The Challenges That Lie Ahead.

A choir sings, and the speeches begin, and five years to the day, at Gulfport City Hall, this is where they have chosen to remember the storm that no one wants to speak of.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 29, 2010

This is what faith looks like. If anyone could be forgiven for losing faith, the parishioners at St. Rose de Lima could. Their church has stood in Bay St. Louis, Miss., for eight decades, and their congregation has lived through three major hurricanes, several minor ones and the Great Depression. They could be forgiven for losing faith in their God, who is Good and Kind and All-Powerful, and apparently feels the need to reinforce this last trait every few decades by bringing winds and floods of strength never before documented by man.

If anyone could be forgiven for losing faith, the parishioners at St. Rose de Lima could.

But they do not. This is the spirit of which they speak, this spirit of the coast, fused with God and a sort of resilience that most of us cannot possibly understand. Their choir sings “Amazing Grace” and means every word, especially that third verse, which they sing:

Through many dangers, toils and snares
We have already come
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far
And Grace will lead us home.

Their choir sings, and then the speeches begin, and five years to the day, this is where they have chosen to remember.

¶ ¶ ¶

The crowd at Gulfport City Hall for the Katrina memorial.

This is where they have chosen to remember: the rebuilt City Hall in Gulfport, Miss., three blocks from the Gulf of Mexico, and a few miles east of where the eye of Hurricane Katrina first passed over land. The celebration — and must be one, because it says so right there on the programs, though there isn’t confetti or balloons, or a giant check being presented, or a yellow ribbon to be cut, so it’s tough to tell, really — is called “Five Years Forward.”

A governor, a senator, a congressman, two Grammy winners and a bishop have gathered to speak; local officials, dignitaries, employees at both FEMA and MEMA and post-Katrina volunteers have gathered to listen.

Haley Barbour pauses during a line in his speech.

This is their governor, Haley Barbour. He is not Moses, but that’s only because Moses never had to deal with, like, 12 layers of government bureaucracy. [1] If anything, he’s probably closer to Willie Stark. Barbour is enormously popular in the state, including among the leadership of both parties, and he is here in Gulfport to do everything but hang a banner that reads “Mission Partially Accomplished.”

This is Haley Barbour telling a story about his wife, Marsha, running into two lost children on the road just after the storm, and pulling over to talk to the girls, and getting them in her car, and taking them to their mother, and finding out that the mother’s name is Katrina — and every head in the audience whips to Marsha, who is sitting in the wings, doing the “No, it’s true!” nod that she’ll probably perform again at the RNC convention in 2012 if/when her husband runs for/wins the Republican nomination — and then Barbour starts speaking of the lives lost, and this is what the governor looks like when he has just about run out of words to say.

Janet Napolitano addresses the crowd in Gulfport.

This is Janet Napolitano, who has come to represent the White House, because the rest of the White House is over in New Orleans, pledging another $1.8 billion to help New Orleans schools, even though — as several speakers proudly note, and proudly doesn’t seem to be too strong a word here — the worst of the storm actually hit Mississippi. Napolitano gives what is essentially a variation on every other speech: a Katrina-related anecdote (hers: about flying back in the middle of the night to Arizona, where she was working as governor); brief words about how far the coast has come (far, she says); and a pledge to continue working with the coast until the job is done.

The ifs/whens here go unstated, obviously, as do the costs, or the definition of what the coast will actually look like when it’s done, but all speakers at “Five Years Forward” seem confident that it will eventually be done. Specifics tend to go understated at celebrations, is my understanding.

The names of the deceased at Biloxi's Katrina memorial.

This is the only thing that does seem to have firm numbers behind it: the list of the dead, now memorialized at the monument finished just last week in Biloxi’s town green. Some killed by flood, some killed by winds, some presumed dead, though never found.

Their names scroll upward on a big screen during a moment of silence.

A home on Stilts on Crawford Street in Biloxi.

This is what is definitely done, and has been by the government to make sure that no man, woman or child ever has to fear death-by-flooding again. This is a home on Crawford Street, in east Biloxi. During the storm, the entire street went underwater. The water was nine feet high. Residents clung to roofs or trees to survive. Homes were dislodged from their foundations and floated north along Crawford Street at speeds exceeding 20 miles per hour.

Homes that weren’t destroyed were grandfathered in by FEMA and allowed to remain at ground level. Newly-built homes were placed atop stilts, 20 to 25 feet in the air. Many are just FEMA trailers with legs.

An abandoned home in Biloxi.

This is what it looks like when a family refuses the stilts. A mailbox and a “No Trespassing” sign: this is what’s left of the home of the Le family, a half block north on Crawford. Neighbors say after Katrina, they moved across the bay, to D’Iberville. This is what the coast is fighting: doubt. Why build 20 feet in the air, families ask? Can we afford the home? Can we afford the insurance?

And then the city starts asking: if land’s been abandoned, then what happens?

This is what a bridge to nowhere looks like. It once went out towards D’Iberville, but it hasn’t for some time, now. It was there for fishing. It’s an eyesore, but it’s not easy to demolish. Why?

Bulldozers don’t float.

The sun sets over Biloxi's Back Bay.

This much is certain: five years later, there is reason for joy and reason for anger. The sun has set on the coast. The news cameras will not return next year — who comes back for the 6-year-anniversary, or the 7th, 8th or 9th, for that matter? — but five years from today, the news cameras will return to the coast to ask again: Where are we now?

None want to predict how they will answer. But they have faith — and will build from there. ❑