In 1969, Robert Redford and Natalie Wood starred in “This Property Is Condemned,” a movie filmed entirely near the train station in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
Despite its A-list cast members and director Sydney Pollack, the film, adapted from a 1946 one-act play by Tennesse Williams, never made it onto the tracks of Hollywood history.
But its title would become a prophetic vision of the town’s future.
Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina barreled through Bay St. Louis like a derailed freight train intent on getting the last word.
She eyed Bay St. Louis and neighboring Waveland for days before crashing onto their coast with an unprecedented 28- foot surge – the highest ever recorded on the U.S. coast — and 140 mph winds.
Buildings that had withstood over 100 years of storms and hurricanes toppled and floated away, leaving behind nothing but the pilings on which they stood.
The remains of wooden structures decorated the landscape like Mother Nature’s abandoned game of pickup sticks.
To the people of Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Hurricane Camille used to be “the storm.” But on Aug. 29, 2005, Katrina dethroned Camille and buried her crown in the rubble.
The media’s attention, however, was so focused on what was happening 62 miles to the west in New Orleans, that the outside world was clueless as to what had happened where the center of the storm had made landfall.
A few weeks ago, I went back to that area of the U.S. I like to call my second home. It wasn’t the first time I’d been back since the storm, but it was the first time I realized how much of my heart lives there.
If you never visited the Gulf Coast before “the storm,” everything would look normal if you went there today.
You wouldn’t know that the empty stretch of boulevard that overlooks the peaceful Gulf of Mexico was once home to restaurants, shops, bars, and a very lively artists’ community. You wouldn’t know that the giant oak just east of where the Dock of the Bay restaurant once stood saved the lives of those who clung to it while Katrina had her way with the bed and breakfast that was adjacent to it. You wouldn’t know that the lab mix named Trina with the honey-colored eyes somehow made it through the storm while God only knows what happened to her family.
But if you look close, you can still see the scars.
The concrete slabs and pilings that remain along the beach were once homes. The giant oak tree is not quite as giant as it once was. And Trina, the miracle dog found wandering along the train tracks after the storm, still cries and seeks human contact at the slightest hint of thunder.
During the past five years, while New Orleans whined and basked in the spotlight of media attention, the people of Bay St. Louis and Waveland — ground zero for Katrina — quietly rebuilt. They are by no means done rebuilding. But despite the challenges, the sense of family and community have prevented those who survived from feeling sorry for themselves.
Katrina left behind a lot of destruction and took with it generations worth of memories.
But what she left behind — what she could never take — was the spirit of the people, a spirit strengthened through hardship. That spirit, the spirit that I fell in love with the minute I first stepped onto Beach Boulevard over 10 years ago, never faltered — before, during, or after Katrina.
Living through hell prepares you for anything life throws at you.
As a Cuban-Lebanese, Brooklyn-raised South Florida resident I couldn’t be more of an outsider. Yet, each time I return to the Gulf Coast, I always feel welcome and at home.
I am blessed to have known what was here before the storm as I watch the progress of rebuilding what’s yet to come.
May we always remember the lessons Katrina taught in her windy and watery classroom.