NEARING MY HOMETOWN I turn west onto Interstate 10, the southernmost coast-to-coast highway in the United States. I’ve driven this road thousands of times, and I know each curve and rise of it as it passes through the northern sections of Biloxi and Gulfport—a course roughly parallel to U.S. Route 90, the beach road, also known as the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. It’s five o’clock when I cross into Mississippi, and it seems that the sky darkens almost instantly. In minutes it’s raining—the vestiges of a storm out in the Gulf—and I can barely see the lights of a few cars out ahead of me. Some are pulled over, parked beneath the underpass. Others slow down but keep going, hazard lights flashing. People have learned to be wary of storms.
“It’s different now,” my brother, Joe, says. “Before Katrina so many older people told stories of having ridden out Camille that nobody worried much. That was the biggest storm to hit around here.” Then he recalls the other storm warning, a little while before Katrina hit, and how it turned out to be what he called “a false alarm.” “People prepared with supplies,” he tells me: “there were long lines at the grocery store and the gas station, but then nothing happened.” Emboldened by the “false alarm” and by the fact that her home had withstood Camille thirty-six years before, my grandmother was one of the people who wanted to “ride out the storm” from home. “You remember,” he says. “You had to talk her into letting me take her to a shelter.”
When I ask her what she remembers, my grandmother conflates the two storms. Ninety-one, a woman who has spent most of her life in the same place, she knows she lives in Atlanta now, where I do, because she had to evacuate after Katrina, but she thinks she was at home during landfall, not lying on a cot in a classroom at the public school up the road from her house. Examined by a doctor after evacuating Gulfport, she was disoriented. She hadn’t eaten for weeks, even though the shelter provided MRES, even though my brother had been able to drive to Mobile for food. The doctor spoke of trauma and depression, prescribed medication.
Gwendolyn Ann Trethewey née Turnbough and
Natasha, Gulfport, Mississippi, 1966
In her room at the nursing home in Atlanta, she recalls how very young I was during Camille and how my parents moved my crib from room to room all night trying to avoid water pouring in through the roof. When I say, “No, Nana—Katrina,” she looks at me, her eyes glassy with confusion, her lips pressed hard together, her brow deeply furrowed, as she tries to piece together the events of the previous two years. She has layered on the old story of Camille the new story of Katrina. Between the two, there is the suggestion of both a narrative and a metanarrative—the way she both remembers and forgets, the erasures, and how intricately intertwined memory and forgetting always are.
This too is a story about a story—how it will be inscribed on the physical landscape as well as on the landscape of our cultural memory. I wonder at the competing narratives: What will be remembered, what forgotten? What dominant narrative is now emerging? Watching the news, my grandmother turns to me when she sees Senator Trent Lott on the screen. “I made draperies for his house,” she says, aware, I think, that theirs is a story intertwined by history: his house gone along with the work of her hands.
I spend the first night catching up with Joe. Because his house and our grandmother’s house are still in disrepair, he’s living with his girlfriend while doing the work on the properties himself. I’ve booked a room at one of the hotels on the coast—a casino as most of them are—and we sit in the bar for hours watching the Thursday night traffic on the gaming floor. When the casinos were built on the coast nearly fifteen years before, onshore gambling wasn’t permitted. Most casinos then were barges, moored against the beach in the shallow water. One was an old cruise ship, a small one, and it catered mostly to locals. Because of this, even as the state now permits rebuilding on land, a few folks still refer to these new structures as boats. Now and again you’ll overhear someone talking about “working on the boat” or “going down to the boat.” After Katrina, my brother tells me, the “boats” “couldn’t get insurance offshore.” This post-Katrina effect and the need to get the economy of the coast rebuilt quickly made the state of Mississippi open the door to rebuilding the casinos on shore. The history of the coast is full of such transformations, and this is not the first time that economic decisions have instigated the overlaying of a new narrative on the Gulf Coast, reinscribing it—transforming it.
In spite of the reservations of many Gulf Coast residents, including nearly half of the residents of Gulfport, the first casino opened on the coast in 1992 after the passage of legislation that approved “dockside” gambling. It wasn’t long before the gaming industry made a significant contribution to the coast’s economy. Between 1992 and 1996, monthly gaming revenues increased from $10 million to $153 million. Though many casinos transplanted some employees to the coast, creating a larger housing demand and increased traffic problems, most of the people employed in the industry are locals. I can recall both the excitement and the trepidation with which people anticipated the casinos: excitement at the number of new jobs, complete with health insurance and benefits, excitement at the possibility of more entertainment options and of some revenues going to improve local schools. But people also feared an erosion of the coast’s cultural heritage, the depletion of wetlands, the transformation of the character of the beach road and surrounding neighborhoods, and a variety of social ills. I watched as title pawn businesses sprang up in the shadows of the newly opened casinos. It was a short walk from the Copa or the Grand in Gulfport to a squat, yellow bunker of a building where you could turn over the title to your car in exchange for a high-interest loan. Often I’d see the same cars parked there for more than a month, and I knew that it meant the owners had missed their pawn deadlines, couldn’t “buy” the vehicles back, and that now they would be sold to someone else. Still, the casinos brought an economic boost to the struggling state. Before they opened, the unemployment rate in Mississippi was among the highest in the nation.
In 1992 my brother was nineteen—bored, restless, and hoping for a life in a town with more opportunity, more excitement. After seven years growing up away from his own hometown, Atlanta, he was ready for something more like what he’d left behind or for, at the very least, the abundant opportunity, real or imagined, of a larger city. The casinos brought much of that: steady work in construction and good pay—often untaxed, “under-the-table,” he told me back then. In downtown Gulfport a new bar opened—the E.O. Club, which stood for “Early Out” and catered to casino workers getting off their shifts. It was a dark, urban-looking space with a shiny wooden bar, a jukebox by the front door, plants, upholstered chairs, and a stand for the bands playing blues, bluegrass, and covers any given night. Within a few years my brother—good looking, sweet, and effortlessly charming—became a regular. With friends or more likely alone, my brother could talk to anyone. It was how he made contacts in town, found work for himself—and much later, how he would meet people who needed his help in exchange for the construction work they could do.
In this way, Joe is not unlike my great-uncle Son, an entrepreneur who had spent most of his life running a nightclub he owned and buying up rental properties—shotgun houses—in North Gulfport, an area just outside the city limits where blacks had lived for more than a century; where he and his other siblings, including my grandmother, had been born and raised; and where my brother, after the death of our mother, had grown up too. It seemed evident even when we were children that one day Joe would inherit the Dixon family business, that he’d become a landlord like Uncle Son—one who had enough skill to work on the houses, repair them, and who had enough contacts to hire someone else if necessary. It would be years before Joe would decide that this was what he wanted—and years still before a storm would come and change everything.
In 1995, a decade before that storm would hit, the number one reason to visit the coast was the casinos. My brother worked on many of them—including, before its opening in 1999, the Beau Rivage, the most securely moored barge on the Gulf Coast. With some foresight the builders of that casino went beyond the required code of making the structure able to withstand up to 155-mile-per-hour winds, the equivalent of a category 4 hurricane. As a result, the Beau Rivage—with its fragrant, transplanted magnolias and its hotel views of the water and of the city of Biloxi—suffered much less damage than most of the other casinos. In Gulfport, for example, the Grand Casino—thrust onto land—skidded across Highway 90 and crashed into the church across the street. Secure in its moorings, the Beau Rivage was among the first casinos to reopen in 2006. For employees, this is a blessing.
Willie “Son” Dixon, circa World War II
The security guard I talk to is a friendly white woman in her sixties, eager, it seems, to talk to yet another visitor with questions about the hurricane and its aftermath. She’s been there for ten years, and she’s grateful for the job. “Last ones out, first ones in,” she says, referring to how long the workers were there trying to evacuate the guests before the storm and to the workers’ return. “Lost everything but my job, and when we came back to work, there was hot food from the Salvation Army.” There is a mixture of what seems like appreciation for what she does have and a good measure of contempt for the kind of rebuilding taking place. “The casino business is better than ever,” she says, “but the people need to have what they used to have.” She worries over the practical needs of working people as she describes the developments along the coast: “They say they won’t rebuild any gas stations along the beach, just condos we can’t afford, and only the casinos can have restaurants. What are the working people supposed to do?”
Her story is not uncommon. After the hurricane her rent increased—despite the terms of her lease, she tells me—from five hundred dollars a month to eight hundred dollars, though her pay did not. When I ask her about assistance from the government, she wags her head fiercely: “Nobody has seen all the money. It’s been two years, and we are still suffering. They said they wouldn’t price gouge, but they are doing it.” In fact, even as the cost of living has risen on the coast, programs dedicated to helping the poor have benefited from only about 10 percent of the federal money, even though the state was required by Congress to spend half of its billions to help low-income citizens recover from the storm. Although state officials, including Governor Haley Barbour, insist that the state does not discriminate by race or income when giving aid to storm victims, many poor residents can’t afford homeowner’s insurance and thus are ineligible for some aid programs. Renters are altogether excluded from many of them.
When I ask the guard what she remembers of the storm, her face softens as she begins to recall the days after. “It was like a bomb had went off. And now everywhere is slabs, just slabs. And the water is still full of debris—houses, cars. We need to dredge the Gulf to get it all back, including the bodies,” she says. “Including the bodies.”
It’s nearly midnight, and her shift is ending. Beyond the poolside deck where I have been talking to her, the Gulf is flat and black, the lights of the Beau Rivage, reflected on the water, all I can see.
Walking through the lobby in the morning, I am struck by the incongruousness of the high-end jewelry and clothing stores, the crowds of people bustling with excitement, the countless opportunities for consumption juxtaposed with what I know is just beyond the great entryway with its soaring glass doors, giant flower arrangements, and extravagant perfume. After breakfast in the hotel café, I drive along the beach road, taking note of the few leaves that have begun to fill out the ancient live oak trees anchoring the landscape of the coast. A year ago they were barren, a stark and skeletal imprint against the sky, and I wondered if they would come back. Now the leaves are a green hope above the rubble scattered in the grass. Farther down the beach a pair of them tell a different story of the coast’s stark contradictions, its juxtapositions: one with leaves sprouting along its branches, one with none at all.
Compared to the flurry of activity in the casino, downtown Gulfport seems abandoned, empty but for a few new businesses that have opened and a few old ones that have reopened: Hancock bank, a restaurant, a pub, a coffee shop, and Triplett-Day Drugs, which has been there as long as I can remember. At the rusted shell of the former public library a lone light fixture hangs above what was the entry to the stacks. A stairway spirals up to the sagging roof. Vacant lots broadcast one message—AVAILABLE—on sign after sign. Everywhere there are houses still bearing the markings of the officials who checked each dwelling for victims. It’s an odd hieroglypics I learn to read—an X with symbols in each quadrant. My brother’s girlfriend, Aesha Qawiy, tells me to look for the number at the bottom of the X; it shows how many dead were found. I am relieved each time I pass a house and read a zero there.
When the storm hit, Aesha was living in a lovely apartment atop a law firm just off the Pass Road in Gulfport. A legal secretary at another firm, she’d been a model tenant, paying her considerable rent and saving to buy a house. She was fortunate that the building survived—though with some damage—that some of her things were safe. She and her son sheltered at her parents’ house during landfall. Two days later, when she tried to return to her apartment, the owners’ daughter was there to evict her. She and her husband needed the apartment, understandably, because their own home had been destroyed. Yet for all the seeming goodwill among people on the coast, the owners’ daughter could muster little patience or sympathy for Aesha. Her belongings still inside, Aesha had to search for a storage unit—a good distance away—and when she asked to be given time for an appointment with the FEMA inspector to assess the damage to her personal items, the owners’ daughter initially refused, all the while treating Aesha as if this apartment to which she still had a month’s claim was something she was stealing. All her clothes and her son’s clothes had succumbed to mold and mildew, as had the mattresses and some furniture. She lost items of sentimental value too—sonogram pictures, books. Were it not for her parents, Aesha and her son would have been homeless, and her former landlords didn’t care—or couldn’t care—so busy were they dealing with their own difficult circumstances.
It would have been quite different if the tenant had nowhere to go and was still being put out of the apartment. No courts were in operation, police were overburdened, and a lawsuit would have been time consuming and perhaps expensive even had the courts been available. Still, Aesha was among the lucky residents of the coast in many ways—her firm reopened quickly, and she had a place to live in the meantime. As she tells her story, it occurs to me that she now marks time by the storms. Like the Gulf Coast Harrison County residents who refer to time before and after Camille as “B.C.” and “A.C.,” Aesha marks the events of her life as “two days after Katrina” and “the day Rita hit,” another hurricane that ravaged the Gulf Coast later that same season.
I think of all this when Aesha and I sit down to talk during my stay. We meet first at a new coffee shop where the young woman behind the counter is cheery and energetic—enthusiasm I take to be a good sign, if not simply the optimism of youth. As we sip tea, I ask Aesha about this optimism, about where she thinks things stand on the coast. She knows this is about something I am writing, and as she answers, I begin to get the feeling that her answers are shaped by her need to govern the narrative of the storm and its aftermath, to control the meaning of the present and the past in the face of an uncertain future. I know she isn’t embellishing when she talks about how people interacted after the storm because I’ve heard these stories from my brother too. “It was as if everyone banded together,” she says. “Everyone helped each other. People shared what they had, were even friendlier.” I want to remind her of being evicted, of her interactions with the landlord’s daughter, but I don’t. I know that a preferred narrative is one of the common bond between people in a time of crisis. This is often the way collective, cultural memory works, full of omissions, partial remembering, and purposeful forgetting. People on both sides of a story look better in a version that leaves out certain things. It is another way that rebuilding is also about remembering—that is, not just rebuilding the physical structures and economy of the coast but also rebuilding, revising, the memory of Katrina and its aftermath. In all revisions, words are important. Each time we talk during my visit, another layer of the story of the aftermath and rebuilding is peeled back. Even now, at the coffee shop, Aesha clenches her teeth when she recalls being referred to as a “refugee.” “Evacuee,” she says. “I am an American—not a refugee in my own country.”
The idea of America is inscribed on the landscape of North Gulfport—streets called Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama, the names of presidents and states. My cousin Tamara Jones lives just off Highway 49 on Alabama Avenue, at what used to be the intersection of Alabama and Jefferson before Jefferson was blocked off and made a dead-end street. I always thought that change a great irony, as if the very ideals of Jefferson were truncated as the people who lived there became more cut off, more isolated. Even now, thirty years after the street was blocked, ambulances, police cars, and delivery trucks have trouble getting to the houses on Jefferson. On several occasions my brother has had to stand in the street and wave his arms wildly to flag down an emergency vehicle zooming right by us.
Tammy has lived there with her children for nearly two decades. Years ago, when my great-uncle Son died, he bequeathed his house to her. It stands beside the land that once held his famed Owl Club, on the eastern side of Highway 49, easily visible from my grandmother’s house on the western side. I pull up in front and park on the crushed shell driveway. Tammy comes out on the porch when she hears my Yoo-hoo—the call we’ve been using all our lives, the call our parents and grandparents used whenever they came to this house.
The porch is stacked with moldy furniture she is intent on reclaiming. Most of it is wooden, except for a few rusted pieces of iron patio furniture. She’s been back in the house for a few months, after having lived more than a year in a FEMA trailer on the property while her home was being repaired. It’s a sturdy brick house, two bedrooms and one bath on a lot with pecan, fig, and lime trees. Across the street is a similar house. The two houses are mixed in with run-down shotgun shacks and newer prefab homes—all evidence of the working-class and working-poor families in this historically black neighborhood.
I ask her about the rebuilding that has taken place around her since the storm, and she tells a story of generous volunteers. “It was donations,” she says. “Donations—and the work of a group from North Carolina—are responsible for most people’s repairs in the area. If not for them, I couldn’t have completely fixed my house. I’d still be in that trailer.” According to the New York Times, the state of Mississippi—a couple of years after the storm—had “spent $1.7 billion in federal money on programs that have mostly benefited relatively affluent residents and big businesses.” Instead of helping the poor, like most of the residents in Tammy’s neighborhood—many who are renters—the money has been used to help utility and insurance companies and middle- and upper-income homeowners. Some houses around Tammy’s have been repaired, but many have not. If the owners can’t afford to rebuild or repair a badly damaged house, the city demands that it be torn down. “But demolition is expensive,” she tells me. “They’ll come out and do it for you, tear down what’s left of your house and break up the slab and haul it away—but most people out here can’t afford what the city charges for demolition.” She points to an empty lot beside her house. “If you wait long enough, they’ll just tear it down anyway—even if you want to repair your house.”
All along the coast, evidence of rebuilding marks the wild, devastated landscape. A little more than a year before, much debris still littered the ground: crumbled buildings, great piles of concrete and rebar twisted into strange shapes, bridges lifting a path to nowhere. Now new condominium developments rise above the shoreline, next to the remains of a gas station, its single overhang, the concrete stripped or gouged, revealing the steel frame, like bones, underneath. Here and there are signs of what’s still to come: posters reading “South Beach” and “Beachfront living only better.” Other evidence abounds of how slow rebuilding can be. As recently as the second anniversary of the storm, school children in Pass Christian were still attending class in trailers without running water and using portable toilets. Coincidentally, not until Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts—a native of Pass Christian—questioned FEMA director David Paulison about the delays did FEMA contract workers begin to dig the new well the school desperately needed. When I spoke to a member of the state House of Representatives from Pass Christian, she complained that the town still hadn’t seen the money they’d been promised. “We’d just like a place to buy bread,” she said, after introducing herself. “I represent the Pass,” she’d said to me, my mind registering, for a moment, the past.
Even now whole communities of FEMA trailers line the beach road, the highway, the neighborhoods farther inland—nearly ten thousand of them, many laden with formaldehyde. From a distance they appear as the above-ground tombs of New Orleans’ famed cemeteries: white, orderly rows bearing the weight of remembrance. There are concrete steps wedged into the earth leading to nothing. There are concrete slabs so overtaken by grass, roots, and weeds it is as if no one ever lived there—so quickly has nature begun its rebuilding, its wild and green retaking of the land. The devastation reminds me of our fleeting imprint on the landscape, the impermanence of our man-made world, the way nature responds to our folly—our own culpability writ large in the damage wrought by Katrina.
At Jones Park, on the beach across from downtown Gulfport, the picnic area is a muddy plot marked off by orange security netting. The makeshift fence is eerily like the yellow police tape put around locations where a crime or something tragic has occurred. For years this spot had been a place for African American residents of Gulfport to congregate on weekends—families having reunions and cooking out, teenagers and young adults gathering for the rituals of social life in a safe place, out of trouble. I wonder where they are and think of my brother’s description of social life now on the coast. “For a long time there was a curfew,” he told me. “And after that, there was nowhere to go anyway.” To pass time, Joe and his friends drink more than they used to. Even the memory of the work he did for months after—to help with cleanup—haunts the places he encounters daily: how not to look at the sand without that strange anticipation of what might be found there?
Joe comes to visit me in Atlanta as often as possible. I know he wants to spend time with our grandmother, but I know too that he is frustrated with his life on the coast, so he comes to escape, temporarily, that depressed landscape, its reminders of loss at every turn. Flannery O’Connor’s words ring true:
Back at the casino for dinner that night, Joe, Aesha, and I sit outside on the patio, taking in the balmy evening air. I am telling them about a man I encountered at lunch—an official casino “host” making his rounds to check on the patrons. The conversation with Bob Short began as many of my conversations do in Gulfport—a quizzical look of semirecognition, then the question Where are you from? And then Who are your people? Satisfied by my answers, he too was eager to tell me what he thought about life now on the coast.
Before working at the casino as a host, from 1997 until 2001 Bob Short was mayor of Gulfport, and before that he served as a state legislator. His job as a host is to greet patrons of the casino, chat with them, and make them feel at home in a place quite the opposite. Inside, with the whirring of the sirens above the slot machines, the fog of cigarette smoke, the crowds waiting in line for the buffets, it’s easy to forget the outside—to forget home—what the owners don’t want you to think about even when there isn’t the devastation of a storm still marking the landscape. The hotel, the restaurants, the gaming floor are all meant to be an escape from ordinary life. When I ask Bob Short if he thinks the people of the coast can escape the memory of the hurricane, get a reprieve from it, he draws upon his experience as an educator to make this prediction: “Children here are going to have the same posttraumatic stress disorder as Vietnam vets when they get to be twelve or so. One child I know is afraid to take a bath now because he saw his mother washed out of the house by the storm.” As I tell the story of my encounter with him, Aesha clicks her tongue at this part, thinking, I am sure, about her son and my niece, Joe’s daughter PJ, who were extremely clingy and nervous for a long time after Katrina.
PJ, Joe, and Aesha, circa 2003
When I asked the former mayor about his personal losses, he told me he’d been a collector of sports memorabilia. “It’s all gone now,” he said. “I can never get back what I had.”
The young waiter serving our table has been listening off and on to the story, and he has his ideas too, wants to share them—even gives me his card so that I won’t forget his name. He’s from Louisiana, and he moved to the coast for restaurant work in the casino. “What’s different now is that the new generation respects the hurricanes, unlike the folks before. It needed to happen.” When I ask him what he means, he replies vaguely: “to teach us something” and “a cleansing, that’s what it was.” When he turns to attend to another table, I feel uncomfortable thinking about what he might have meant, particularly after hearing some people opine about New Orleans and who was turned out: the poorer, working classes—overwhelmingly African American—all lumped together with supposed criminals that the city would rather not see return.
In the morning the sky is clear and blue. As I drive along the beach highway, I’m struck by how deceptively beautiful the water looks from a distance. The light makes it seem blue-green, though I know that up close it is a muddy brown and so shallow you have to walk out very far, half a mile perhaps, just to be in waist deep. Beyond that line, what has not been recovered still lurks beneath the surface. I’m still thinking about the idea of “cleansing” when I park in one of the bays and flip through a Fodor’s Gulf South tourism guide. There is ominous foreshadowing in the guide that was published, not too long ago, in 2001: “Look on the positive side,” it reads. “As long-time residents will remind you, obliging hurricanes will continue to obliterate the latest of mankind’s follies.”
Those words seem not to anticipate a coast where only “folly” seems to be returning with any ease, where some aspects of the former heritage of the coast are bulldozed and paved over, obscured beneath the concrete slabs of casinos and condominiums. Nor would they seem to coincide with the waiter’s notion of cleansing: I imagine the casinos weren’t what he wanted to see washed away—but then, I don’t know what he meant.
Can the residents of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, caught in the aftermath of Katrina—of recovery and rebuilding—conquer this storm? I posed this question to historian and activist Derrick Evans. Born and raised on the coast, he has returned home to help rebuild Turkey Creek, another historic enclave within North Gulfport. “I don’t want to be able to say I can see the future,” he told me, “but the devastation of the storm will not surpass the devastation brought on by the recovery.”
A cleansing, the waiter said. Erasure wrought by wind and water.
Looking west toward Pass Christian, toward Waveland and Bay St. Louis—ground zero for the storm’s devastation—I consider the obvious metaphor in this stretch of nearly barren coastline: a slate wiped clean, or nearly clean. Then recovery, rebuilding: another version of the story.