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August 25, 2008

Resilience or Defiance: on the Third Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

pelicanflight "Do you see the pelicans over the shrimp boats?" 

I ask this question at least three mornings a week, as I drive my four year old son along the beach to his preschool.  The circumstances allowing me to ask this question so casually and so regularly are nothing short of a miraculous privilege.

Something you may not know about the Mississippi Gulf Coast is that we boast one of the most beautiful coastlines along which you can drive and enjoy an uninterrupted view.  From Gulfport to Pass Christian, across the Bay St. Louis bridge and into Waveland, you can drive west along the beach and take in an unbroken view of the water, save for a handful of boat harbors and yacht clubs.  Drive east along Highway 90 into Biloxi and you run into Casino Row, blocking your view of the waterline, but that is another privilege altogether.

The dichotomy found along Highway 90, also known as Beach Boulevard, is remarkable.  On the west end of the 26 mile boulevard, you have the Old South.  Along the east end, the New South.  My life falls somewhere in the middle.

Three years ago this August 29th, Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. When she finally left hours later, she took with her our homes, our cars, our jobs, our libraries, our hospitals, our resources, and many of our family members and friends.  What she failed to sweep away, however, was our determination to remain along these coastal waters. Our ability to pull on our bootstraps and rebuild was left intact.  For better or worse.

Three years later, I drive along Beach Boulevard every day, still under construction after being left in buckled ruins, and I marvel at our renewal.  At our expansion.  At our success in staring down Mother Nature and spitting in her eye.

And I wonder at her tendency toward vengeance.

Nothing is stopping another hurricane from wiping out the Gulf Coast again.  As a hurricane formed to the south of us recently, I remembered how sure I was that Katrina would not reach us.  That she would tear up Florida, as hurricanes are wont to do, and leave us alone.  TreasureBayDestructionThe odds of another Camille making landfall were so remote, so myth-laden, so unrealistic.  We were invincible teenagers, partying on our wooden docks, admiring our castles built upon the sand.

Today I admire the new pier recently finished in Gulfport.  It is beautiful and functional and a community hub.  In the days before Katrina, I admired this same new pier, recently finished, thankful for the city finally putting some real money into something like this for the community.  This new pier so easily destroyed by Katrina's powerful and relentless waves, this new pier found spread out in shards and planks for miles along the beach in the days following her landfall.

Nothing is stopping a sister of Katrina from making landfall and destroying this very new pier next week.  Nothing is stopping another hurricane from destroying all of the homes we have rebuilt, all of the businesses we have welcomed, all of the proud strides we have made.  Mother Nature has a long memory and does not appreciate defiance. 

Man makes plans.  God laughs.

So is this rebirth along the Gulf Coast resilience or is it defiance?  BeachHomeRebuilt Do we know better and rebuild anyway?  Are we naive to think that all of this hard work holds some form of permanence?  Or are we eternal locals muttering, "I'll be damned if I'm going to leave"?

Hurricane Katrina was a blessing in countless ways.  The Gulf Coast was littered with deteriorating buildings, not old enough to be historical, but just old enough to be ill-designed eye sores.  Most of this property was owned by stubborn old coots reluctant to change, so it just sat there, in all of its 1970s glory, and did nothing but make us look out-of-touch and bull-headed.  On our east end, scattered in among the glossy new casinos, were rank old adult video shops and paint-chipped air-brushed t-shirt stores.  You had to look beyond these failed tourist traps in order to see the stunning antebellum homes, but they were there, holding strong and waiting patiently for us to see the error of our ways.

However, in the decade I lived along the Gulf Coast, I saw very little progress along Beach Boulevard, save for the casinos that could only hope to distract you from their neighbors' deterioration with flashing neon lights, fancy fountains, and the call of free buffets.

It took a hurricane to wipe our coast clean, to hand us miles of bare slabs and say, "Here, try again."

And try again we have.  We have become a community as closely planned as we can be, given that we are not a planned community.  We have finally welcomed new perspectives and are looking forward, designing with deliberation and confidence.  New businesses are flocking to us, as they see the Gulf Coast as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something fresh and yet steeped in culture.  We are the New South, simultaneously embracing our Old South roots.

But how many times can we do this? pelicansunset How much do we have in us before we are finally beaten, before we abandon all hope and move north, away from the water, away from the storm surge?  Away from the threat, housed deep in the roots of our home.

We begin again with a resilient spirit and defiant determination, but how much more can these bootstraps take?

And yet...  Do you see the pelicans flying over the shrimp boats?  The cranes gracing the waterline?  Shhh...  do you hear that?  The soft shushing of the marsh and chorus in the bayou?  We are surrounded by life.  We are surrounded by the very breath of the earth, moistening our cheeks with humid closeness as she whispers: 

This is my home and I'll be damned if I'm going to leave.

An original Deep South Moms Blog post. 

Megan Jordan writes her personal blog, Velveteen Mind, from her home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  She likens herding seagulls to editing and publishing Blog Nosh Magazine, and wouldn't have it any other way.

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