When I was born, Hurricane Camille had happened three years previously, almost to the day. I grew up hearing mention of Camille from time to time, but not a whole lot. I heard about it when I noticed a stain on my grandparent’s paneling (the waterline), when I inquired about steps leading to nowhere (former front stoops) and whenever a storm was heading this way (how would it compare to Camille?; how much water there was in Camille). My aunt Theresa composed the dedication for a sign erected in Waveland to commemorate the 1969 storm. Beyond that, life went on. Camille was just part of local history.
As so often happens, I grew a bit older and gained a more personal perspective of the local timeline. Now three years have passed since Katrina, and it remains very much a part of coastal consciousness. I am amazed, though, to hear newcomers say things like, “Oh, yes, I heard stories about that storm” as if it’s a historic event. Of course, it is an historic event. I know that. But it doesn’t seem that way, because we are still feeling its effects.
There has indeed been change and progress since the storm, although it can be difficult to notice when you live it from day to day. Last week I saw a video made by volunteers from Florida who not only came to help, but who gifted our schools with pre-filled book bag for all our students. The video showed images of our communities not long after the storm. It reminded me that much debris has been cleared, many standing houses have been mudded out and repaired and most people don’t continue to look shell-shocked. The amount of construction around here is impressive when compared with pictures of vacant lots. Speaking of that, congratulations to the Hancock County Water and Sewer Board on its brand-new building!
Despite all this, our coastal communities are still in recovery. Many individuals have rebuilt or repaired. My life, for instance, is relatively normal. Many more people are still working on it. But the towns and cities are dealing with money woes, government offices housed in Quonset huts or trailers, condemned buildings, fragile economies and future storm readiness. In Bay St. Louis and Waveland, we have businesses that have opened or reopened since the storm. Some are surviving, some are struggling, and some have had to close due to a flagging economy or high insurance costs.
Most of the FEMA trailer parks have closed. Wonderful that we’re putting all that behind us, some might say. However, many former residents of those parks have nowhere to live. It isn’t that they don’t want to work or be responsible citizens. There are some cases like that, of course, just as there are anywhere. But there are those who work and do their best to support their families, those who were renters before the storm or who just didn’t have insurance. The problem now is that there are very few places to rent. And, as advertised, simple economics drives up rent prices on those few places that are available beyond the reach of low wage-earners. I recently spoke with a working mother who is desperately looking for a place to live. She and her children were moved to a hotel out of a FEMA trailer, and now have 60 days to find a place to rent. I’m not sure what will happen to them.
Not long after Katrina, I wondered when the time would come that local news would not have some mention of the storm. It hasn’t happened yet. Every single day there are headlines about insurance, FEMA, Katrina cottages, building codes, repairs or new city plans. I suppose it’s just part of who we are as a coastal community now. This “recovery” has a broader scope and meaning than anything I could have imagined. The good thing, and the thing that keeps many folks here, is the support that continues between and among people. Dealing with the aftermath of Katrina is something we all understand, and it is why we celebrate with each other when businesses are reopened or houses are rebuilt, why we loan each other things that were lost and not yet re-acquired, and why we allow for some continuing PTSD symptoms from each other. It is why we laugh together at every opportunity, why we hug more often and why we help each other get on with things.
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