By Lloyd Gray
Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast five years ago today remains one of the most undertold stories of our time.
From the beginning, New Orleans got the overwhelming share of media attention. That’s still the case, even as we approached this anniversary milestone.
The national memory of Katrina is of New Orleans. From the beginning, it was clear that the media narrative would make it the storm that brought New Orleans to its knees. Mississippi is largely a footnote in that narrative of America’s greatest natural disaster, even though the physical devastation in our state was of a far more cataclysmic nature.
A couple of years after the storm a National Public Radio interviewer – following the conventional media narrative – asked the author of a new book on the 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas, and killed at least 6,000 people, how the storm surge and damage compared with Katrina’s impact on New Orleans. That’s not the proper comparison, said the author. It’s the Mississippi Coast you should talk about.
The Galveston storm surge completely leveled everything in its way. It left nothing, just as Katrina left nothing along most of the Mississippi coastline from Waveland to Biloxi and beyond.
Most Americans still don’t realize this. They don’t understand that Katrina absolutely obliterated the built landscape along Highway 90 and blocks inland on the Mississippi Coast, that in the aftermath of the storm you could travel miles without seeing a single beachfront structure intact.
It was an equal opportunity storm, too, destroying million-dollar beachfront mansions along with the shotgun cottages of fishermen in the blocks just behind them.
The New Orleans that most Americans know about or have visited as tourists – the French Quarter, the Garden District, the downtown area – looks pretty much the same today as it did five years ago. The Mississippi coastline looks nothing like it did then.
Then there are the 235 Mississippians who died in the storm. They’re a footnote as well.
In one sense, it’s understandable that New Orleans got most of the attention in Katrina’s wake and even to this day. It’s one of America’s best known and best loved cities, and the real possibility of its virtual extinction in the days following Katrina was a compelling story. Those people on rooftops and interstate bridges, the chaotic mess in the Superdome and all the attendant images of agony and anger as the levees failed to hold over a period of several days was, at the moment, more dramatic – especially for the TV cameras – than what was happening up the road in Mississippi.
The winds and 30-foot storm surge that had crashed ashore in Mississippi and killed over 200 people were gone in a matter of hours. As New Orleans dodged an immediate bullet but slowly descended into calamity, people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast had already begun sifting through the mounds of debris and trying to figure out how in the world they would recover from it all.
The difference in Mississippi was that they knew they would recover. Mississippi Coast residents, especially those who’ve been there for multiple generations, are among the world’s most resilient people. They showed it in the days after Katrina, stretching into months and years, and they’ve shown it again in the face of this summer’s Gulf oil spill.
That resilience after Katrina should have been a compelling story – of a people determined to rebound, reluctant to blame others, eager to help each other and finding renewed unity, rather than increased division, in the wake of enormous tragedy. Instead, the focus was elsewhere on the most dysfunctional elements of the tragedy’s aftermath.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast has struggled in the last five years to regain its economic vitality. Rebuilding has been slow, due in part to the difficulty of obtaining affordable insurance. Population is down. Bold visions for a new kind of coastline development have been largely unrealized. Tourism, gradually recovering in the years immediately after Katrina, took a double hit with the recession and the oil spill.
But there are good things happening in pockets, and the people remain determined to renew and revitalize that uniquely diverse, beautiful and historic region of our state.
They have a story that still needs to be told nationwide. Five years after Katrina, they’re still waiting for somebody to tell it.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.