deacon at your church and your police department’s school resource officer.
It’s not perfect. No. As a child, you attend segregated schools and, at age 7, are in the first audience allowed to sit in what used to be the "white seats" in the town theater. You see a John Wayne movie.
In the summer, there’s a stand where you get snowballs and eat them with your friends underneath the giant oak tree at South Beach Boulevard and Washington Street. Years later, your kids will do the same.
It is a good town and getting better, even though, as you say, "it still has a long way to go" on many things.
"Easy living," you recall. "Everybody knew everybody. If you grew up here and did something wrong, they’d just call your parents or your grandparents."
In ’69, you ride out Hurricane Camille in a local school that has yet to be integrated and then your family moves to Houston to escape the devastation. But you always come back, every summer, because your grandparents still live here and the snowball stand is still here and so is the big oak tree and this is really home. Then you’re 22, your grandfather is ill and you are back to stay, working as a machinist at NASA’s nearby Stennis Space Center.
A few years later, the new police chief brings you on the force. Bay St. Louis is a good place to be a cop, little crime and a laid-back department where callers are greeted as "baby" by a honey-voiced dispatcher. Even now, with your police radio crackling "once in a blue moon," you can still keep an ear on FM 98.5 as you cruise the streets.
Your boys grow up and so does your town, from "just a Winn-Dixie" to Burger King and McDonalds and Wal-Mart and Rite-Aid and too many stoplights to count anymore. The school that saved your family from Camille is the police station now.
And then you’re 43 and you’ve been a cop for 14 years and the awful day comes. It’s Aug. 29, 2005, and in a few hours of mad horror, Hurricane Katrina changes it all. They just don’t make verbs for what she did to Bay St. Louis so the elegant simplicity of your words says it all: "Nothing is the same."
18 frenetic hours
But you are a cop, and a good one, so you go to work. For 18 hours, there’s no sleep as you and fellow officers conduct search and rescue missions.
When the winds stop and the waters recede, you thread your way through the rubble-clotted streets and have a look. Remarkably, your own house fared pretty well. And at the police station, "We had water all around us, it just didn’t get to that particular area."
But the rest of what you see is devastating. Your bearings, all the way from your boyhood to your work on the beat, have disappeared. "That’s the hardest thing," you say, "the landmarks are gone. … Like you knew this street was Bay Oaks because you had the doctor’s house here."
With the schools shut in the wake of the storm, you’re back on the streets, but classes will resume Nov. 7 and you’ve been pondering what you will find among the high school kids. Before, you refereed "boyfriend-girlfriend stuff, fights, the normal things kids do."
Now? Some of the kids have homes and some don’t. You’re hopeful that Katrina’s indiscriminate destruction may bring the students closer together. "Everyone’s at the same level, no big person, no little person."
You’ve certainly seen that among adults. The other day you found yourself in a food line with a banker and a real estate mogul. "Before, that never would have happened."
Youngest son living in Houston
But despite your own calm strength and your faith that Bay St. Louis will rise again, there are dark moments. Your youngest son, 13, has been sent to Houston where he has begun school and may stay for the whole year. "It’s a little difficult" for you and your wife, Lotus, because "he’s the baby."
Your grandmother’s once splendid white frame house at the corner of Sycamore and Old Spanish Trail, now splintered and wrecked by Katrina, is an unavoidable sight on patrols.
And there is the nagging question of your own future. With the town’s coffers plundered in every conceivable way by Katrina, "Will I still have a job? How will they keep me?"
Whatever the answer, just like you decided all those years ago, you will stay in Bay St. Louis. It is home.
"I’m not going anywhere."
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