The stories started rolling in earlier this month, just as expected. As the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina came closer, the stories were everywhere. They came from the usual places — The New York Times and The Washington Post, Time and Newsweek and NPR. But they also came from all corners of the internet: At BuzzFeed, a newsroom that didn’t exist 10 years ago, and didn’t even have reporters on staff 5 years ago, we published a month’s worth of stories. Even ESPN wrote something.
Five years ago this summer, I was in Biloxi, Miss., talking to anyone who wanted to tell me their Katrina story. The people on the Gulf Coast were weary then of discussing the story; many felt forgotten. And how could you blame them? They had been forgotten. They had stories to tell, and even five years ago, we had stopped listening.
I’ll tell you a journalism secret: There is a particular disaster narrative that springs up after an enormous storm, and Katrina was no exception to the rule. The storyline is simple:
In the days after the storm, the story is one of loss.
A year after the storm, the story is one of recovery.
Five years after the storm, the story is one of remembrance.
10 years after the storm, the story is one of rebirth.
That’s the disaster narrative, and Katrina’s story has followed it to the letter: Loss. Recovery. Remembrance. Rebirth. Joplin is four years in to the disaster narrative; the Jersey Shore is two. But the stories of tornado recovery in Joplin will be everywhere next summer; in two years, we’ll read recovery stories from Sandy. On the 10-year anniversary, we’ll read of rebirth, same as it always was.
But this is the last Katrina anniversary you will ever read about.
After 10 years, an interesting thing happens: The disaster ceases to be a part of the present, and becomes something of the past. After 10 years, reporters stop writing about how the storm is affecting people’s lives today. Remember: This is a story that began with loss, and ends with rebirth. The story doesn’t go on forever; there is no epilogue.
So for Katrina’s story, this ends here. You will not read a front page story in the New York Times about the 11th anniversary of Katrina. You will not see a site like BuzzFeed put together a package on the 15th anniversary of the storm. And by the time the 20th anniversary rolls around, or the 25th, Katrina will simply be something of the past.
It’s a nice storyline, sure, but of course: It just isn’t the way life works.
Those four stages — Loss. Recovery. Remembrance. Rebirth. — on the Gulf Coast, those are still happening every single day. You cannot ride out a storm like that and place it in the rearview. Not after Camille, in 1969. And not after Katrina.
Katrina is part of their story and part of their lives, and as always will be.
A lot has changed in Biloxi since 2010. There is a new mayor, and even a new baseball team. But Mary Mahoney’s is still there, and so are the casinos. And so are many of the people — I read so many familiar names in Katrina stories this week. Five years later, they are still there, fighting for their city.
As for the disaster narrative: That’s something I don’t think will ever change. But as I think back to my time on the Coast five years ago, I hope that in a small way, Stry.us did something to help change that narrative. These are stories of people who deeply care about their hometowns, and still hope that the Biloxis and Pass Christians and Bay St. Louises will come back even stronger after the storm. Their stories matter, and they deserve to be told on those anniversaries, yes, but also all the days in between.
I haven’t been back to Biloxi since 2010, but I would like to go back soon and shake some hands and hear some stories. I hope I get the chance.
Until then, Biloxi, just know: On this day, and all days, I remember you.
New York, N.Y.
August 29, 2015