Seven years ago, everything changed.
I was just a 165 pound freshman in college who had barely been on campus for a week. College was new and scary and it felt odd to realize I was actually there. I didn’t know a single person at the school, and meeting all of these people was so incredible. But right when classes should have been getting underway, things were derailed massively.
I remember laughing at the RAs who ran out into the wind and rain to play tennis in the storm. I laughed even harder when they were chewed out for doing so. As things got worse outside and the power went out, I remember sitting around watching a movie on a laptop in the dorm lobby with about 50 people. We sat around in the dark with an acoustic guitar and a camcorder and jokingly sang “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” at the top of our lungs to pass the time since we could’t sleep. For us, it was just a powerless night to get through.
It wasn’t until the next morning when the truth hit.
As soon as the sun peeked through the windows, everyone was awake. It took one look outside to realize that things were much worse than we thought. Most of the student body walked through the surrounding neighborhood, which was completely powerless, and helped residents clean debris. We had to stay on the lookout for downed power lines and broken glass littering the streets. The worst moment was passing by a house where a tree had fallen on and killed an elderly woman. The lone casualty in Central Mississippi, just a quarter mile from where I slept.
The strangest feeling in the world, though, was not fully knowing what happened. If things were this bad here, three hours north of the coast, then what actually happened down there? We didn’t have power for weeks. How severe was it in Gulfport and Biloxi? Without any power or television, we could only speculate, and truthfully, not knowing was terrifying.
What we didn’t know, and wouldn’t really know for several days, was that we had just witnessed one of the deadliest and costliest natural disasters in history. Later in the week, when I finally got to my uncle’s house that still had power, I was able to turn on the news. It was surreal. These images on the screen looked fake to me. Flooded cities. Wreckage everywhere.
1,833 confirmed dead. $108 billion worth of damage.
A few months later, I was able to go to Gulfport and Biloxi and do some work. I’m not sure I ever would have been prepared for seeing what it looked like. As we drove down the beachside highway, we had no words to say to each other. We just stared at the sides of the road, where all of these buildings should have been. The place my family had always gone on family vacations had been reduced to a bunch of concrete slabs. Nothing was left. There weren’t buildings to repair. There was only disaster to clean up.
Yet it didn’t always feel like a disaster. Not here in Mississippi, at least. We didn’t have the same stories of looting. There was no Superdome turned into a third world country. We had stories of a state government who was on the scene within hours of the storm ending. We had stories of neighbors going out and helping neighbors who needed it. Groups from all over the nation were coming in by the busload to help with relief efforts. Families who had lost everything were being given everything that was left by those around them. In one of our most horrible moments, this state that often is ridiculed was standing proud, helping our brothers and sisters who needed it most.
As I sit in my house now, waiting for Hurricane Issac’s rain to fall and preparing for a few downed trees and perhaps a brief power outage here in Jackson, I have to think back seven years. I have to think back to that horrible storm, Katrina, that ripped my home apart. That storm that changed everything.
I also have to think about right now. How Gulfport and Biloxi are largely rebuilt. About how since then, when other disasters have occurred, we have been quick to jump into giving aid. About how over the past seven years, we Mississippians have been given a point of pride for our poor, beaten down state, as we handled a disaster that claimed 1,833 lives with as much grace, togetherness, and hard work as we could muster.
I live in a post-Katrina world. One that was united in distress, instead of pointing the finger or crying “woe is me”. One that brings me to tears when I think back seven years ago. One that has given me a pride for my people that can’t be replaced.
Seven years ago. 1,833 confirmed dead. $108 billion worth of damage. None of that will ever be forgotten.