Katrina: Southern Mississippi two years later


by Eleanor Cissy Jordan

The Zephyr, Galesburg


ItŐs much quieter now. The oppressive heat of August bakes everything in reach of the sun. The silence is broken by compressors cycling on and off as we turn down the air conditioners trying to hold back the heat from inside our houses.

We watch the weather reports, hoping against hope that this year, like last, will be exceptionally void of hurricane scares. We are not able, not mentally, not emotionally, to withstand another potentially deadly storm.

ItŐs been two years nowÉ in some ways it seems like just a couple of months ago; in other ways it seems like a shadow of a dark, highly emotional memory. Doctors tell us more people are at the bottom now than at any time since the storm. The aftermath of the nationŐs worst disaster has left us in a jumble of mental disorders, ranging from anger to the darkest and deepest chasms of total despair.

Most of us have extra pounds around our middle; many say they drink more than ever before. And many still are on medication, not able to cope with this disaster.

I can remember so vividly the Friday before the storm hit on MondayÉ I had lunch with a friend I had not seen in ages. We so casually discussed the possibility that Ňthe storm in the Gulf would affect usÓ. It was only a passing thought, hardly a consideration. Then there was the gala, grand 60th birthday party for another friend the following evening with more than a hundred in attendance. We were so comfortable, so confident that our life was secure. The hurricane churning in the Gulf at that time was merely a threatÉ think of all the places it could hit other than our small part of the world. Little did we know we were leaving our lives behind at those happy gatherings never to return.

We still talk about the storm and its constant strain whenever we gather, whether in a small group or a large one, Katrina is the uninvited guest who arrives late but never leaves.

My words are dramatic, it is a failure of this writer to be able to convey to any outsider just what hell we have been living through for the past two years. More than any words are the countless numbers of us who have died, who are dying of terminal diseases and those who now have developed a life- ending disease. The death toll from Katrina is on-going.

We still cry. One minute we are laughing, the next the tears well up like sour bile in our throats and we are back again to the dark times. Report after report; study after study and all conclude a great percentage of the population still living here are seriously emotionally ill. But those of us who are not among this group also know an even bigger truth; that none of us are back to where we were and the big scare, the fear we sometimes canŐt admit is that we may never find our way back to where we were. ItŐs like reading a great book, the book slams shut and we canŐt find our place again.

Our pattern for living here has been lost.

What did we do before the storm? Trying to piece together our lives is made even more difficult when so much of the landscape of our past is completely gone. Where are we? We ask this question because in place of the matrix of our past are now vast wastelands made ugly with weeds and strange plants we have never seen before, blown in by a storm that started off the Coast of Africa, traveled through the islands of the Caribbean and somehow decided to come ashore here.

Recently a dear elderly friend of mine asked me to join her for dinner at Thirty-two, the elegant restaurant atop the Imperial Palace Casino. The room has large windows with views on two sides; vast vistas of both the Gulf on one side and the Bay of Biloxi on the other side. Our table faced the Gulf side and one could see for miles and miles up and down the Coastline. Then the effect of Katrina came into sharp focusÉ all those empty lots, all the places where restaurants, apartments, hotels, stores, filling stations, viable businesses and houses once stood are now only concrete steps or a chimney. But the most pronounced difference now is how quiet the Gulf is. Where once shrimp boats, pleasure boats, charter fishing boats, jet skis, para sails, churned up the waters; where once the Gulf teemed with pleasurable activity, now it remains silent. We have lost our pattern for living here. What did we used to do that made living here so much fun? We canŐt seem to remember, or if we do, we can not find the desire for fun when there is so much pain all around us.

There was an announcement this week soon we will have lights installed on the beach highway again. For all of our lives Highway 90 on the Gulf was a 24/7 scenic view of the good life. Plunged into darkness since Katrina, we travel this same road now unaware of just where we are at times, searching the area for lights in the distance. All those houses gone! All the antiques, the art, the history of each and every personŐs life housed in a dwelling washed away to some unknown place. And it gets worse the more westerly you travelÉ worse still when you reach Hancock County which saw historic Bay St. Louis nearly disappear entirely.

Slowly some progress is being made, thanks mostly to the generosity of federal dollars. The houses being rebuilt along the Coastal areas donŐt look like us. TheyŐre like bird houses on stilts, way up in the air. This does not resemble anything we can associate with our past and is, by the most part, very ugly indeed. Have heard some people living in these homes think of them as temporaryÉ not like home.

They are rebuilding Beauvoir, the home of Jefferson Davis. There are plans to restore many of the other historic buildings. New roads planned to improve the Port of Gulfport; schools, both public and private have been rebuilt and thanks again to the generosity of strangers, new playground equipment is going in where nothing but rubble stood for so many months.

In early November the much awaited connector from Ocean Springs to Biloxi and all parts west will open two lanes of the 12-lane bridge.

At the apex it will be 95 feet above the waterÉ it looks beautiful from shore. Parties are planned for the event to rejoin Biloxi and Ocean Springs again as we are forced to travel many miles now out of the way to go over the Interstate bridge into Biloxi.

For several of the casinos the last two years have been spent on a cul-du-sac and their plans for rebuilding have been waiting for the bridge to open so visitors can find their way onto Casino Row. Despite Katrina, revenue for all the Biloxi casinos has surpassed the pre-storm days but I suspect it is not that we have more visitors but that much of the locals are spending all their time and certainly all their earnings at the casinos. It is a sure escape from the reality of living here.

More than 16,000 FEMA travel trailers remain. In reality this means there are more than 30,000 folks who have no place to live. The storm not only washed away thousands and thousands of homes and apartments it also created another new harsh reality. All structures must be built to new elevation requirements. Where once we never imagined any tidal surge would surpass Camille, the 100-year flood plane has moved up dozens of feet and expanded dozens of miles. And for just the average house to be elevated to meet these newly imposed standards is approximately 30,000 extra dollars before the walls even go up. Who can afford to rebuild when the elevation requirements add on so much additional costs and who can afford to build back when insurance premiums are more than doubled? Many can not afford either. They sit and wait in their tiny trailers hoping for hope.

A recent published estimate of the number of volunteers who came here to help numbered 600,000! Why these people came we really donŐt know but they are truly our angels. Some volunteers came and never left. Some came back two or three times. Homeowners with destroyed property had no means to rebuild or to restore their homes until many helping hands emerged to make light work of this task. We are so, so grateful for all these angels.

The giant kitchens that were set up to feed the vast number of volunteers as well as the homeless are gone now. So are the landscapes of endless pup tents these hardy volunteers lived in for months. Gone now too are the fields of large tented pavilions that housed various social services made available to the homeless.

But the smaller villages of FEMA trailers still exist. These are sad, sad places. The trailers are actually no bigger than your bedroom from end to end. Families are forced to live in these cramped quarters and even more cramped are the accommodating trailer parks where one door can hardly open into one trailer without banging into another trailer. Sound carries from trailer to trailer and so does domestic violence fanned by living in such close proximity. There have been many serious crimes committed: murder, rape, mayhem in alarming numbers. But nothing like the murder rate in New Orleans, which now they say is the only city where murder is a misdemeanor.

One of the only benefits derived from this disaster is the loss of the large drug trade in Biloxi. Whether it moved to another state we do not know but it is gone from here and the stranglehold it had on neighborhoods is broken. We have heard stories that both Houston and Baton Rouge are now struggling with crime and drugs and we suspect it was all transplanted during the evacuation after Katrina.

Here are some of the numbers of the Katrina aid:

Allocated to Mississippi from the Federal Government: $23.5 billion.

ThatŐs enough to buy two average-sized houses for each of the 65,000 families who lost their homes, according to the Biloxi Sun Herald newspaper. And $1.04 billion was paid to 14,423 coast homeowners through the grant program to help folks rebuild their houses. My brother said he qualified for a grant but thought they wanted to give him too much and when he asked if he could accept a lessor amount he was told ŇNo!Ó WhatŐs wrong with this picture?

Ask us who is the biggest threat to our welfare, our state of well-being and our pocket books and we will answerÉ the insurance industry.

I predicted there would be serious harm brought to the insurance agents who doled out sad, ugly news to homeowners who thought all these years they were paying for reasonable coverage only to have their agent tell them they would not be getting a dime in recovery. Thank goodness it never happened. In truth I feel sorry for the agents I know who were caught between a rock and a hard place.

Congress is kicking around a plan for catastrophic coverage and we hope this will pass. Being far away from the Gulf here at our farm, our premiums were less; our repayments from the insurance companies better. But we join our friends who live closer to the Gulf in expressing disdain: At a time when the profit margins for the insurance companies reached into the billions, they increased every type of coverage for all of us and now refused to write new policies. Talk about fair weather friends: I say if they canŐt be with us in the hard times I donŐt need them in fair weather. I hope to build two apartments above my retail store in Ocean Springs and after I have satisfied my mortgage requirements I plan to be self insured on my commercial building. Liability insurance is all I plan to carry.

It seems we are in a rather stagnant state right now with zero job growth and little are no growth in the tax base either. The jobless rate is near 6.5 percent. However, there are several big projects in the planning stages which should help to jump-start our economy within the next three years. Two new casinos are going to be built in Biloxi in the next three years and other casinos have drafted huge expansions for their sites. An exciting world-class resort is being proposed on the beach in Biloxi and is now going through the process of re-zoning their newly acquired 27 acres of formerly long-time vacant land. We have high hopes it will cross all the hurdles and become a reality for several reasons, including the proximity to our property and the likelihood they will put up housing on this land to benefit everyone.

Leadership has been so important for the Gulf Coast, as evident by all the struggles that New Orleans has endured because neither their mayor, governor nor their Congressional delegation seems to get along. From the beginning we had wonderful leadership from our governor, Hayley Barbour and Biloxi Mayor A. J. Holloway. Just listening to New Orleans politics and the problems they have had without leadership makes us sorry for them that in the end it is the people who are suffering. In the beginning the Federal government asked to see each CityŐs plan for removal of debris; for re-establishment of the infrastructure, for removing of hazardous dwellings, for rebuilding public services and while Mississippi provided these plans, New Orleans sat back and argued and complained and fought with each other. Now they are blaming the federal government instead of looking at their own failure of leadership. I personally donŐt think New Orleans will ever come back to its lost glory. I have not been to New Orleans since the storm.

The heat of August settles around us like a moist heating blanket. High humidity and high temperatures combine to slow everything to a crawl. The grass grows faster now and it takes only a few days between mowings before it needs to be cut again. Insects lay like prey everywhere. And we still donŐt have the number of song birds or even the number of hummingbirds we had previous to Katrina.

We havenŐt had the usual number of tropical squalls come ashore this year but last week when Dean looked menacing many folks talked of packing up and leaving way ahead of the storm if it looked like it might come this way. Some people are still unnerved by rain or thunder and need comforting like a frightened dog. This may never change for them as the imprint of our past is strongest for those that endured the most. I personally canŐt imagine what it must have been like to witness the 30-foot tidal surge and to struggle to survive the ravages of flood waters inside your home.

For me the horror of Katrina was not any rising water, but it is all mingled with the unbridled fear that prevailed during the long aftermath of the storm. It was when I realized it would be many days before we had electricity. We barely could breathe it was so hot during those immediate days after Katrina. Finding gas to run the generators was the major goal of each and every day. Waiting in long, long lines for hours to get $50 worth of gas. Our next need was for prescription medications, especially for my elderly Mother. My Florida friends had her meds filled down there and brought them up to us, a lifesaver in the true sense of the word. Every day we set new goals. Every day we met a new fear.

We went many days without grocery stores being opened then when they did open the shelves were always bare. Keeping the freezer and refrigerator operational by continually re-filling and re-cranking the generator was the job of our family friend, Pat the Painter. We would not have made it if he had not been here to help us. I knew he was not entirely well but little did any of us know he had lung cancer and would soon follow my Mother in death.

Katrina is also part of the period of my life associated with death, of first my sister-in-law, Judie, then my Mother, followed by our good friend, Pat; all within the span of that one year. Grief is all entangled with other losses and all the lines seem blurred. My empathy for most of my friends who lost everything they owned also is imbedded in that time frame.

The general agreement settles on the aftermath as being intensely harder to endure that all the horrors of the storm itself. Like the pain of birth, the memories of the horror of the storm seems to fade but not the agony of the aftermath which was and still is like living in a war zone. We have felt as if our world turned upside down and we are still unable to upright ourselves.

Every soul I know down here has struggled to put normalcy back into their lives with little success. We are so changed by what we lived through that we will never, ever be the same.

Two years ago tomorrow Katrina came ashore and beat us to death for nearly 12 hours. Things are quieter now. We pray we will not attract another hurricane this year or any time in our future. We need time to mend even though we know we will never be the same.