The moment Gulfport, Miss., resident Megan Jordan feared has arrived. The viscous onslaught of crude is no longer an abstract horror belonging to Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida. The first globules of oil have slipped through the Mississippi Sound and washed ashore in nearby Ocean Springs. For Ms. Jordan and her neighbors, this isn’t just any beach – it’s the keeper of memories, the provenance of dreams. The destruction is hard to bear. Their passion, properly channeled, could become a crucial element in future oil spill defense.
In many places, it will end a decades-old culture of silence. People here don’t like to remember the nights of church bombings and explosions; the sound of rifles being loaded in the dark as citizens patrolled sidewalks and sanctuaries, trying to stem the violence. They don’t like to remember the fear and distrust – between blacks and whites, but also among themselves.
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.”
Only a few lonely cars were heading west Sunday morning beneath a canopy of gnarled oaks along Scenic Highway 90 in coastal Mississippi. To their right, stark reminders of Hurricane Katrina — bare slabs where homes once stood, damaged streets which once led to vibrant downtowns, trees still festooned with insulation and tarpoleons meant to protect buildings that no longer exist. To their left, a steady snarl of traffic snaked its way eastward as residents from Louisiana and Mississippi fled the wrath of Hurricane Gustav, expected to make landfall as a Category 3 hurricane Monday morning southeast of Louisiana in Plaquemines Parish.
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.