Beyond KatrinaA MEDITATION ON THE MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST
The University of Georgia PressCopyright © 2010 Natasha Trethewey
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-8203-3381-6
List of Illustrations..........................xiPrologue.......................................1Theories of Time and Space.....................5Pilgrim........................................7Providence.....................................29Before Katrina.................................31Liturgy........................................53Congregation...................................71High Rollers...................................83Cycle..........................................95Redux..........................................117Benediction....................................125Acknowledgments................................127
Chapter One 2007
Theories of Time and Space You can get there from here, though there's no going home. Everywhere you go will be somewhere you've never been. Try this: head south on Mississippi 49, one- by-one mile markers ticking off another minute of your life. Follow this to its natural conclusion-dead end at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches in a sky threatening rain. Cross over the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand dumped on the mangrove swamp-buried terrain of the past. Bring only what you must carry-tome of memory, its random blank pages. On the dock where you board the boat for Ship Island, someone will take your picture. The photograph-who you were- will be waiting when you return.
NEARING MY HOMETOWN I turn west onto Interstate 10, the southernmost coast-to-coast highway in the United States. I've driven this road thousands of times, and I know each curve and rise of it as it passes through the northern sections of Biloxi and Gulfport-a course roughly parallel to U.S. Route 90, the beach road, also known as the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. It's five o'clock when I cross into Mississippi, and it seems that the sky darkens almost instantly. In minutes it's raining-the vestiges of a storm out in the Gulf-and I can barely see the lights of a few cars out ahead of me. Some are pulled over, parked beneath the underpass. Others slow down but keep going, hazard lights flashing. People have learned to be wary of storms.
"It's different now," my brother, Joe, says. "Before Katrina so many older people told stories of having ridden out Camille that nobody worried much. That was the biggest storm to hit around here." Then he recalls the other storm warning, a little while before Katrina hit, and how it turned out to be what he called "a false alarm." "People prepared with supplies," he tells me: "there were long lines at the grocery store and the gas station, but then nothing happened." Emboldened by the "false alarm" and by the fact that her home had withstood Camille thirty-six years before, my grandmother was one of the people who wanted to "ride out the storm" from home. "You remember," he says. "You had to talk her into letting me take her to a shelter."
When I ask her what she remembers, my grandmother conflates the two storms. Ninety-one, a woman who has spent most of her life in the same place, she knows she lives in Atlanta now, where I do, because she had to evacuate after Katrina, but she thinks she was at home during landfall, not lying on a cot in a classroom at the public school up the road from her house. Examined by a doctor after evacuating Gulfport, she was disoriented. She hadn't eaten for weeks, even though the shelter provided MRES, even though my brother had been able to drive to Mobile for food. The doctor spoke of trauma and depression, prescribed medication.
In her room at the nursing home in Atlanta, she recalls how very young I was during Camille and how my parents moved my crib from room to room all night trying to avoid water pouring in through the roof. When I say, "No, Nana-Katrina," she looks at me, her eyes glassy with confusion, her lips pressed hard together, her brow deeply furrowed, as she tries to piece together the events of the previous two years. She has layered on the old story of Camille the new story of Katrina. Between the two, there is the suggestion of both a narrative and a metanarrative-the way she both remembers and forgets, the erasures, and how intricately intertwined memory and forgetting always are.
This too is a story about a story-how it will be inscribed on the physical landscape as well as on the landscape of our cultural memory. I wonder at the competing narratives: What will be remembered, what forgotten? What dominant narrative is now emerging? Watching the news, my grandmother turns to me when she sees Senator Trent Lott on the screen. "I made draperies for his house," she says, aware, I think, that theirs is a story intertwined by history: his house gone along with the work of her hands.
* * *
I spend the first night catching up with Joe. Because his house and our grandmother's house are still in disrepair, he's living with his girlfriend while doing the work on the properties himself. I've booked a room at one of the hotels on the coast-a casino as most of them are-and we sit in the bar for hours watching the Thursday night traffic on the gaming floor. When the casinos were built on the coast nearly fifteen years before, onshore gambling wasn't permitted. Most casinos then were barges, moored against the beach in the shallow water. One was an old cruise ship, a small one, and it catered mostly to locals. Because of this, even as the state now permits rebuilding on land, a few folks still refer to these new structures as boats. Now and again you'll overhear someone talking about "working on the boat" or "going down to the boat." After Katrina, my brother tells me, the "boats" "couldn't get insurance offshore." This post-Katrina effect and the need to get the economy of the coast rebuilt quickly made the state of Mississippi open the door to rebuilding the casinos on shore. The history of the coast is full of such transformations, and this is not the first time that economic decisions have instigated the overlaying of a new narrative on the Gulf Coast, reinscribing it-transforming it.
In spite of the reservations of many Gulf Coast residents, including nearly half of the residents of Gulfport, the first casino opened on the coast in 1992 after the passage of legislation that approved "dockside" gambling. It wasn't long before the gaming industry made a significant contribution to the coast's economy. Between 1992 and 1996, monthly gaming revenues increased from $10 million to $153 million. Though many casinos transplanted some employees to the coast, creating a larger housing demand and increased traffic problems, most of the people employed in the industry are locals. I can recall both the excitement and the trepidation with which people anticipated the casinos: excitement at the number of new jobs, complete with health insurance and benefits, excitement at the possibility of more entertainment options and of some revenues going to improve local schools. But people also feared an erosion of the coast's cultural heritage, the depletion of wetlands, the transformation of the character of the beach road and surrounding neighborhoods, and a variety of social ills. I watched as title pawn businesses sprang up in the shadows of the newly opened casinos. It was a short walk from the Copa or the Grand in Gulfport to a squat, yellow bunker of a building where you could turn over the title to your car in exchange for a high-interest loan. Often I'd see the same cars parked there for more than a month, and I knew that it meant the owners had missed their pawn deadlines, couldn't "buy" the vehicles back, and that now they would be sold to someone else. Still, the casinos brought an economic boost to the struggling state. Before they opened, the unemployment rate in Mississippi was among the highest in the nation.
* * *
In 1992 my brother was nineteen-bored, restless, and hoping for a life in a town with more opportunity, more excitement. After seven years growing up away from his own hometown, Atlanta, he was ready for something more like what he'd left behind or for, at the very least, the abundant opportunity, real or imagined, of a larger city. The casinos brought much of that: steady work in construction and good pay-often untaxed, "under-the-table," he told me back then. In downtown Gulfport a new bar opened-the E.O. Club, which stood for "Early Out" and catered to casino workers getting off their shifts. It was a dark, urban-looking space with a shiny wooden bar, a jukebox by the front door, plants, upholstered chairs, and a stand for the bands playing blues, bluegrass, and covers any given night. Within a few years my brother-good looking, sweet, and effortlessly charming-became a regular. With friends or more likely alone, my brother could talk to anyone. It was how he made contacts in town, found work for himself-and much later, how he would meet people who needed his help in exchange for the construction work they could do.
In this way, Joe is not unlike my great-uncle Son, an entrepreneur who had spent most of his life running a nightclub he owned and buying up rental properties-shotgun houses-in North Gulfport, an area just outside the city limits where blacks had lived for more than a century; where he and his other siblings, including my grandmother, had been born and raised; and where my brother, after the death of our mother, had grown up too. It seemed evident even when we were children that one day Joe would inherit the Dixon family business, that he'd become a landlord like Uncle Son-one who had enough skill to work on the houses, repair them, and who had enough contacts to hire someone else if necessary. It would be years before Joe would decide that this was what he wanted-and years still before a storm would come and change everything.
In 1995, a decade before that storm would hit, the number one reason to visit the coast was the casinos. My brother worked on many of them-including, before its opening in 1999, the Beau Rivage, the most securely moored barge on the Gulf Coast. With some foresight the builders of that casino went beyond the required code of making the structure able to withstand up to 155-mile-per-hour winds, the equivalent of a category 4 hurricane. As a result, the Beau Rivage-with its fragrant, transplanted magnolias and its hotel views of the water and of the city of Biloxi-suffered much less damage than most of the other casinos. In Gulfport, for example, the Grand Casino-thrust onto land-skidded across Highway 90 and crashed into the church across the street. Secure in its moorings, the Beau Rivage was among the first casinos to reopen in 2006. For employees, this is a blessing.
* * *
The security guard I talk to is a friendly white woman in her sixties, eager, it seems, to talk to yet another visitor with questions about the hurricane and its aftermath. She's been there for ten years, and she's grateful for the job. "Last ones out, first ones in," she says, referring to how long the workers were there trying to evacuate the guests before the storm and to the workers' return. "Lost everything but my job, and when we came back to work, there was hot food from the Salvation Army." There is a mixture of what seems like appreciation for what she does have and a good measure of contempt for the kind of rebuilding taking place. "The casino business is better than ever," she says, "but the people need to have what they used to have." She worries over the practical needs of working people as she describes the developments along the coast: "They say they won't rebuild any gas stations along the beach, just condos we can't afford, and only the casinos can have restaurants. What are the working people supposed to do?"
Her story is not uncommon. After the hurricane her rent increased-despite the terms of her lease, she tells me-from five hundred dollars a month to eight hundred dollars, though her pay did not. When I ask her about assistance from the government, she wags her head fiercely: "Nobody has seen all the money. It's been two years, and we are still suffering. They said they wouldn't price gouge, but they are doing it." In fact, even as the cost of living has risen on the coast, programs dedicated to helping the poor have benefited from only about 10 percent of the federal money, even though the state was required by Congress to spend half of its billions to help low-income citizens recover from the storm. Although state officials, including Governor Haley Barbour, insist that the state does not discriminate by race or income when giving aid to storm victims, many poor residents can't afford homeowner's insurance and thus are ineligible for some aid programs. Renters are altogether excluded from many of them.
When I ask the guard what she remembers of the storm, her face softens as she begins to recall the days after. "It was like a bomb had went off. And now everywhere is slabs, just slabs. And the water is still full of debris-houses, cars. We need to dredge the Gulf to get it all back, including the bodies," she says. "Including the bodies."
It's nearly midnight, and her shift is ending. Beyond the poolside deck where I have been talking to her, the Gulf is flat and black, the lights of the Beau Rivage, reflected on the water, all I can see.
* * *
Walking through the lobby in the morning, I am struck by the incongruousness of the high-end jewelry and clothing stores, the crowds of people bustling with excitement, the countless opportunities for consumption juxtaposed with what I know is just beyond the great entryway with its soaring glass doors, giant flower arrangements, and extravagant perfume. After breakfast in the hotel café, I drive along the beach road, taking note of the few leaves that have begun to fill out the ancient live oak trees anchoring the landscape of the coast. A year ago they were barren, a stark and skeletal imprint against the sky, and I wondered if they would come back. Now the leaves are a green hope above the rubble scattered in the grass. Farther down the beach a pair of them tell a different story of the coast's stark contradictions, its juxtapositions: one with leaves sprouting along its branches, one with none at all.
Compared to the flurry of activity in the casino, downtown Gulfport seems abandoned, empty but for a few new businesses that have opened and a few old ones that have reopened: Hancock bank, a restaurant, a pub, a coffee shop, and Triplett-Day Drugs, which has been there as long as I can remember. At the rusted shell of the former public library a lone light fixture hangs above what was the entry to the stacks. A stairway spirals up to the sagging roof. Vacant lots broadcast one message -AVAILABLE-on sign after sign. Everywhere there are houses still bearing the markings of the officials who checked each dwelling for victims. It's an odd hieroglypics I learn to read-an X with symbols in each quadrant. My brother's girlfriend, Aesha Qawiy, tells me to look for the number at the bottom of the X; it shows how many dead were found. I am relieved each time I pass a house and read a zero there.
* * *
When the storm hit, Aesha was living in a lovely apartment atop a law firm just off the Pass Road in Gulfport. A legal secretary at another firm, she'd been a model tenant, paying her considerable rent and saving to buy a house. She was fortunate that the building survived-though with some damage-that some of her things were safe. She and her son sheltered at her parents' house during landfall. Two days later, when she tried to return to her apartment, the owners' daughter was there to evict her. She and her husband needed the apartment, understandably, because their own home had been destroyed. Yet for all the seeming goodwill among people on the coast, the owners' daughter could muster little patience or sympathy for Aesha. Her belongings still inside, Aesha had to search for a storage unit-a good distance away-and when she asked to be given time for an appointment with the fema inspector to assess the damage to her personal items, the owners' daughter initially refused, all the while treating Aesha as if this apartment to which she still had a month's claim was something she was stealing. All her clothes and her son's clothes had succumbed to mold and mildew, as had the mattresses and some furniture. She lost items of sentimental value too-sonogram pictures, books. Were it not for her parents, Aesha and her son would have been homeless, and her former landlords didn't care-or couldn't care-so busy were they dealing with their own difficult circumstances.