THE MORNING AFTER THE STORM, hundreds of live oaks still stood among the rubble along the coast. They held in their branches a car, a boat, pages torn from books, furniture. Some people who managed to climb out of windows had clung to the oaks for survival as the waters rose. These ancient trees, some as many as five hundred years old, remain as monuments not only to the storm but to something beyond Katrina as well—sentries, standing guard, they witness the history of the coast. Stripped of leaves, haggard, twisted, and leaning, the trees suggest a narrative of survival and resilience. In the years after the storm, as the leaves have begun to return, the trees seem a monument to the very idea of recovery.
Such natural monuments remind us of the presence of the past, our connection to it. Their ongoing presence suggests continuity, a vision into a future still anchored by a would-be neutral object of the past. Man-made monuments tell a different story. Never neutral, they tend to represent the narratives and memories of those citizens with the political power and money to construct them. Everywhere such monuments inscribe a particular narrative on the landscape while—often—at the same time subjugating or erasing others, telling only part of the story. In Auburn, Alabama, a plaque in the center of town, meant to describe how the city was founded, reads simply “After the Indians left …” As I write this, determined citizens in Gulfport are working to erect, on Ship Island, some kind of monument to the Louisiana Native Guards—the first officially sanctioned regiment of African American Union soldiers in the Civil War—who were stationed there and to whom no monument exists alongside the monument for Confederate soldiers. According to historian Eric Foner, “Of the hundreds of Civil War monuments North and South, only a handful depict the 200,000 African Americans who fought for the Union.” That’s only one example of our nation’s collective forgetting. With such erasures commonplace on the landscape, it is no wonder that citizens of the Gulf Coast are concerned with historical memory. And no wonder the struggle for the national memory of New Orleans—and the government’s response in the days after the levees broke—is a contentious one.
Political contests over the public memory of historical events undergird the dedication of particular sites, the objects constructed, funds allocated, and the story that is to be told. These contests, rooted in power and money, undergird the direction of rebuilding efforts as well—how the past will be remembered, what narrative will be inscribed by the rebuilding. Many of the people I spoke with on the coast were concerned not only about how the storm and aftermath would be remembered but whether it would be remembered at all. A woman waiting in line at a store worried that people were forgetting the victims on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, what they had endured and endure still. “There’s a difference between a natural disaster and the man-made disaster of New Orleans,” she said. “Don’t forget about us.” Though she acknowledged that more attention has been given to New Orleans because of the travesty of the aftermath, her own need to inscribe a narrative into our national memory prevailed. “We have suffered too,” she said.
The first monument erected on the coast to remember Katrina and the victims of the storm stands on the town green in Biloxi. Part of the memorial is a clear Plexiglas box filled with found and donated objects—shoes, dolls, a flag, pieces of clothing, a cross, a clock. They suggest the ordinary lives of the people and the kinds of things that can be recovered or regained. Taken another way, they symbolize things lost: childhood, innocence, faith—national or religious—and time. A wall of granite in the shape of a wave replicates the height of the storm surge. Even more telling is the dedication: not for whom but by whom the monument was commissioned. A gift donated to the city of Biloxi by ABC’S Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, the memorial not only remembers the storm and the people but also inscribes on the landscape a narrative of the commercialization of memory. The show, broadcast to millions of viewers, must have garnered millions of dollars in advertising. Even as it commemorates the experiences of the hurricane victims, as well as the seeming generosity of the TV show’s producers, the benefits to the network cannot be ignored; people will recall the storm, but they will also recall the network and its programming. Still, the monument is small compared to the giant replica of an electric guitar that looms nearby; across the street from the town green, the new Hard Rock Casino and Resort has opened. When sunlight hits the chrome and bounces off the building, it’s the only thing you can see.
Inside, the Hard Rock Casino offers a strange counterpoint to the collection of homely objects in the Plexiglas memorial; the walls are covered with memorabilia—all of it supposedly authentic: shoes of famous rock stars, their clothing, instruments, jewelry. The casino had been set to open just before Katrina hit, and some memorabilia washed away in the storm. A small collection of what has been recovered—muddy and misshapen still, showing the effects of the disaster—reminds us that the casinos have suffered too, that they are like us in their appreciation of loss.
Farther down the beach a different kind of monument anchors the memory of the destruction of Katrina: live oaks that did not survive the storm. Rather than seeing them removed, a local chainsaw artist is transforming the dead trees into sculptures that depict the native species of animals on the coast—pelicans, turtles, dolphins, herons—all shaped to suggest movement and perhaps hope for the coast’s environmental future.
The future of the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s environment is tied to the stability of the wetlands, the possibility of rising tide levels—due, in part, to global warming rates—and the potential impact of humans and development along the coast. Since Mississippi governor Haley Barbour signed a new law allowing onshore gaming, returning casinos such as the Biloxi Grand, the Island View in Gulfport, and Treasure Bay have reopened on land. In March, Harrah’s announced plans to construct Margaritaville Casino and Resort on the shores of Biloxi. Taking the place of a historic neighborhood, the project is expected to cost more than $700 million and is the single largest investment in Mississippi since the hurricane. The huge casino, hotel, and retail complex will claim prime, historic property near the Point Cadet area of Biloxi.
When I ask about the future of development in the area, Aesha tells me about the new FEMA requirements for housing elevation levels. “It makes rebuilding too expensive for many poor people,” she says. The new regulations stipulate that homes can only be rebuilt twenty yards back from the road, but many homeowners’ lots don’t extend that far. “Now,” she says, “it’s likely that they’ll be pushed out.” It’s not hard to imagine a future for the coast in which their absence in the face of the casinos transforms forever the historic character of the area into a glitzy corporate landscape. With the damage wrought by the storm to the seafood industry, the casinos are now the creators of the dominant economic narrative on the coast. They are visually dominant too.
This is perhaps one of the most apparent changes to the Gulf Coast. My brother imagines a future for the coast that resembles that of a resort and vacation town like Panama City. He says Biloxi will be “a nice city—but it just won’t look like the old Biloxi.” One of the hardest things Joe thinks the future holds for residents of the Gulf Coast is the cost of living. He has little confidence in the development of affordable housing. Only one person he knows lives in an apartment where the landlord didn’t raise the rent by the roughly 70 percent that was commonplace in the months following the storm.
Even as he imagines a “nice city,” Joe laments the commercial development of the coast by what he calls “out-of-towners”—corporations with big-business interests in the ports and the gaming industry. “So many landmarks are gone,” he says, “replaced by something commercial. Everything seems artificial now, and there are only two local restaurants left on the beach—the rest are casino restaurants.” Sitting with him in the bar of the Beau Rivage, I see the evidence of this, sometimes in small ways: a glass of wine I order—and pay more for—comes as a completely different, lesser one when we order a second round. When I say this to the bartender, he shrugs, then opens the bottle to pour me what I asked for. It seems a kind of fake, bait-and-switch culture of the new coast: maybe the bartender thought I wouldn’t recognize the difference. Perhaps the notion that drives this idea will undergird the inscription of a new coast narrative. As visitors arrive—not knowing the former culture, the architecture, or the landscape—corporate narratives can prevail, cross-written over the small-town story.
Still, as much as Joe worries about the impact of the decisions of “out-of-towners,” he points to the coast’s growing diversity—its influx of newcomers—as one of the best outcomes of the rebuilding effort. I can see his point; in a region where the vestiges of racism hang on, played out in debates about “heritage” and the Confederate flag, and where only business leaders vote to do away with a symbol that divides rather than unites coast citizens under one banner, the arrival of newcomers must also signal a new coast, a new Mississippi. In their attempts to gain the patronage of all residents and visitors to the coast, businesses are helping to inscribe a more liberal narrative—at least one in which the only color is money green. Immigrants from Jamaica and Mexico are helping to inscribe a more multiethnic narrative, as did the Vietnamese immigrants of the 1970s and the Slovenian and Yugoslavian immigrants—and others of European and African descent—more than a century before that.
Conversely, the biggest loss to the coast Joe measures is in the displacement of the people. “I’ve lost a lot of friends,” he says, describing a social network—a group of people with whom he gathered after work—that has all but disappeared.
People carry with them the blueprints of memory for a place. It is not uncommon to hear directions given in terms of landmarks that are no longer there: “turn right at the corner where the fruit stand used to be,” or “across the street from the lot where Miss Mary used to live.” Aesha tells me there are no recognizable landmarks along the coast anymore, and I see this too as I drive down the beach. No way to get your bearings. No way to feel at home, familiar with the land and cityscape. In time, the landmarks of destruction and rebuilding will overlap and intersect the memory of what was there—narrative and metanarrative—the pentimento of the former landscape shown only through the memories of the people who carry it with them. With fewer people in the area who remember the pre-Katrina landscape and culture, there’s a much greater chance that it will be forgotten. Too, the memory of such events requires the collective efforts of a people—each citizen contributing to the narrative—so that a fuller version of the story can be told. In that way, one hope we can have for the future, beyond the necessities with which we must concern ourselves—environmentally sound rebuilding, fair and equal recovery—is the continuity of culture and heritage fostered by ongoing change and honest, inclusive remembrance of the past.
Rituals of commemoration serve to unite communities around collective memory, and at the second anniversary of the storm people gathered to remember—some at church or community centers, others at locations that held more private significance. Personal recollections are equally integral to the larger story. Johnny, a card dealer at one of the casinos—a friend of my brother’s who did not leave—says that he stayed home to watch the national news. He wanted to see how the anniversary and the recovery were being understood outside the region. Then he took a kind of memorial drive—“just riding down the beach,” he said, “trying to find places I used to go.” Aesha marked the anniversary by donating blood. When I ask them both about what they do year round to keep the memory of the storm and its aftermath and about whether there is a danger in forgetting, Johnny takes the diplomatic approach: “You have to learn from history,” he says. Shaking her head, Aesha is more adamant about the memory of the storm. “There is no forgetting,” she says. “You can’t forget—you won’t.” In her words, an imperative, a command.
Some time ago—before the storm—my grandmother and I were shopping in Gulfport, and we met a friend of hers shopping with her granddaughter too. The woman introduced the girl to us by her nickname, then quickly added the child’s given name. My grandmother, a proud woman—not to be outdone—replied, “Well, Tasha’s name is really Nostalgia,” drawing the syllables out to make the name seem more exotic. I was embarrassed and immediately corrected her—not anticipating that the guilt I’d feel later could be worse than my initial chagrin. Perhaps she was trying to say Natalya, the formal version, in Russian, to which Natasha is the diminutive. At both names’ Latin root: the idea of nativity, of the birthday of Christ. They share a prefix with words like natal, national, and native. “I write what is given me to write,” Phil Levine has said. I’ve been given to thinking that it’s my national duty, my native duty, to keep the memory of my Gulf Coast as talisman against the uncertain future. But my grandmother’s misnomer is compelling too; she was onto something when she called me out with it.
I think of Hegel again: “When we turn to survey the past, the first thing we see is nothing but ruins.” The first thing we see. The fears for the future, expressed by the people I spoke with on the coast, are driven by the very real landscape of ruin and by environmental and economic realities associated with development, but they are driven by nostalgia too. When we begin to imagine a future in which the places of our past no longer exist, we see ruin. Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in my own relationship to the memory of my home.
Everywhere I go during my journey, I feel the urge to weep not only for the residents of the coast but also for my former self: the destroyed public library is me as a girl, sitting on the floor, reading between the stacks; empty, debris-strewn downtown Gulfport is me at the Woolworth’s lunch counter—early 1970s—with my grandmother; is me listening to the sounds of shoes striking the polished tile floor of Hancock Bank, holding my grandmother’s hand, waiting for candy from the teller behind her wicket; me riding the elevator of the J. M. Salloum Building—the same elevator my grandmother operated in the thirties; me waiting in line at the Rialto movie theater—gone for more years now than I can remember—where my mother also stood in line, at the back door, for the peanut gallery, the black section where my grandmother, still a girl, went on days designated colored only, clutching the coins she earned selling crabs; is me staring at my reflection in the glass at J. C. Penney’s as my mother calls, again and again, my name. I hear it distantly, as through water or buffeted by wind: Nostalgia.
Names are talismans of memory too—Katrina, Camille. Perhaps this is why we name our storms.
When Camille hit in 1969, I was three years old. Across the street from my grandmother’s house, the storm tore the roof off the Mount Olive Baptist Church. A religious woman, my grandmother believed the Lord had spared her home—a former shotgun to which more rooms had been added—and damaged, instead, the large red-brick church and many of the things inside, thus compelling her to more devotion. During renovation the church got a new interior: deep red carpet and red velvet draperies for the baptismal font—made by my grandmother, her liturgy to God’s House. In went a new organ and a marble alter bearing the words Do This In Remembrance Of Me. As a child I was frightened by these words, the object—a long rectangle, like a casket—upon which they were inscribed; I believed quite literally that the marble box held a body. Such is the power of monumental objects to hold within them the weight of remembrance.
And yet I spent so little time in the church when I was growing up that I’m surprised now that so much of my thinking comes to me in the language of ceremony. But then, when I look up the word liturgy, I find that in the original Greek it meant, simply, one’s public duty, service to the state undertaken by a citizen.
I am not a religious woman. This is my liturgy to the Mississippi Gulf Coast:
To the security guard staring at the Gulf
thinking of bodies washed away from the coast,
plugging her ears
against the bells and sirens—sound of alarm—
the gaming floor
on the coast;
To Billy Scarpetta, waiting tables on the coast,
staring at the Gulf
thinking of water rising, thinking of New Orleans,
thinking of cleansing
To the woman dreaming of returning to the coast,
thinking of water rising,
her daughter’s grave, my mother’s grave—underwater—
on the coast;
To Miss Mary, somewhere;
To the displaced, living in trailers along the coast,
beside the highway,
in vacant lots and open fields; to everyone who stayed
on the coast,
who came back—or cannot—to the coast;
To those who died on the coast.
This is a time capsule for the coast: words of the people
—don’t forget us—
the sound of wind, waves, the silence of graves,
the muffled voice of history, bulldozed and buried
under sand poured on the eroding coast,
the concrete slabs of rebuilding the coast.
This is a love letter to the Gulf Coast, a praise song, a dirge, invocation and benediction, a requiem for the Gulf Coast.
This cannot rebuild the coast; it is an indictment,
my logos—argument and discourse—with the coast.
This is my nostos—my pilgrimage to the coast, my memory,
native daughter: I am the Gulf Coast.
Nine months after Katrina, I went home for the first time. Driving down Highway 49, after passing my grandmother’s house, I went straight to the cemetery where my mother is buried. It was more ragged than usual—the sandy plots overgrown with weeds. The fence around it was still up, so I counted the entrances until I reached the fourth one, which opened onto the gravel road where I knew I’d find her. I searched first for the large, misshapen shrub that had always showed me to her grave, and found it gone. My own negligence had revisited me, and I stood there foolishly, a woman who’d never erected a monument on her mother’s grave. I walked in circles, stooping to push back grass and weeds until I found the concrete border that marked the plots of my ancestors. It was nearly overtaken, nearly sunken beneath the dirt and grass. How foolish of me to think of monuments and memory, of inscribing the landscape with narratives of remembrance, as I stood looking at my mother’s near-vanished grave in the post-Katrina landscape to which I’d brought my heavy bag of nostalgia. I see now that remembrance is an individual duty as well—a duty native to us as citizens, as daughters and sons. Private liturgy: I vow to put a stone here, emblazoned with her name.
Not far from the cemetery, I wandered the vacant lot where a church had been. Debris still littered the grass. Everywhere, there were pages torn from hymnals, Bibles, psalms pressed into the grass as if they were cemented there. I bent close, trying to read one; to someone driving by along the beach, I must have looked like a woman praying.