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Hurricane Katrina: 'Just a gumbo of wood and bricks and mortar'

The US-90 bridge over Bay St. Louis, Miss., was demolished by Hurricane Katrina's storm surge.
It’s the town where my foundations were built, where my dreams were born, where my faith was fused.

It’s the town where my mom and dad grew up, and where they raised their 10 children, seven boys and three girls.

It’s also the town that looked Katrina in the eye and didn’t survive. Katrina, who unleashed her deadly winds and swept a wall of unforgiving water across the entire Gulf Coast, left Bay St. Louis and all her sister cities, big and small, from New Orleans to Mobile, a mere memory of what used to be. And, with a brutal disregard for life, she left an ever-growing list of the dead and broken and hundreds of thousands of shattered hearts.

Many of my family members still live in our hometown, including two brothers, a sister, dozens of nieces and nephews, one of whom is the mayor, and cousins. The prayers of many were answered, and they all are safe.

But what happens now? The town I knew as a child no longer exists. She withstood the mighty blow of Camille in 1969, and the winds and water of other storms. But this time she went to her knees and couldn’t rise.

The Catholic church where I was baptized was reduced to a shell, but most of the beautiful stained-glass windows weren’t harmed. The elementary and high schools where I spent 12 years were gutted. The bridge that connected us to other coastal cities is gone. The same for the railroad bridge. And the scene is repeated street by street, block by block. What was a launching pad of promise for us is now just a gumbo of wood and bricks and mortar thrown without care across the landscape as far as the eye can see.

As I watched this nightmare unfold, my mind kept going back to 1969. Camille, at that time the strongest hurricane to ever come across the Gulf of Mexico, rammed head first into Bay St. Louis. We didn’t have computers or wall-to-wall TV coverage on cable or most of the sophisticated equipment we have today. What we had at newspapers were the old AP and UPI machines, and a fledging computer system at the Palm Beach Post, where I was editor. So we were forced to use IBM electric typewriters to turn out tape to feed the typesetters.

But when Camille struck her first blow, the bulletin bell rang on the AP printer. “Downtown Bay St. Louis has been destroyed,” it read. The downtown I walked as a kid, the drugstores where we bought sodas, the barbershop where I had my hair cut, the movie theater where we saw Saturday afternoon westerns and serials, the sundry shop where I worked in the summers, the service station owned by my friend’s dad, the old office where my family’s weekly newspaper used to be housed, the all-boys and the all-girls schools, the churches and other buildings—wiped out or terribly damaged. I lost my breath.

But that wasn’t the lead paragraph for me, just as the reports of destruction coming from Katrina wasn’t the lead. Those buildings could be replaced. My questions were simple: What about my mom, my sisters and brothers, and their families, and all of my many other relatives? And friends I had known all my years?

The situation then was the same as it is today. No phones were working. And we didn’t have cell phones, satellite phones or other miracle toys.

But there were friends. One of them, a high-ranking Southern Bell telephone executive in Florida, called his counterpart in Jackson, Miss., who connected with a lineman on top of a pole in Bay St. Louis. The lineman climbed down, went to my mom’s house, collected all of the news, climbed back up the pole and sent it to Jackson where it reached me. Everyone was well.

This time the same questions were asked, but there was no man on a telephone pole and it took more than 72 hours and a lot of heroic efforts to make sure that all my relatives who stayed behind had survived. So much for the miracles of technology.

Bay St. Louis is my hometown. But in a way it’s everyone’s hometown. The little Alabama town, Bayou La Batre—where Regina Benjamin has devoted her career as a doctor to those who otherwise couldn’t afford health care and who has lost her clinic to a hurricane for the second time—is everyone’s hometown. New Orleans and Biloxi and Gulfport and Long Beach and Pass Christian are everyone’s hometowns, even if you have never been there.

Every stricken location is our hometown, if we are going to truly live God’s love in this world.

So much has to be done. And it will never be the same. As I talked my younger sister, Inez Pope, for the first time after she was rescued from five feet of water in her home, we spoke of many things. But the one thing uppermost in her mind was that she had to get back as soon as possible and search the rubble of her home to find the cross that was our mother’s. It’s her material link to the love shared by a mother and a daughter.

There are thousands of other stories just like my sister’s. That’s why when all the water is gone, when reconstruction begins, when there is a sign of hope to rally around, the ground of my hometown, and of all the hometowns in Katrina’s path, will continue to be soaked again and again with our tears.

(More Hurricane Katrina coverage ...)


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