After Katrina, blue tarpaulins fluttered in the breeze, trying to protect what little was left. In some places, the cheap tarp was the most expensive thing on the property. In Houston, salvation came in the form of white sheets, white t-shirts, white bandanas, white garbage bags — anything that could be tied to a car antenna, a windowsill, a rooftop, a branch. A sign of life. A sign of resignation. A sign of surrender.
Susan Keays stands at the water’s edge and shades her eyes to better see an approaching boat. As she holds her cellphone, verifying an address, she quickly counts heads. One volunteer is missing. This morning, they were strangers. Now, they are a sort of family. She is on Memorial Boulevard, where kayaks and bass boats bob in a river that shouldn’t be. At first, she came to the edge of the flood to save horses. She is staying to save people.
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.