August 16, 2010
Posted: 03:37 PM ET
Kathleen Koch is a former CNN correspondent and author of this week's pick, "Rising From Katrina: How My Mississippi Hometown Lost It All And Found What Mattered," published by Blair. Part of the proceeds will go to charities still helping Katrina victims on the Gulf Coast. Many of you may recall Kathleen's excellent reporting from the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Those of us who had the pleasure of working with her at CNN are thrilled to be able to share this LKL Web Exclusive from Kathleen.
Anniversaries are a time for remembering, taking account. But that doesn’t apply to the Mississippi Gulf Coast on the fifth anniversary of Katrina. Because there’s no remembering something most Americans never knew – that the brunt of the monster hurricane decimated the entire length of the eighty-mile-long Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The collapse of the levees to the west in New Orleans was a compelling, ongoing drama. It impacted more people since some 1.3 million lived in the Crescent City and the surrounding eight parishes compared to the 366,472 residents of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And then Hurricane Rita blew in, inundating New Orleans again.
In Mississippi, the roaring 125-mph winds and crushing thirty-plus-foot storm surge shredded the beachfront home where I’d grown up, most of my hometown of Bay St. Louis, and reduced nearly every structure in the first half mile along the water to a slab. There are no levees on our Gulf Coast. In fact, at thirty feet in elevation downtown Bay St. Louis is the highest point in the United States on the Gulf of Mexico. But it offered no protection from Katrina. The winds and storm surge swept in and out in a day, leaving little behind untouched.
From day one when the nation’s attention focused on New Orleans, people climbing out of the rubble of the Mississippi Gulf Coast wondered why no one was paying attention, why no one seemed to care. To its credit, CNN had several reporters including me there, and Anderson Cooper anchored many of his shows that first week from Mississippi. In the year following the hurricane, I did two documentaries tracking my hometown’s recovery. I was back reporting on the second and third anniversaries.
I found my friends and neighbors were survivors, not victims. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work helping one another. Mississippi may have been 50th in the nation in income, but it ranked first in per capita philanthropy. The “Hospitality State” had a long tradition of taking care of its own.
Still, more than a half million volunteers poured in from around the country and the world to join in the rebuilding. Some showed up on their own in cars stuffed with supplies. Others travelled south in buses, most to a place they’d never even heard of before the hurricane.
Their generosity and dedication kept the exhausted residents going. Many believe volunteers are largely responsible for the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s recovery. We all know that there is no way we can ever repay them for what they have done.
On the fifth anniversary, the area has come far. Many homes and businesses have rebuilt. Many residents who left have returned. Some areas like Bay St. Louis were on track to hit pre-Katrina tax levels again.
Then came the oil spill. Though it didn’t hit the Mississippi mainland until the Fourth of July weekend, it crushed the recovery. The beaches are clear again. But just like after Katrina, residents are again wondering when and if their lives will ever return to normal.
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