BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – If the trees could talk, they would tell us everything.
Silent, gnarled sentries, the live oaks of the Mississippi Gulf Coast have seen it all. Since well before they beckoned Spanish and French explorers with their massive limbs like welcoming arms, the oaks have been dutiful witnesses to the timeless cycle of birth and life and death. And hurricanes.
Of Hurricane Katrina, 20 months after she unleashed her fury, they have two stories to tell. One story is as plain as the leaves on their branches. Denuded by 120 mph winds, the oaks now bristle like happy Chia pets.
“Last summer, you saw no green,” says Bay St. Louis artist and businessman Mark Currier. “This year, look at the live oaks!”
As with the oaks, the outward signs of human recovery are visible all along the coast.
Locals are planning the biggest party they’ve ever thrown to mark the opening of the new $267 million, four-lane Highway 90 bridge between Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian to the east. The nearby CSX railroad bridge has been open for a year now and freight trains rumble daily through town.
While the occasional jolting juxtapositions of stairs to nowhere and toilets on slabs remain, the breathtaking piles of debris that clotted the landscape after the storm are gone. The cleanup efforts, subsidized by billions in government spending, are in their final days.
Fast food and box stores
Between Waveland and Bay St. Louis, there are more flavors of fast food than you can shake a stick at and a healthy number of more refined eateries. There is still no stand-alone grocery store in either town, but the Wal-Mart in Waveland, forced into a circus tent after the storm, is back in its building and busting at the seams with everything from pineapples to patio furniture. Kmart has reopened, and a booming business in building materials is being done at a new Lowe’s and Home Depot as well as several outlets that pre-date the storm.
Tax revenue from gambling also is helping the battered local economies, through the reopened Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis (formerly the Casino Magic) and a new 5,000-square-foot casino at Bayou Caddy, attracting thousands of gamblers and generating millions in new tax revenue.
Housing construction has been slow, but skeletons of wood and steel are more numerous than they were six months ago, with the largest efforts still coming from volunteer crews and the Habitat for Humanity program. Little has been done to replace the hundreds of rental units lost to the storm but plans for new projects are emerging in both the public and private sectors.
In Bay St. Louis, city employees have moved out of their temporary post-Katrina City Hall at the Old Depot and regrouped on Highway 90 in the former Coast Electric compound, also home to a new police station. Late last month, the City Council approved a $14 million contract to replace utility lines in the downtown area.
While still governing from a collection of portable buildings at Coleman and Central avenues, Waveland is forging ahead on big-bucks projects to rebuild utilities and restore the devastated civic center complex at the old Waveland School.
Scant activity in downtown cores
The downtown cores of both cities remain very light on business and commercial activity, a fact laid mostly to post-Katrina insurance issues.
The beaches are clean and the cries of gulls fill the air at sunrise while wading fishermen stalk the shallows. Soccer moms meet like they do everywhere to stroll and confer on the jogging path along Beach Boulevard. The warm spring temperatures are luring ever more sunbathers, picnickers and swimmers.
But the live oaks – and the people of the hurricane zone – have a second, inner story that can’t be so easily seen and understood. As storms have battered the trees across the centuries, roots have shifted, trunks have twisted and limbs have curled in ways that are no longer apparent. Long after Betsy, Camille, Elena and Frederick, the oaks hew to the force of their winds and so too do the people.
It is no different in the aftermath of Katrina.
Just how it plays out is hard to divine. You cannot bisect hurricane survivors and look at a neat record of concentric rings for when and how they were wounded, healed and changed. But there are signs and there is talk, although most of it not on the record when a reporter is notebook-in-hand.
For some, it is a real sinking spell. Depression, drinking, drugging, marital discord, troubled teens -- they have seen much more of it all since the storm swept through. The situation is especially bleak in FEMA trailer parks, according to a recent study, with suicide and violence sadly common.
There is more suspicion about who has profited in the aftermath of Katrina, who is trying to pull a fast one. There is disgust with gouging landlords, agony over skyrocketing insurance rates and soaring utility bills. And there is constant distress over being forgotten by most of the nation and harshly judged by the rest of it.
Nobody 'has a fight left in them'
“I just think everyone is tired,” says Michelle Allee, an artist who displays her work in a Bay St. Louis gallery. “I don’t think anybody has a fight left in them.”
In political affairs, tensions are flaring over a Bay St. Louis City Council redistricting plan and Mayor Eddie Favre’s choice for a new police chief. Townsfolk mutter at each other under their breath at council meetings. In Waveland, Mayor Tommy Longo’s citizen detractors nitpick virtually every city decision from their folding chairs at sessions that recall the old admonition against watching sausage being made.
What are the inner stories here, coursing like sap through lives that have been entwined forever? “These people have known each other all their lives,” warns one transplanted county resident. “You don’t know how much of this is Katrina and how much of it is who beat who up in the first grade.”
And as old feuds and rivalries have been exacerbated by Katrina’s fallout, some unlikely new alliances have been forged.
It is a time of great soul-searching along the coast. The frantic hand-to-mouth pace of immediate survival and initial recovery has slowed. There is time for reflection, time to look for slivers of meaning as carefully as if they were shards of a precious heirloom smashed by Katrina into the red Mississippi clay, but an heirloom that might be pieced back together.
Some are wondering why they stay. It is at the top of a long list of perplexing questions. Should I rebuild? Should I reopen my business? Where? Why was my house spared? Should I feel guilty? Am I crazy? Are we all crazy?
No Cliffs Notes for this test
Even the most introspective seekers can find themselves puzzling like freshmen lit majors over a Faulkner novel. But there are Cliffs Notes for “The Sound and the Fury.” Not for this.
Just as we must wait to see when the leaves come back and then, wait much longer to see which direction the trunks will lean and the branches will grow, only the future will reveal how Katrina has changed these people, these towns, this coast.
Now, a new storm season is on the horizon, predicted to be “very active.” Whether a major hurricane spins out of the Atlantic, across the gulf and slaps Mississippi is anybody’s guess. But the possibility is on everybody’s mind.
When the winds do come again, in a year or in 30, the live oaks will be here as they have always been. They will shudder, they will bend, they will crack, and they will let loose their leaves in the howling breath of a new legend whose name awaits on an alphabetized list.
Then the trees will grow anew, and more will be revealed.
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