Life on the Mississippi Gulf Coast was forever changed on August 29, 2015.
Having been born and raised in Pascagoula I was accustom to the occasional inconvenience of boarding windows and packing up necessities to head north as a hurricane came ashore. Most of the time, however, we stayed home and weathered the winds and the rain, sweated through the brief power outage, boiled some water and fixed a shingle or two as the winds died down.
“If Camille didn’t wash us away, if we survived Camille these storms surely won’t be too rough on us,” was the general thinking of many on the Coast.
As Hurricane Katrina churned its way through the warm Gulf waters, I’d like to tell you that something felt different, that there was an eerie sense of the pending destruction and loss we were about to experience, but there wasn’t. Call it complacency if you will, but most of us couldn’t fathom what was about to happen to our homes, our communities and our lives.
If you were from the Coast prior to August 29, 2015, you would hear old timers refer to life as pre-Camille and post-Camille. It was a benchmark event for all who experienced it and for all who came along in its wake.
Now, not a day goes by that I don’t hear someone somewhere use Katrina in that same way, yet minus the personification of a name. “Before the storm…,” or “Since the storm…” Most don’t even say the word Katrina; it’s just “the storm.” We are tired of hearing the very name Katrina.
Very little in my hometown of Pascagoula is as it was when I was a child. If not for the pictures that were salvaged I would have little to no recollection of how things looked before the storm. It’s as if my memory has been invaded with the sights of the destruction and it will not go beyond that point.
Yet, we have collectively moved forward. We have rebuilt but in many ways we are still recovering.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Pascagoula City Council appointed the Pascagoula Renaissance Commission to develop a vision for revitalizing the Flagship City. The task was overwhelming because the devastation was beyond belief.
Pascagoula is one of the lowest lying cities on the Coast. The city is surrounded by water on three sides and the terrain is flat. So when the massive waves rushed ashore behind the extremely high winds which had already battered homes for hours over 90% of the city became part of the Gulf of Mexico for a time, washing away much of what was still standing.
Almost every structure in the city had some form of damage, whether from the good kind of water (rain and wind) or the bad kind of water (Gulf waters that flooded the city). I say “good” and “bad” water because as we all soon learned that was the determination for many insurance battles to come.
I was appointed to chair the Pascagoula Renaissance Commission and was able to work with many dedicated community members and city employees focused on offering a realistic vision for our city’s future. We sought to make Pascagoula more stable, more sustainable, and better prepared for the future long term. It was a huge undertaking, yet one of my most rewarding memories from this trying and uncertain time.
My family and I, and the families of those on this commission, like our neighbors across the city, had lost almost everything we owned and were struggling to rebuild ourselves. We lived in FEMA trailers and tore down our homes. The most striking picture of what we lost was when the claw truck came down our street and in a matter of minutes, the huge pile of debris and personal items – furniture, my baby daughter’s clothes and toys, pictures, memories – everything we had worked for and invested in was scooped up and dropped in the back of a garbage truck.
Yet our commission knew we had a task worth investing ourselves in, that of helping our community – our neighbors – and building a vision for our city’s future even in the midst of our own hardships.
We worked with the Governor’s Commission led by former Gov. Haley Barbour and mulled through the city’s ongoing Strategic Plan. Having been a part of these as chairman of the Pascagoula Ecomonic Development Advisory Council I had gained a perspective in recovery and community planning which initially helped me but I wasn’t prepared for the enormity of the task at hand.
The Renaissance Commission held public meetings and charrettes aimed at providing a workable vision for the city council to use as they sought to lead Pascagoula’s redevelopment, a template of where to expend resources. We coordinated recovery efforts alongside churches and non-profits, most of which were volunteers from out of state who came to our city because they truly cared about our people. I still thank God for them everyday. We went into every area of the city asking questions and trying to address concerns. It was heartbreaking to hear the stories of loss and rewarding to know we were making a real difference. We talked with industry leaders and business owners, and sought input from state and federal officials on what was possible and how to get people back to work, back on their feet and back to some sense of normalcy.
The final presentation of the Pascagoula Renaissance Commission was presented to the Pascagoula City Council in April 2006, just eight months after the storm. It was used as a guide in the initial redevelopment to know where the city should focus its energy and resources. I know when I was elected to the city council in 2008 I often referred back to the report for guidance on moving the city forward still then.
I’m proud to say that while not every initiative listed in the report has been accomplished, almost every area has been touched in some way over the past ten years. Quite an amazing feat if you truly understand the devastation and uncertainty we faced in the months and years since Katrina.
Looking back, the time frames we listed in the report for achieving goals were far too optimistic, politically speaking. The bureaucracy was thicker than imagined and the political will at times shifted. There were too many requirements and strings attached to recovery funds for local communities who were struggling just to operate which slowed development projects. FEMA seemed to have a different point of contact every few days. The frustration and confusion was palpable.
But all in all the work the Pascagoula Renaissance Commission did has had a real, lasting impact on the future of Pascagoula. We see it from The Point to the Senior Center to our parks and neighborhoods to our city’s beautification and infrastructure. New businesses have opened, schools have been upgraded and our population shows signs of increasing.
Yes, there’s always more to be done and I’m sure the next ten years will bring its own set of successes and challenges. But for me, as the former chairman of the Pascagoula Renaissance Commission, I want to thank everyone who played a role in the process of setting a workable vision for our city. We can stand here today ten years later as a city proving that when citizens take the time to engage themselves in our community (even when faced with their own tragedy), earnestly listen to their neighbors, and work together without worrying about who gets the credit great things that make a true impact can happen.
Every citizen in the State of Mississippi should be proud of the leadership former Gov. Haley Barbour (R) exhibited during this trying time in our history. His knowledge of state and federal government truly made a difference in how the Coast recovered.
U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R) and former U.S. Senator Trent Lott (R) were in the right places at the right time to benefit our people, and they did so with great skill and tact. Former Congressman Gene Taylor (D) was able to leverage his long tenure to aid in initial recovery and redevelopment, taking stands within his own party to highlight Coast needs.
Insurance rates still plague the Coast. Many pay as much or more for insurance than their principle and interest on their homes. Attempts have been made by state and local officials to curb the risk by increasing building codes, offering fortifying grants, and requiring reporting from insurance companies. However, ask any Coast resident ten years later and insurance remains the number one issue.
From my perspective, our Mississippi Gulf Coast is stronger than before. We hitched up our britches and got to work, as Barbour famously said, just as Mississippians have always done.
My prayer for us (which was engraved on the Hurricane Katrina monument at Pascagoula Beach Park) remains the same today as it was ten years ago: “May the winds of destruction and the waves of sorrow forever remind us of the opportunity and hope we have found.”
(Photos courtesy of Alan Hinkle Photography)