BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. –- Dear Friends and Family:
I’ve never written one of these holiday letters before (don’t they all begin with that disclaimer?) so it’s a bit hard to begin. And awkward, seeing as how I have some confessions that I didn’t think I’d make while still working as a journalist.
But after two trips to this ravaged region, I want to tell you what I’ve seen, what I’ve really seen, and how it has touched me in ways that covering no other story has. So indulge me if you will for a few hundred words on this eve of one of the holiest days on most calendars in this part of the world.
I had never been to the South before October. And other than a fleeting fantasy or two over the years about Mardi Gras, I can’t particularly remember wanting to come. To me, it was the land of fried okra, Civil War buffs and lyrical knife fights between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
But Katrina came with devastation of such magnitude that MSNBC.com decided to devote considerable resources to reporting the comeback –- or not -– of Bay St. Louis, Waveland and Hancock County. I arrived with photojournalist Jim Seida on Oct. 18 as one of the first of many rotating teams the Web site would send to tell the stories.
Even then, more than six weeks after Katrina had struck, the ruin was so vast and fresh that it looked as if the storm had roared through the day before.
The destruction never surprised me.
I mean that with all humility. I have not experienced a hurricane but I have seen nature’s work in the rubble of a tremendous earthquake, the misery of widespread flooding and the awful torrents of a huge volcanic eruption. I have lived long enough to know how small and insignificant we are.
Two months later, in my second tour of duty, things have changed dramatically. The splintered debris of so many homes, scattered endlessly across the neighborhoods of lower Waveland, is slowly giving way to bare, dark earth, scraped cleaned by Army Corps contractors who seem to be everywhere with their Bobcats and Big Tex trailers. The thwack of nail guns and the whine of Skil saws fill the air all day along Washington Street in Bay St. Louis as one roof after another is repaired.
The vehicles, overturned and left like forgotten toys as far as the eye could see, are mostly gone. The red Chevy pickup on its side over on Second Street and the blue Caddie slowly rusting out on Bourgeois are two familiar exceptions.
The bustle of commerce is everywhere. Wal-Mart has moved from its giant tent into a downsized version of its store to offer pallets of everything from chainsaws to steaks. There’s a shiny auto parts store and car wash. You can choose Chinese, Mexican, Italian, seafood, burgers, waffles and more at the restaurants that are up and running. There are plenty of boats at the yacht club and new portable buildings to house the office and bar. Hubbard's Hardware and 84 Lumber are thick with customers morning, noon and night. Behind the wheels of the ubiquitous trucks and SUVs of contractors and government agents, cell phones sprout from the ear of every driver as they buzz from one meeting to the next.
The destruction never surprised me, but the people were a different story. About them, pushing rules of journalistic neutrality and objectivity aside, I will not beat around the bush. From the moment I first alighted on Waveland soil to shake hands with Pat Ellis in the rubble of her once lovely brick rambler, to just yesterday afternoon when I watched Geri Bleau weep with joy at her husband Gil’s homecoming, I have been amazed.
We hear in tragedies all too frequently that folks “lost everything,” but do we often stop to think what that really means? Everything, they lost everything. And do we ever stop to think what we would do if it happened to us? I have, and I tell you, honestly, I don’t know.
But I know that whatever I did it wouldn’t hold a candle to what Trinh Huynh and Hong Tran have had to do to get their 65-foot shrimper the Dustin Randy back in the water out at Bayou Caddy. Trinh and Hong, who probably each weigh half of what I do, will clearly move mountains to restore order to their flooded Waveland home and keep their children in college.
The same goes for Viren and Mita Patel, who have worked virtually around the clock since Katrina struck to push the Key West Motel on Highway 90 ever closer to full operations. The Waffle House next door is not coming back, but this week the Patels’ children did, home from staying with relatives to the east, and the joy in Viren’s eyes is unmistakable.
Their stories are the norm here, not the exception. And as people like them go about reclaiming their own lives, their hands seem ever outstretched to others in gestures epitomized by the likes of Pastor Alan Jenkins at First Missionary Baptist Church in Bay St. Louis. His congregation’s sanctuary was spared from Katrina’s waters, though the homes of many of his parishioners were not, and Jenkins has looked beyond his own church walls from Day One in an effort to build bridges in the community.
The list is, literally, endless. To the cynical critics in our “Comments” section, doubtful about the intentions of so many Katrina victims, come here. Follow Wendy McDonald or Ellis Anderson or Rory MacDowell or Ron Hill or Ernest Taylor around for a day and you will see just how capable the citizenry is of helping its own. Try to get a meeting with Mayor Eddie Favre of Bay St. Louis and you will see that his life is a 24/7 meeting of working on nothing but Katrina issues.
This is what I see, what I really see. And knowing, again from more than a little age and experience, that people are pretty much the same everywhere and that given half a chance we’ll generally do what is good and right, or at least try, I am willing to bet that the story is pretty much the same in New Orleans, in Gulfport, in Slidell, in Baton Rouge.
The destruction never surprised me. But the people never failed to amaze me with their strength and hope and hearts so full of love that even the eyes of an aging reporter can well with tears at the most unexpected moments.
To our readers who think we just take up space and get in the way of the far more important work of rebuilding, you have a point. But you may not realize how hard it is sometimes to not be in the story instead of covering it, to not stop asking questions and scribbling answers and just pick up a shovel or a hammer or a spatula and go to work.
Alas, I am merely here to observe and note in the small ways I can what has happened and how these towns will or will not move on. But thinking of George Bailey in the old Frank Capra standard that will light so many TV screens tonight, I believe just now that what I’d really rather do is put the notebook down and lasso the moon for each and every one of these brave and wonderful souls.
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