New condominiums are flanked by vacant lots festooned with faded “For Sale” signs. On some properties, a chimney or staircase tells the story of what was once there, while others hold no clues beyond the concrete slab Katrina left behind. And even these are beginning to disappear as the earth reclaims itself, burying the past beneath impenetrable layers of mud and tangled weeds.
It has become the benchmark by which all storms are measured. It has become the stark demarcation between life before and after, with Hurricane Katrina sitting squarely in the middle of coastal residents’ collective memory — as vivid today as the muddy water lines and red spray-paint which can still be seen on homes uninhabitable, abandoned.
There are jobs, but there aren’t enough. There is housing, but there is not enough. Yet there is growing optimism as well. There is progress, albeit slow, and there is a brighter future on the horizon, albeit distant. And there are volunteers here — people of all faiths, people from all walks of life — bonded by a common determination to bring this battered city, along with the entire Gulf Coast, back to life.
The live oaks that sprawl across the Southern landscape are like no other tree. Their trunks are massive, the limbs long and twisting, drooping to the ground, stretching to the sky, spreading to touch other trees. Most are hundreds of years old. Some thousands. They’ve seen floods, droughts, fires, hurricanes. And still they survive, the wood growing harder, stronger, more resilient, through every trial they endure. In Pearlington, Miss., they’re everywhere, a fitting symbol for a town that refuses to die and 800 residents who bend, but will not break.
Jim Pollard, public information officer for neighboring Harrison County, says he remembers a chilling moment during Katrina when officials at Hancock County’s Emergency Operation Center — believed to be on safe ground — called him on the phone and told him the building was rapidly filling with water. “They all wrote numbers on their arms with indelible ink, then listed their names and numbers on a sheet of paper, put it in a Ziploc bag, and tacked it to the roof,” Pollard says. “We were taping final messages from them to their families.”
Hurricane Katrina drew the curtains on the theater, as well as on Bay St. Louis, two and a half years ago. But the arts community refused to let the lights dim, and today they’re helping revive a town in one of the rare success stories of post-Katrina life on the Gulf Coast.