“There are events that possess the power to divide all of life into two parts: Before, and After. The After is a new world unto itself, the very face of reality changed by the consequences of what has happened” from Surviving Mississippi by Kerri Conrad
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina tore into the Gulf Coast with a wild and furious abandon. Today, we are 10 years into the world she left behind in her wake. The world before the storm recedes away from us in time. Join me as I honor this anniversary by remembering what it was like in that extraordinary place and time.
Hurricane Katrina came at my life like a wave. I moved to coastal Mississippi just 3 months before the storm made landfall. In many ways, the post-Katrina world is more real to me than the one that came before it. That summer is legendary in my mind, empty of any notion that the world was ever going to change. We lived in the pulse and the sway of people who dream they will never die. We lived in the present tense, untouchable, young and free in a way we never were before or since.
I was 20 years old, and everything about that old world was new to me then. Most weekends, we stayed with my boyfriend’s brother at a camp in Bay St Louis, MS along the bayou. It was a small, raised house that would soon wash away right off the top of its pilings. Other times we booked hotel rooms on Bourbon Street, wandered the streets of New Orleans, got swept away in the rise and the swell of the city.
I fell helplessly in love with the Gulf South. I found myself swallowed up in the people, the culture, and the raw, primal beauty of those places as they were then but will never quite be again. I wish I had written more, seen more, taken more photographs, put more of that place down on paper before it was gone.
I evacuated to Greeneville, MS during Hurricane Katrina, which is a strange and twisting tale of its own. 300 miles to the north, Katrina rushed past us in a strong, sustained gust that pushed against us if we tried to stand in it. I wasn’t on the coast to watch a 35 foot wave tower over the world I had always known. I didn’t have my life ripped away by the force of winds that blew in excess of 129 miles per hours. These are just words and numbers. They are symbols that lack the power to convey what that must have been like.
Imagine, for a moment that you are there. Not in New Orleans, as most Katrina coverage would have you picture, but further east in Mississippi. You are in Pearlington, MS as the eye wall comes barreling over the top of it. All around you is a churning sea of water and debris. The sky swirls with black clouds, daylight extinguished. Trees snap and crash into each other. The wild wind presses against you.
Thunder rolls sharp and fast like the beating of drums. Lightning flashes, and details emerge from the shadows in frantic, blue-white bursts. Metal rattles and scrapes as debris flies through the air, punctuating the rush and whistle of the wind. The world you thought you knew has been set adrift. It rushes headlong towards it’s fate, splintered and in pieces.
Suddenly, the wind stops. The eye of the storm opens above you. “There has never been a sky as blue as this one, a clear circle of calm at the top of a tunnel of white clouds a mile high. The dark clouds at the edge swirl menacingly, the fury of the hurricane holding itself back.
Words cannot express what the eye seems to say as it speaks for the storm. It seeks expression in its beauty instead, its benevolent calm, its warmth and its light. The hurricane is all things at once. Beauty and horror. Life and death. The furious purpose of the storm gathers in the eye with elegant composure…” from Surviving Mississippi by Kerri Conrad
Hurricanes are part and parcel of life in the wetlands, a violent but necessary phenomenon that has shaped the Gulf South into what it is today. Hurricane Katrina took many things from many people, but it also gave us a world that we would never have had without it.
Many people lost their homes in Katrina, even their lives. Others found courage, and hope, and the strength to help others in need. People drew together. They learned how to stand up in the face of whatever the world threw at them.
I returned in the wake of the storm. I drove south into a scarred landscape. Around Hattiesburg, MS, it became clear the old world had been torn down and scattered for miles in every direction. Tornadoes had ripped violently through the area. Our path was cleared ahead of us by chainsaws, and the burnt aroma of freshly cut wood hung in the air.
The further south we went, the worse the destruction became. The road was like a conveyor belt moving us into a war zone. The edges of the disaster spilled over onto the pavement in broken shards. Everywhere, Katrina had left her mark. Whole pine forests pointed northward, old men hunched over, forever leaning in the direction of the wind. Other trees hung prostrate over sagging power lines; their fall suspended, denied the privilege of crashing to the ground.
Helicopters flew overhead, as caravans of tanks, Humvees, and power trucks passed us in a slow crawl. The air turned thick with the sickening sweet stench of floodwater, and the face of our new reality began to show itself. We saw houses laid across roadways, twisted 18-wheelers lying on their backs like turtles who would perish in the sun because they could not right themselves.
Driving through the wreckage, I was overcome with a feeling of loss. I was overwhelmed by the sensation that the whole world was coming down. A grave certainty descended upon me that would color all of the days that followed. Death cast its shadow long.
There were many more adventures that followed, some good and some bad. The sun rose on a new day. There were foibles in FEMA trailers, clean-up efforts, and all the many eccentricities of the brave new world Katrina gave us. Hurricane Katrina lived and died in a matter of days, but the aftermath she left behind touched and changed thousands of lives forever. The truth of that extraordinary experience is built of stories. It is the story of that place and that time. Its my story. Its yours.
Have a Katrina story of your own to tell? I’d love to hear it. Share it in the comments below.
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