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LISA MONTI — The Gulf Coast has made progress, but it’s really not over

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LISA MONTI

I rode out Katrina in my house just a block away from the Bay St. Louis beach.

I wouldn’t recommend it.

In spite of all the official warnings ahead of the storm and the hand wringing among friends and relatives, four family members and I chose to stay. It’s what a lot of people on the Coast do.

My family, like most others, always hunkered down in their homes for storms. There were no shelters like there are now, or weather satellites that track waves spinning off the African coast.

Growing up, I heard horror stories about the ’47 storm from relatives who watched trees bend and snap in the wind gusts.  The family house, built around 1915, stood its ground and did again in 1969, when three generations of us rode out the infamous Camille there. As the house shook and rain pounded the windows, we recited the rosary faster and louder as the wind roared like that proverbial freight train.

Camille killed so many people and destroyed so much, we thought we’d never see anything like it again. What could be worse?

Now we know.

On the morning Katrina struck, it wasn’t long before the Gulf waters started pushing up the street, which has a natural elevation of about 25 feet. When the water started coming into the house, we moved to the apartment above the adjacent garage. From there we watched for hours as houses were raised up by the flood water and twisted off their foundations. Cars bobbed in the water, alarms blaring, and heavier vehicles disappeared under the water.

Adding to the surreal scene, a man in a kayak floated by quickly, headed toward the railroad tracks. I had to ask the next day if anybody else had seen him.

When the water finally receded, the family house miraculously was still on its pilings but water had filled it halfway up the bead board walls, leaving everything ruined and coated in slimy mud.

With our houses gone or unfit to live in, we were all on the move, trying to find a place to settle. My most memorable accommodation was a FEMA trailer parked in the driveway while the house was being renovated. The little tin box reeked of formaldehyde and leaked when it rained. I cried with gratitude when it was delivered and cried with relief when it was hauled away months later.

Looking back now, that first year or so after Katrina was inspirational and unreal. So much was gone it was hard to take in, but families, neighbors and churches pitched in with money, muscle and moral support. First responders performed beyond their usual standards. Volunteers came from everywhere to feed and clothe us and help us dig out.

We needed them all as we dealt with the loss, change and frustration. Bitter and confusing battles with insurance companies compounded the misery. Looters and crooks swooped in to take advantage of the rebuilding chaos and the cash that flowed through.

A few days after the storm, when there was little to laugh about, my sister-in-law said something about “when this is all over.” I had seen what little there was left of our community so the thought of ever getting out of the hell hole we were in made me laugh. It’s still a running joke with us.

Yes, we have come a very long way and we are better for it. But it’s really not all over.

» Lisa Monti is a continuing writer for the Mississippi Business Journal.

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