When the storm hit, Aesha was living in a lovely apartment atop a law firm just off the Pass Road in Gulfport. A legal secretary at another firm, she’d been a model tenant, paying her considerable rent and saving to buy a house. She was fortunate that the building survived—though with some damage—that some of her things were safe. She and her son sheltered at her parents’ house during landfall. Two days later, when she tried to return to her apartment, the owners’ daughter was there to evict her. She and her husband needed the apartment, understandably, because their own home had been destroyed. Yet for all the seeming goodwill among people on the coast, the owners’ daughter could muster little patience or sympathy for Aesha. Her belongings still inside, Aesha had to search for a storage unit—a good distance away—and when she asked to be given time for an appointment with the FEMA inspector to assess the damage to her personal items, the owners’ daughter initially refused, all the while treating Aesha as if this apartment to which she still had a month’s claim was something she was stealing. All her clothes and her son’s clothes had succumbed to mold and mildew, as had the mattresses and some furniture. She lost items of sentimental value too—sonogram pictures, books. Were it not for her parents, Aesha and her son would have been homeless, and her former landlords didn’t care—or couldn’t care—so busy were they dealing with their own difficult circumstances.
It would have been quite different if the tenant had nowhere to go and was still being put out of the apartment. No courts were in operation, police were overburdened, and a lawsuit would have been time consuming and perhaps expensive even had the courts been available. Still, Aesha was among the lucky residents of the coast in many ways—her firm reopened quickly, and she had a place to live in the meantime. As she tells her story, it occurs to me that she now marks time by the storms. Like the Gulf Coast Harrison County residents who refer to time before and after Camille as “B.C.” and “A.C.,” Aesha marks the events of her life as “two days after Katrina” and “the day Rita hit,” another hurricane that ravaged the Gulf Coast later that same season.
I think of all this when Aesha and I sit down to talk during my stay. We meet first at a new coffee shop where the young woman behind the counter is cheery and energetic—enthusiasm I take to be a good sign, if not simply the optimism of youth. As we sip tea, I ask Aesha about this optimism, about where she thinks things stand on the coast. She knows this is about something I am writing, and as she answers, I begin to get the feeling that her answers are shaped by her need to govern the narrative of the storm and its aftermath, to control the meaning of the present and the past in the face of an uncertain future. I know she isn’t embellishing when she talks about how people interacted after the storm because I’ve heard these stories from my brother too. “It was as if everyone banded together,” she says. “Everyone helped each other. People shared what they had, were even friendlier.” I want to remind her of being evicted, of her interactions with the landlord’s daughter, but I don’t. I know that a preferred narrative is one of the common bond between people in a time of crisis. This is often the way collective, cultural memory works, full of omissions, partial remembering, and purposeful forgetting. People on both sides of a story look better in a version that leaves out certain things. It is another way that rebuilding is also about remembering—that is, not just rebuilding the physical structures and economy of the coast but also rebuilding, revising, the memory of Katrina and its aftermath. In all revisions, words are important. Each time we talk during my visit, another layer of the story of the aftermath and rebuilding is peeled back. Even now, at the coffee shop, Aesha clenches her teeth when she recalls being referred to as a “refugee.” “Evacuee,” she says. “I am an American—not a refugee in my own country.”
The idea of America is inscribed on the landscape of North Gulfport—streets called Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama, the names of presidents and states. My cousin Tamara Jones lives just off Highway 49 on Alabama Avenue, at what used to be the intersection of Alabama and Jefferson before Jefferson was blocked off and made a deadend street. I always thought that change a great irony, as if the very ideals of Jefferson were truncated as the people who lived there became more cut off, more isolated. Even now, thirty years after the street was blocked, ambulances, police cars, and delivery trucks have trouble getting to the houses on Jefferson. On several occasions my brother has had to stand in the street and wave his arms wildly to flag down an emergency vehicle zooming right by us.
Tammy has lived there with her children for nearly two decades. Years ago, when my great-uncle Son died, he bequeathed his house to her. It stands beside the land that once held his famed Owl Club, on the eastern side of Highway 49, easily visible from my grandmother’s house on the western side. I pull up in front and park on the crushed-shell driveway. Tammy comes out on the porch when she hears my Yoo-hoo—the call we’ve been using all our lives, the call our parents and grandparents used whenever they came to this house.
The porch is stacked with moldy furniture she is intent on reclaiming. Most of it is wooden, except for a few rusted pieces of iron patio furniture. She’s been back in the house for a few months, after having lived more than a year in a FEMA trailer on the property while her home was being repaired. It’s a sturdy brick house, two bedrooms and one bath on a lot with pecan, fig, and lime trees. Across the street is a similar house. The two houses are mixed in with run-down shotgun shacks and newer prefab homes—all evidence of the working-class and working-poor families in this historically black neighborhood.
I ask her about the rebuilding that has taken place around her since the storm, and she tells a story of generous volunteers. “It was donations,” she says. “Donations—and the work of a group from North Carolina—are responsible for most people’s repairs in the area. If not for them, I couldn’t have completely fixed my house. I’d still be in that trailer.” According to the New York Times, the state of Mississippi—a couple of years after the storm—had “spent $1.7 billion in federal money on programs that have mostly benefited relatively affluent residents and big businesses.” Instead of helping the poor, like most of the residents in Tammy’s neighborhood—many who are renters—the money has been used to help utility and insurance companies and middle- and upper-income homeowners. Some houses around Tammy’s have been repaired, but many have not. If the owners can’t afford to rebuild or repair a badly damaged house, the city demands that it be torn down. “But demolition is expensive,” she tells me. “They’ll come out and do it for you, tear down what’s left of your house and break up the slab and haul it away—but most people out here can’t afford what the city charges for demolition.” She points to an empty lot beside her house. “If you wait long enough, they’ll just tear it down anyway—even if you want to repair your house.”
All along the coast, evidence of rebuilding marks the wild, devastated landscape. A little more than a year before, much debris still littered the ground: crumbled buildings, great piles of concrete and rebar twisted into strange shapes, bridges lifting a path to nowhere. Now new condominium developments rise above the shoreline, next to the remains of a gas station, its single overhang, the concrete stripped or gouged, revealing the steel frame, like bones, underneath. Here and there are signs of what’s still to come: posters reading “South Beach” and “Beachfront living only better.” Other evidence abounds of how slow rebuilding can be. As recently as the second anniversary of the storm, schoolchildren in Pass Christian were still attending class in trailers without running water and using portable toilets. Coincidentally, not until Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts—a native of Pass Christian—questioned FEMA director David Paulison about the delays did FEMA contract workers begin to dig the new well the school desperately needed. When I spoke to a member of the state House of Representatives from Pass Christian, she complained that the town still hadn’t seen the money they’d been promised. “We’d just like a place to buy bread,” she said, after introducing herself. “I represent the Pass,” she’d said to me, my mind registering, for a moment, the past.
Even now whole communities of FEMA trailers line the beach road, the highway, the neighborhoods farther inland—nearly ten thousand of them, many laden with formaldehyde. From a distance they appear as the above-ground tombs of New Orleans’ famed cemeteries: white, orderly rows bearing the weight of remembrance. There are concrete steps wedged into the earth leading to nothing. There are concrete slabs so overtaken by grass, roots, and weeds it is as if no one ever lived there—so quickly has nature begun its rebuilding, its wild and green retaking of the land. The devastation reminds me of our fleeting imprint on the landscape, the impermanence of our man-made world, the way nature responds to our folly—our own culpability writ large in the damage wrought by Katrina.
At Jones Park, on the beach across from downtown Gulfport, the picnic area is a muddy plot marked off by orange security netting. The makeshift fence is eerily like the yellow police tape put around locations where a crime or something tragic has occurred. For years this spot had been a place for African American residents of Gulfport to congregate on weekends—families having reunions and cooking out, teenagers and young adults gathering for the rituals of social life in a safe place, out of trouble. I wonder where they are and think of my brother’s description of social life now on the coast. “For a long time there was a curfew,” he told me. “And after that, there was nowhere to go anyway.” To pass time, Joe and his friends drink more than they used to. Even the memory of the work he did for months after—to help with cleanup—haunts the places he encounters daily: how not to look at the sand without that strange anticipation of what might be found there?
Joe comes to visit me in Atlanta as often as possible. I know he wants to spend time with our grandmother, but I know too that he is frustrated with his life on the coast, so he comes to escape, temporarily, that depressed landscape, its reminders of loss at every turn. Flannery O’Connor’s words ring true: Where you came from is gone. . . . Where you are is never any good unless you can get away from it.
Back at the casino for dinner that night, Joe, Aesha, and I sit outside on the patio, taking in the balmy evening air. I am telling them about a man I encountered at lunch—an official casino “host” making his rounds to check on the patrons. The conversation with Bob Short began as many of my conversations do in Gulfport—a quizzical look of semirecognition, then the question Where are you from? And then Who are your people? Satisfied by my answers, he too was eager to tell me what he thought about life now on the coast.
Before working at the casino as a host, from 1997 until 2001 Bob Short was mayor of Gulfport, and before that he served as a state legislator. His job as a host is to greet patrons of the casino, chat with them, and make them feel at home in a place quite the opposite. Inside, with the whirring of the sirens above the slot machines, the fog of cigarette smoke, the crowds waiting in line for the buffets, it’s easy to forget the outside—to forget home—what the owners don’t want you to think about even when there isn’t the devastation of a storm still marking the landscape. The hotel, the restaurants, the gaming floor are all meant to be an escape from ordinary life. When I ask Bob Short if he thinks the people of the coast can escape the memory of the hurricane, get a reprieve from it, he draws on his experience as an educator to make this prediction: “Children here are going to have the same posttraumatic stress disorder as Vietnam vets when they get to be twelve or so. One child I know is afraid to take a bath now because he saw his mother washed out of the house by the storm.” As I tell the story of my encounter with him, Aesha clicks her tongue at this part, thinking, I am sure, about her son and my niece, Joe’s daughter PJ, who were extremely clingy and nervous for a long time after Katrina.
When I asked the former mayor about his personal losses, he told me he’d been a collector of sports memorabilia. “It’s all gone now,” he said. “I can never get back what I had.”
The young waiter serving our table has been listening off and on to the story, and he has his ideas too, wants to share them—even gives me his card so that I won’t forget his name. He’s from Louisiana, and he moved to the coast for restaurant work in the casino. “What’s different now is that the new generation respects the hurricanes, unlike the folks before. It needed to happen.” When I ask him what he means, he replies vaguely: “to teach us something” and “a cleansing, that’s what it was.” When he turns to attend to another table, I feel uncomfortable thinking about what he might have meant, particularly after hearing some people opine about New Orleans and who was turned out: the poorer, working classes—overwhelmingly African American—all lumped together with supposed criminals that the city would rather not see return.
In the morning the sky is clear and blue. As I drive along the beach highway, I’m struck by how deceptively beautiful the water looks from a distance. The light makes it seem bluegreen, though I know that up close it is a muddy brown and so shallow you have to walk out very far, half a mile perhaps, just to be in waist deep. Beyond that line, what has not been recovered still lurks beneath the surface. I’m still thinking about the idea of “cleansing” when I park in one of the bays and flip through a Fodor’s Gulf South tourism guide. There is ominous foreshadowing in the guide that was published, not too long ago, in 2001: “Look on the positive side,” it reads. “As long-time residents will remind you, obliging hurricanes will continue to obliterate the latest of mankind’s follies.”
Those words seem not to anticipate a coast where only “folly” seems to be returning with any ease, where some aspects of the former heritage of the coast are bulldozed and paved over, obscured beneath the concrete slabs of casinos and condominiums. Nor would they seem to coincide with the waiter’s notion of cleansing: I imagine the casinos weren’t what he wanted to see washed away—but then, I don’t know what he meant.
Can the residents of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, caught in the aftermath of Katrina—of recovery and rebuilding—conquer this storm? I posed this question to historian and activist Derrick Evans. Born and raised on the coast, he has returned home to help rebuild Turkey Creek, another historic enclave within North Gulfport. “I don’t want to be able to say I can see the future,” he told me, “but the devastation of the storm will not surpass the devastation brought on by the recovery.”
A cleansing, the waiter said. Erasure wrought by wind and water.
Looking west toward Pass Christian, toward Waveland and Bay St. Louis—ground zero for the storm’s devastation—I consider the obvious metaphor in this stretch of nearly barren coastline: a slate wiped clean, or nearly clean. Then recovery, rebuilding: another version of the story.
Natasha Trethewey is a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University. This essay is an excerpt from her book Beyond Katrina (University of Georgia Press).