Mississippi Story: a year later
It's Monday, August 28, 2006, the night before the Katrina anniversary. Scores of events and gatherings are planned for the Gulf Coast cities. Services, picnics, memorial dedications, tree plantings, parades. I drive over from Ocean Springs to Biloxi at about 10 PM to walk out on the jetty east of the Isle of Capri casino hotel. I feel this is a ritual I must do to commemorate another time I did this, at 10 PM October 17, 2005, the last night of the Mississippi Renewal Forum, with about 15 other New Urbanists, including Andres our Fearless Leader. We had just celebrated the end of the charrette - the biggest planning effort in history, they say - with Jim Barksdale's drinks and music, and were, as a group, pleasantly toasted. The jetty is cement, very skinny, with no railing. You could easily fall off in the dark. There is a lighthouse at the end. I don't think everyone went to the end of the jetty, but some of us did. It was intense. We looked out into the moonlit Gulf to Deer Island offshore, where you could see a line of far-off palms, or pines, in silhouette. The water was almost calm, but not entirely; we felt strongly that Katrina had come roaring across Point Cadet from that very spot. It was baleful out there.
This time, I decide to drive into Biloxi the same way, the only way we could last October, east on Bayview to Oak. I pass the glaring 33-story hotel tower of the Imperial Palace, and then Boomtown Casino with its vast and gleaming parking lot enfronting Bayview. The casino is so clean and bright and ugly. I feel depressed, despite all the jobs it brings back. But a couple of blocks later, the lights fall off and it's dark again, and Bayview Avenue looks eerily like it did last year. There are no traffic lights, just stop signs propped against orange barrels, and at the moment, no other cars. I am glad to see this! I think: How perverse, that you prefer the dark, desolate areas to the ones that bring life and jobs to the city. I slow the car to a crawl and contemplate my reaction. Finally I think I get it; the dark areas, the ones that haven't "come back" yet, are the ones where there is still hope that real neighborhoods could happen. It is all potential.
I turn right on Oak and again some things look the same as last year -- a Vietnamese church that is still damaged and closed; another that is ultra-clean and intact, the way it was last October when it hosted the Red Cross food tent. No cars here at this time of night, and no one walking either. Suddenly at the corner of Oak and Howard, there's a blaze of action. A noodle house has opened in a short strip mall. It's bright and full of Vietnamese people; you can hear their laughter from the street. I park and take out my camera. As I'm shooting the lighted window behind a row of cars and SUVs, two young men come over, saying "May we help you?" I tell them why I want pictures. No, I'm not press; I'm just interested to see this scene of life in Point Cadet. I'm torn again. They are overjoyed their place will reopen in a few days; this is the family-and-friends private pre-party. They invite me in, but I'm tired and want to get out on the jetty. The guys say, "Go down and look at the new store we opened, too, at the corner of Division and Lee!" They are so excited. I couldn't possibly say at that moment, "Ya coulda put the parking lot in the back."
The jetty is a total bummer. They have it blocked with a cyclone fence and barbed wire. The area smells like dead fish and there are about thirty empty beer bottles on the ledge. My plan to gaze at the Gulf is stymied, as other plans seem to have been, here in Biloxi.
In the morning I drive out to Waveland for the 8 AM ecumenical service on the beach. I tell myself I'm not going to be a photographer; instead I'll sit in the chairs with the locals. But then I don't want to take anyone's seat, so I stand off away from them, barefoot in the sand. Of course then I become a photographer. I'm certainly not the only one; major media are prowling around. I make all long shots: the vast calm gulf waters and smooth sky, the loose crowd listening to their leaders - Tommy the Mayor, a rabbi, and two Christian ministers, one white one black, reading passages from Scripture that have to do with storms. We sing God Bless America and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. And then Tommy starts to read the names. This is when everyone loses it. They're alphabetical; at one point I think, "They've only gotten to C?" I can't stand hearing sequences like "so-and so Senior and so-and-so Junior." The storm took out generations.
Then the Waveland fire chief and another guy take a big wreath, made of greens and red roses, and carry it between them out across the white beach. No one follows. They lay the wreath down at the very edge of the Gulf.
The evening of the 29th is joyous as Bruce Tolar's Cottage Square opens in Ocean Springs. The famous yellow Katrina Cottage is finally off its wheels and on permanent piers. A larger peach-colored cottage is nearby, beautifully at home in its picket-fenced yard. About 200 people come to hear talks by Haley Barbour, Leland Speed, Mayor Connie Moran, Marianne Cusato, Lowe's VP David Steed, and Bruce. Governor Barbour does the ribbon-cutting, only it's a "board-sawing." (He has given ten speeches on this day, with one more city to go.) Eventually there will be twenty cottages here.
Just before the ceremonies, a freight train rumbles by very close on the CSX line, reminding us of the essential transportation connections yet to be made on the coast. And just as the ceremonies end, a cool wind comes up, and lightning starts crackling across the sky.
I go out to Mary Mahoney's for dinner with a large gang from the Governor's Office on Rebuilding and Renewal, and afterwards we run across the street to look at the Beau Rivage casino on the night of its re-opening. That's 3800 jobs. But prospects are dim for affordable housing nearby to accommodate the workers.
The bright lights and massive bulk of the Beau block the Gulf and make it difficult to see the dramatic lightning still crackling across the sky. I think about the view corridors that Jaime Correa's team has coded into their plan for D'Iberville, before any high-rises get built there.
I get back to Ocean Springs near midnight, still wanting to get out on the Gulf. The village, as usual, is peaceful and undamaged and softly lighted. At the bottom of Washington, I turn left. Now there is darkness, collapsed houses looming on the left, the night sky out on the right. On the western horizon behind me shine the five Biloxi casinos across the bay. I drive around to a point where there is a parking area by the beach, and a little inlet coming in to a marina. I'm excited to see that there's a fishing pier.
At last I get to the end of something. The lightning is astounding. It has been going on for almost three hours. There is no thunder, no rain. It doesn't exactly flash; rather, each occurrence travels horizontally as a jagged line precisely traced, as if drawn before your eyes by God's Etch-a-Sketch. It appears in the southeastern sky only. That's where Katrina came from.
In New Orleans, Mayor Nagin had wanted to have fireworks on this evening, but was talked out of it by those who felt that celebration was inappropriate.
Lightning is different, because although it can be as exciting and declamatory as fireworks, it is also terrible and brings death. It is the terror and beauty of nature, found most strikingly on coastlines where the sea and sky can turn on you. It's thrilling, and people want to be near it. They want to look at it. They want to go out on the jetty.