Post-Katrina on the Gulf Coast

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“True, people help each other in catastrophes. But they don’t feel good because they help each other. They help each other because they feel good.” – Walker Percy

Photo albums: Family photosPass Christian, MS • Gulfport, MS • Eye of the hurricane • Linemen at work • Soldiers at work • Cops at work • Water & ice by helicopter • Food, water, clothing • Beached boats • Driving to Mobile • SignsMarsha’s houseGranny’s houseGloria’s home

In August 2005, I felt great. Megan and I had gotten engaged earlier in the month, and we traveled to Mississippi to celebrate Granny’s 75th birthday. I met for the first time Aunt Marsha, her son Jamal, Granny, her sister Gloria and her brother Louis, and Louis’s daughters Barbara Ann and Sibyl. My future in-laws welcomed me like an old friend, and we shared many laughs. Marsha even turned that trip into a celebration of our engagement, with a surprise cake for us at her home in Pass Christian during Granny’s birthday party.

The next day, we visited Granny’s house. Granny and Louis told stories of growing up on the Gulf Coast, and Louis, ever polite, apologized for not having any photos to show me. “Hurricane Camille, she took away everything in 1969, so we don’t have any photos from before then.”

Two weeks later, Hurricane Katrina ripped Granny’s house off its foundation and spun it around, then destroyed what was left with rushing waters and high winds. Everyone in the family had safely evacuated to higher ground, but the homes of Granny, Marsha, Gloria, Buster and Lyndon were destroyed.

Megan and I were safely back home in Spokane when the hurricane hit, and our initial reaction was relief that everyone was safe. But we knew that Granny would want to retrieve some things from her house, and we wanted to help. We kept in touch with Marsha, waiting for the authorities to grant access to their neighborhoods. In the first few days, disaster workers were searching for survivors and recovering bodies, and civilians weren’t allowed back into Pass Christian.

On Friday, September 2, four days after the hurricane, we decided it was time to go. We were on a flight the next day, a nearly deserted non-stop to Atlanta. The only other passengers were firemen and paramedics headed to the Gulf Coast.

We arrived at Atlanta airport that evening and met up with Marsha and Jamal. The rental car agency made me sign a waiver saying that we wouldn’t go anywhere near the hurricane damage, and I lied without hesitation. A short night’s sleep, and we were at a local 24-hour Walmart before 5:00AM, buying gas cans, bleach, rubber boots, and other supplies. Then we rushed down to Gulfport, where we stayed at Melba’s house for the next week. We had no electricity or drinkable tap water, but it felt good to be with family and doing what we could to help.

The next three weeks were a blur, full of so many things that none of us had ever seen or experienced before. We accompanied Marsha, Granny and Gloria when they first returned to their destroyed homes. We helped dig through the rubble and find a few mementos. We went home to Spokane after a week, then returned to the Gulf Coast again two weeks later for a few more days.

I took several thousand photos along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the month after Katrina, and I posted some of the photos that fall. I also blogged a few thoughts on the first anniversary of Katrina. For years, I’ve meant to go back and post a more complete set of photos, and this weekend I finally got around to it. For the 10th anniversary of Katrina, I’ve put together this blog post and a set of photo albums containing roughly 500 photos total, including over 100 photos I’ve never posted anywhere before.

Katrina was a tragedy for so many people. But I’d be lying if I said it was a negative in my own life. Quite the opposite: it gave me a unique and unusual opportunity to bond with my new family. People I might otherwise have only known as distant relatives quickly become close friends, people I’ve cried with, people I’ve shared adventures with. These photo albums are for them, documentation of some of the things we saw during those crazy times.

The three sections below are about Marsha, Granny and Gloria. We were with them when they first returned to their destroyed homes, and I’ll never forget their demeanors in those intense moments: Marsha full of adrenaline and ready to take on anything, Granny resigned to her fate and disgusted by “Katrina that hussy,” and Gloria gracefully sad, the epitome of acceptance.

Marsha

Above: Marsha sitting on the front steps of her house. The house itself is in the background, one of several houses that came to rest in her back yard after being swept off their foundations.

Marsha’s house was on Morton Avenue in Pass Christian, about half a mile from the shoreline. The storm surge had pushed several neighboring houses from the south onto her lot, and when the water receded there were four houses piled together on her lot and the neighboring lot to the north. The eye of the hurricane had passed through Waveland (Gloria’s home) and Bay St. Louis, 10 miles to the west, but hurricanes in the northern hemisphere have their deepest and most destructive storm surge on the leading eastward edge of the storm. The storm surge at Pass Christian was the highest ever recorded in the US, over 27 feet.

We first arrived at Marsha’s house on the evening of September 4, six days after the hurricane. We looked around for a few minutes, but it was nearly dark and we wanted to check out Granny’s house as well before the curfew, so we didn’t try to recover anything.

Two days later, we returned in the morning to spend more time looking through the wreckage. Search and rescue crews were still working the area, and there was a commotion down the block. They had found another body.

Click here for photos of Marsha’s house after Katrina.

Granny

Above: Granny’s first return to her home after Katrina (with Megan in the background).

Granny lived on King Circle in Pass Christian, a full mile north of the beach. The storm surge knocked her house off the foundation and rotated it.

It was nearly dark when we got to her house on September 4, but we returned on September 6 earlier in the day to recover a few things. Pots and pans, mostly. Everything else was destroyed, including all of the photos she had accumulated since hurricane Camille in 1969. Camille is ranked the second most intense hurricane to ever strike the United States (after the 1935 Labor Day hurricane), and Katrina was the third most intense, and costliest in terms of property damage. Granny has survived both of them.

After the second visit to Granny’s house, she had had enough. As we were pulling away, she said that she didn’t ever want to come back. She made a comment that I wrote down that evening back at Melba’s house: “Katrina, that hussy, she stole everything.”

Click here for photos of Granny’s house after Katrina.

Gloria

Above: Gloria in front of the remains of her home, telling me about a neighbor lady who was still missing three weeks after the hurricane.

Gloria lived in a small brick apartment building in Waveland, directly in the path of Katrina. The building stayed anchored on its foundation, but the storm surge rushed through it, leaving the contents pulverized and soaked in disgusting filthy water.

On September 7, nine days after the hurricane, Megan and I took Gloria to her apartment to see it for the first time. We spent hours digging through the wreckage, but all we could recover was some jewelry from her bedroom.

Two weeks later, when we returned to the Gulf Coast, I took Gloria back to her apartment for a final visit. We looked around a bit, but didn’t recover anything. When we left to drive back to Melba’s house in Gulfport, we had to go north to Highway 10 because the Bay Bridge was gone. Then we decided to cut down through Pass Christian to see some of the coastline along Beach Boulevard. Gloria spoke about what had happened in a calm steady voice with tears occasionally running down her cheeks. She didn’t know what the future held, but she was grateful that she and her dog Oreo were alive, and confident that she would somehow land on her feet.

Click here for photos of Gloria’s home after Katrina.

photos

I’ve ended this post with a photo below that has special significance to me. It was a moment when I experienced a feeling that I wouldn’t have predicted, but in hindsight it made perfect sense.

I was out taking a few photos of the devastated Walmart in Pass Christian on the final day of our post-Katrina trips. I was all alone, and it was a beautiful sunny day.

I decided to wade out into the water to get a photo of the beach and Walmart beyond – the view that Katrina had when it came ashore, I thought to myself. Leaving my boots on the sandy beach, I walked into the shallow water. It was refreshing and cool, and the surf was almost non-existent, measured in inches not feet.

But when I turned to take a photo of the Walmart, I was suddenly distracted by an ominous presence behind me. I felt an overpowering urge to turn around and look at the ocean, to make sure everything was OK. The sensation was fascinating, and I toyed with it for a while. Every time I turned my back to the ocean while standing in the surf, I felt a visceral rush of fear. It was as if, after spending so much time seeing the hurricane’s destructive power up close, I had subconsciously internalized a fear of it.

I turned one last time toward Walmart and quickly snapped this photo, then turned and stepped slowly out of the water backward, keeping my eyes on the Gulf of Mexico.

standing in the Gulf

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