Beyond Katrina and Mississippi Outdoors Producer
I’ve lived on the coast all my life. That’s home- Biloxi, Gulfport, the Pass, the Bay. They are all one place to me. Going from Pascagoula to Waveland was like going across town. I moved to Jackson to work for MPB only two years ago, leaving the coast reluctantly behind. I avoided going back down for most of those two years because I knew how much I would miss it. Oddly enough, I needed to go down just three weeks before Katrina struck and it was the first time I drove down Highway 90 since I left it and ironically, I looked at what had changed and what hadn’t. I stayed in a nice little hotel right on the beach in Biloxi. It’s not there anymore as is most everything else.
As a freelance photographer, I went back down to the coast just two days after the storm and spent more than a week trying to photograph what wasn’t there anymore. I pulled my truck over to the side of the crumbled concrete of what was Highway 90 and walked a block back to 2nd Street in Gulfport. 2nd Street had always been a desirable part of the coast to live. It was a row of older homes, not necessarily big homes, but homes that gave you an idea of what it was like to live there 200 years ago. Homes your grandmother lived in when you were growing up. As I climbed over piles of still wet lumber, hearing the hiss of open gas lines, maneuvering around trucks piled on top of one another, crawling under power lines, and thinking I must be crazy, I noticed I hadn’t come to 2nd Street yet, at least not when I thought I should have. Then my heart sank when I realized I was standing right on it, I just couldn’t see it for the pile of what was left of those charming old homes.
When I went back down nine months later to shoot one of my stories for Beyond Katrina, I had some time to kill in between interviews. I remembered that just a few months earlier on 2nd Street, the debris was still pretty bad so I thought we would go down there and shoot a little. We stopped at the one house that was being rebuilt. We stopped to shoot it mostly because the owners had a little makeshift doghouse in the yard and had printed on the side “FEMA Dog House”. As we stood shooting, two men came walking briskly towards us. I thought for sure they were going to give us a hard time for shooting there. We began talking and I found out they lived next door and across the street and wanted to make sure we weren’t there trying to steal anything. I finally got Mike Spencer to agree to give me an interview. He told in great detail how he rode out the storm. Watching the east side of his house wash away in one piece, his stove chasing him, the beam that pushed him through to the back of the house, how he finally climbed out of the house and onto a tree. He said that tree was the only thing that kept the rest of his house from floating away. He told me how he reached over and patted his home, and how glad he was that tree withstood his house running into it because he was hanging onto the last remaining branch. The tree still stands with orange ribbons wrapped around it now.
Mike held back the tears as he told me his story, he had told it so many times yet he still couldn’t get through it without having to pause, his neighbor Bill won’t even try. It wasn't so much the storm itself, he stated, but all the “stuff” afterwards. For a lot of coast residents, just having someone to tell their story to is a big help. What is surprising is that these people are still going through so much and maybe even more, now almost a year later, than they were right after the storm. If you live on the coast, hurricanes are nothing new. You deal with the after-effects for a few weeks,… not a few months or a few years. Adding insult to the worse kind of injury is the low-life from the rest of the country coming down under the pretense of helping and end up stealing what little these people have left or have managed to accumulate since the storm. How do you deal with the anger from that on top of the anger you’re already feeling? Don’t get me wrong, for those legitimate volunteers, I’ve heard so many times from Katrina victims how grateful they are and how they could not make it with out them and how much hope it gives them in such a hopeless situation just to have people who care and really want to help.
When we asked Mike what good had come out of all this, he turned and pointed to his FEMA trailer, “That right there, it has hard walls….” Mike had been living in a tent up until a month ago.
Trying to remain strong for their family and friends, never expecting to have to have so much patience and strength to last a year, most coast residents are just now starting to realize that this is something that they will have to deal with for a very long time. As time does go by, the coast slowly heals but it will take even longer for those that live there and love it so much to finally get some kind of satisfaction, if they can. It’s hard to heal when you are living in a place that is so familiar and yet isn’t anymore, not just physically but emotionally.
Mike was just grateful that day for his trailer, the sun, the breeze from the water and his neighbors to talk to. He and Bill asked that you not forget them; they are still hurting and still living in their trailers just a block off the beach on 2nd Street and it’s still to them a desirable place to live.