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Remembering a beautiful Gulfport neighborhood before Katrina

For many people here, life will now be divided into two eras: Before Katrina and After Katrina.

The most important thing is that everyone in my family is safe, and for that I am truly grateful. Still, there is much grief for my lost house, neighborhood and much of the city I’ve called home for 12 years.

The words catastrophic and devastating do not do Katrina justice. The landscape and our lives are altered.

Who would have thought the Florida Panhandle would be a refuge from a hurricane? That’s where I rode it out and watched the horror unfold on TV and in the daily newspaper. It was almost too much to comprehend as I saw the Gulf Coast and New Orleans disintegrate. I was shocked to tears to see people I know — friends and neighbors — on national networks describing how they survived and lamenting the loss of homes and jobs.

You see, I live in a neighborhood where people actually know each other and look out for each other. There was always someone walking or jogging, walking a dog or pushing a baby stroller, or riding a bike on the sidewalks or wide street.

People came from other neighborhoods to take their daily walks on our street. The annual Heart Association walk was on our street, and we turned out to cool off the walkers with water sprinklers and to cheer them on.

It was a pleasant place indeed and one short block from U.S. 90 and the beach. I returned to find a place I don’t recognize. It’s terribly disorienting to be lost in your own neighborhood. I heard the mayor of Biloxi say on the radio that he gets lost in his town, too. Nothing looks the same. There are few landmarks or street signs standing and piles of debris are as high as the houses that used to stand in these locations.

For the first few days, we could not drive to my house because some of my neighbors’ houses were literally in the street. I have a shell of a house on the north side of the street. Now I can see the water because everything in front has been destroyed. The first day back, I walked to the corner and looked east on U.S. 90. I could see nothing standing. Looking west, the few structures standing have their bottom floors washed out. Highway 90 really doesn’t exist anymore, but work has begun to restore it.

Like other residents, I walk around and cry a lot. Some are in a daze, like one of my neighbors who’s lived here all her life. She’s 65 years of age and the house she’s lived in since third grade lies in a big heap in the street. She recently retired and started walking every morning, taking time to place our newspapers at our front doors. She’s not sure where to go or what to do. Her brother lived around the corner, but he has only a concrete slab left.

It was also tearful, yet uplifting, to hear the haunting sounds of a bagpipe playing “Amazing Grace” in the midst of that despair last week. A neighbor’s son found his instrument and played that tune to honor visiting firemen passing through our street on a search and recovery mission.

We’ve laughed some, too. Another neighbor was digging through a box of keys, muttering that she had a key for most everyone’s house on the block and was trying to identify them. I reminded her that none of us have front doors so we don’t need keys.

I also laughed that my son made a hurried visit to my house to grab some clothes for me. When the weather turns cold, I’ll be ready because he retrieved a fur coat and some long sleeve turtlenecks. However, all is not lost. I found some intimate apparel hanging on the wrought iron fence outside my bedroom window.

Meanwhile, there are items in my yard and house I’ve never seen before, probably things from houses that were blown to bits. At least I have stuff to dig through and I’ve been able to retrieve some precious items that have sentimental value along with some practical things. People who lived on Beach Boulevard are finding very little. Their things are scattered over a large area or in huge piles of trash or caught high in the bare branches of the brown, distressed oak trees that used to be beautiful and green.

Many of us spray painted our addresses and names on our houses or large boards for identification purposes. Some residents hung American flags and added messages such as “We’re alive.” One homeowner simply put “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

Life is tough here. Someone said it’s like living in a third world country. A friend asked, seriously, how long I had to go without a bath while there was no water. For a while there were none of the amenities we think we must have to survive. But we have survived and although we are certainly tired and beaten right now, things are getting better and most of us will rebuild.

Then we’ll recall the way life was Before Katrina.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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