Katrina’s Ground Zero: Nine Months Later

Back To ‘Normal’ After The Storm

WAVELAND, Miss. — When I told friends and coworkers I’d be spending Memorial Day weekend in Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Miss., their blank stares said it all. I might well have announced I was visiting Saturn for a holiday picnic on one of its outer rings.

It was pretty much the same reaction the media gave to both of those towns in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last August. While neighboring cities like New Orleans, La., Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., and Mobile, Ala. were getting all the attention, Waveland and Bay St. Louis were practically ignored.

Yet on the morning of Aug. 29, 2006, the tiny towns of Waveland and neighboring Bay St. Louis were ground zero for Hurricane Katrina. It was the same spot where, in 1969, category 5 Hurricane Camille came ashore.

As Katrina’s eye passed over Waveland last summer, it was hard to imagine that in less than six hours its damage would far surpass Camille’s devastation. Homes that had withstood Camille’s might were toppled by Katrina’s waves and swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico.

All that remained along seven miles of shoreline once lined by majestic antebellum homes were the toppled pilings on which they’d been built. Nine months later, what remains looks like an abandoned game of giant pickup sticks.

It wasn’t until CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Kathleen Koch — a former resident of Bay St. Louis — started reporting from there that the world knew the plight these towns had suffered.

In October, NBC’s Brian Williams visited the Ferry/Smolensky family, who have lived in the area for generations. As he walked down the completely devastated Coleman Avenue, the former heart of downtown Waveland, he asked Jane and Louie Smolensky why they were staying.

“We’ve been here since ’45,” said Jane Smolensky. “This has been our family home since then, and I’ll always hopefully have it.”

I had the privilege of spending Memorial Day weekend with the Ferry/Smolensky family, a close-knit group of people who have been my friends for nearly nine years.

I attended a sunset gathering on the beach where services are held every Sunday morning in front of the slab that was once St. Clare’s Church. I heard Mayor Tommy Longo tell the story of how money from donations is tied up in so much bureaucracy that it still hasn’t gotten to the people who need it most.

I listened to stories of frustration. It seems that everyone you meet wants to tell you what it was like during ‘the storm.’ It’s a kind of therapy for those who stayed behind. But Katrina’s forgotten victims don’t feel sorry for themselves and their anger, if there is any, is drowned out by their hospitality.

There’s nothing like a shrimp boil and an ice cold beer to help you forget you’re surrounded by FEMA trailers and the shell of a house that’s still months away from being called home again.

I lived in a FEMA trailer for two days and learned how to never, ever feel sorry for myself.

When I returned from my trip, everyone wanted to know if everything on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi was back to normal after Katrina.

Normal? Picture this.

Go stand on any corner of Dixie Highway in Fort Lauderdale and face east. Now, imagine all the buildings in between are gone and through the unobstructed view you can see the waves lapping on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean over two miles away.

That’s what normal looks like in Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Miss.

That’s what a 36-foot storm surge can do – wipe away what once was your life in an instant.

And but for the grace of God, luck, or a wobble in another direction, that’s what any city along the eastern and Gulf coasts of the United States could have looked like after Katrina – after any major hurricane for that matter.

It’s a picture we should all keep front and center in our minds as we enter hurricane season 2006.

Let’s not forget that just four days before it wiped parts of the Gulf coast off the map, Katrina made landfall as a category 1 hurricane near the Miami-Dade and Broward County line.

Nine months after Katrina, almost nothing remains of Waveland and Bay St. Louis. Nothing is the same as it was. Those who live there will tell you that nothing will ever be the same. Nothing, that is, except the spirit of the people who have chosen to stay — a spirit that offers a beacon of hope among the ruins.

As we enter yet another hurricane season, may the stories and the people of Waveland and Bay St. Louis offer a warning to those who have grown complacent and lost respect for these powerful storms.

And should we ever have to face their plight, may we face our challenges with the same courage, grace and determination as the residents of the forgotten towns of Katrina’s ground zero.

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