For those of us who once lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and who lived through one or more hurricanes, the image of Gustav bearing down upon the same small bit of land that Katrina devestated three years ago this week is a bit much to bear.
I spent a good deal of my fundamentalist childhood living on Waveland's Beach Road two doors from St. Clare's Catholic Church.
Practically nothing remains of the world I knew. 95% of Waveland's buildings were leveled by Katrina. But St. Clare's is still there. The community that is. The sanctuary is gone.
Somehow, growing up in this small town in completely non-artsy, fundamentalist family, I had glimpsed John Constable's famous painting of Salisbury Cathedral through the trees and to my child's eyes, it seemed identical to the view of St. Clare's much humbler steeple through the oak trees in our back yard.
(What can I say? I'm been a historical romantic since birth. At age 5, I decided that the big stone steps on the Queen Ann HIll lookout in Seattle near my home was built by ancient Egyptians cause I'd seen pictures of the pyramids.)
So I very much enjoyed this photo from the St Clare's Recovery website. (I remember running barefoot past that little brick shrine to Our Lady as a kid.)
Three years ago as we watched - with growing dread - the news coming out of New Orleans, I wrote this post about the experience of being wiped out in a major hurricane. I was responding to staggering numbers of people who were commenting that those trapped in the city more or less got what they deserved. Amy Welborn kindly culled it from a 100+ comment discussion and posted it under the title "But Who Made My Bootstraps?"
I've never posted it here but thought I would do so for this third anniversary of Katrina.
Since I seem to be the only commenter here who has experienced losing everything in a major hurricane, let me explain the realities to the radical individualists in our midst.
First of all – my family had resources. My father was a rocket scientist (worked at NASA in NO) and we lived in a millionaire’s summer home on the beach in Waveland, complete with 6 bedroom main house, separate kennel and servant’s quarters, paved badminton court, a three bedroom cottage in back, our own pier and 90 feet of our own beach. My siblings and I attended a private school.
Now, admittedly, this kind of lifestyle was only possible because we were living in small town Mississippi but by Waveland standards, we were upper class. And my father worked for a large, wealthy company (Boeing) and had other local friends with resources. Remember, this is what its like for the relatively wealthy to lose everything . . .
When you’re a family of six in a single car, you can’t bring much with you but the basics. Our dog and cat were left behind to fend for themselves because there were no resources to care for them as refugees. (We never saw them again). You don’t know how bad it will be or how long you’ll be gone, so its very hard to determine what is essential and what isn’t.
Within the first 24 hours of refugeehood, we were already beholden to the State of Mississippi who had graciously opened the dorm rooms of Southern Mississippi State College in Hattisburgh to refugees. It was there that we actually experienced the hurricane passing over head, forcing several inches of rain into our dorm room through closed windows and doors. I watched tornadoes being spawned through the window while 125 mile an hour winds howled about us. Thank you, State of Mississippi!
When, a couple days later, we returned to survey the wreckage, Our house was standing to a certain extent (the shell of the back was still standing) although it was unsalvageable, but we were able to get into the back door and rip the upper kitchen cabinets off the wall. (I used them all the way through school as dressers) and salvage some things from my bedroom upstairs which was the only room that survived intact. (so I have my great grand-father’s railroad watch). While walking over the debris, a rusty nail pierced my shoe and my foot. Fortunately, a temporary government –sponsored emergency clinic had been set up nearby and had a triple threat tetnus – thyphoid shot available, so that I didn’t get lockjaw. Thank you, Hancock County!)
Since there was no point in staying in Waveland (we never lived there again), we crammed whatever we could salvage in the over-stuffed car and drove to New Orleans where a kind co-worker of my father’s put us up for 4 days while we tried to figure out our alternatives. (Thanks, kind lady whose name I never knew, for your gracious hospitality!). The Boeing employees had put together a wonderful help center for refugees where we could try and supplement our miniscule wardrobes. My brother, who was 14 and nearly full-grown found a pair of size 14 sneakers to supplement the only other pair of shoes he owned. (Thanks generous Boeing people!)
Within a week, my father had been able to rent a house in Slidell, LA (which has been mostly destroyed by Katrina) where we sent up house with, well, nothing. We all slept on army cots for at least 6 months until my grand-parents bought us beds. I did my homework on a card table. We had no living room furniture at all so we watched TV sitting on the floor which was just fine with us. We knew we were the lucky ones. Thanks, grandma and grandpa!
The Red Cross (God bless em) provided my parents with a trailer on our property in Waveland and so, when our house was bull-dozed, my grandparents moved down from Oregon and spent 6 months in the trailer, working on repairing the three bedroom cottage which had survived after a fashion. Every weekend for 6 months, we kids were driven out to Waveland to help with the work. I remember the thrill of finding a pile of 1920’s cotton gin receipts in a mudpile beside a neighbor’s home. (Her house was full of historical treasures from before the Civil War). Thanks Red Cross!
Our big break came when the insurance company decided that our home had been blown down before it was washed away (because we were right on the beach and there had been 212 mph winds) so my parents could pay off the old mortgage and the US government made my parents a interest-free loan that enabled us to eventually buy a house in the Seattle area upon which I became a damn Yankee again. It had taken one whole year to start over and at each critical turning point, we had been helped by someone else - three times in a critical way by some government agency. (Thanks US government!)
We seem to owe our new life to the good graces of 1) The State of Mississippi; 2) Hancock county; 3) the Boeing company and its employees; The Red Cross; 4) my grand-parents; 5) my parent’s insurance company; 6) the US government.
And we were well-heeled, well-educated, healthy, thrifty, work ethic Puritan types with an intact and moneyed family network who scorned welfare and wanted to stand on our own. Imagine if my mother had been single parent or my father on disability? What if our parents had died in the storm or of shock and stress after the storm as a number of adults did and we were left orphans? What if my grandparents had not been so generous and hard-working and had the resources to move across country? What if my father’s job had been wiped out by the disaster? What if no vaccination had been available and I’d contracted lock-jaw? What if millions of people hadn’t given to the Red Cross on our behalf? On and one it goes.
No one keeps their own boat afloat in life, folks – especially when faced with a tragedy like this. And the fewer personal resources you had at that moment of tragedy (which no one of us had instigated) the more we need one another.