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One town's post-Katrina diaspora

The people of one Mississippi town may have been separated from friends and neighbors by Katrina, but they still consider themselves a community, writes Ellis Anderson of Bay St. Louis, Miss.
/ Source: Special to

Diaspora — the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland. — Merriam-Webster

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. — “Diaspora” is not a word I used before Katrina.  In fact, I don’t even remember hearing it spoken on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in those days before the hurricane sucked our towns into the sea. That tragic phenomenon of displacement had no bearing on our lives — how could it? Our communities ran together along those 60 miles of coastline like a series of seaside Mayberrys. Connections between people seemed securely knotted, strands of pearls that shone with the luster of history and fellowship. 

Then in August 2005, in the course of a single morning, Katrina severed the threads that bound us. The pearls of our lives went flying in all directions, as if racing across a polished ballroom floor. To gather each and every one and then string them together again would have been impossible. 

How many people never came home? According to estimates, more than a million people in three states were displaced by Katrina — a million souls abruptly forced out of familiar surroundings and plunked into homes of friends or relatives or into hastily fashioned emergency centers across the country.

Many eventually found their way back to their former neighborhoods, yet since official population figures don’t take into account new people who have been drawn to the Gulf Coast since the storm, there’s no way to gauge how many residents left for good. But between my town of Bay St. Louis, Miss., and our sister city of Waveland, Miss., it appears that at least a third of our pre-storm population has settled elsewhere, according to U.S. Census figures.*  That’s around 5,000 folks, in a radius of just a few miles.

We’ve redefined the boundaries of our communities to include those who were forced by circumstance — or choice — not to return. We may be scattered, but the Internet has helped mitigate the long distance between many of us. Our former residents often keep in touch through e-mail and phone calls, or catch up during their occasional pilgrimages home to visit with friends and gorge on shrimp po’-boys and gumbo.  They might reside in Tennessee or New York or Oregon, but many subscribe to the coast papers or watch newscasts on their computers. Some still participate in civic life by cheering our progress or contacting officials about hot issues. Some have even imported the coast’s Mardi Gras tradition to their new communities.

That’s astonishing, considering that there were no farewell parties or promises to keep in touch when this unprecedented mass exodus occurred. The wrenching suddenness of the upheaval denied us all the small comfort of closure. Folks we had known and lived next to for years simply vanished, a few forever. Like the elderly woman who lived across the street from my house — the one I chatted with as she collected her mail. She evacuated before the storm and since her house was severely damaged, she never returned. I’m not even certain she’s still alive.

So on Aug. 29, the fifth anniversary of Katrina, former residents dispersed across the country will join those of us on the coast, at least in spirit, in marking the event that changed our lives forever. Wondering how my displaced friends were adjusting five years out, I checked in with more than two dozen of them — all from the Bay-Waveland area — e-mailing them a pointed and personal list of questions. Nineteen replied immediately, the answers whizzing back through cyberspace as they snapped up the chance to share their thoughts. A slow typist in Florida even hand-wrote her comments on five sheets of paper and paid for overnight delivery.

Some respondents have relocated just miles away from the shoreline, while others wound up outside Mississippi altogether. Without exception, each expressed a yearning for their former lives on the coast, even if they’ve found contentment elsewhere. What did they miss most?  Family and friends topped each list by far, with the mainstays of local culture — laid-back lifestyle, food and scenic beauty — following close behind.

A man now living in Jackson, Miss., wrote, “It was the place and life I had sought since childhood. I miss just about everything, most all the time.” Artist Lori Gordon built a new home 50 miles north, but spends time in Bay St. Louis, where she sells her art. “I miss the feeling of being so intimately connected with the rhythms of life that came with living next to the Mississippi Sound … the wonderful smell, the cries of the seagulls, and the feel on my skin of those warm Gulf waters which made me feel like I was a complete human being.”

The decision to relocate was wrenching for a number of friends, but some responses echoed Dr. Deb Gross: “Because my home and business were totally washed into the sea, I didn’t have to make any decision about it. There was nothing left.” Another woman observed, “I had moved away from a lot of places, but I have never had a town move away from me.”

Four of my respondents had become embroiled in bitter battles for insurance settlements, sometimes lasting years and accelerating their decision to move on. For a few, the bizarre circumstances of everyday life after Katrina propelled them to resettle elsewhere. A lawyer writing from North Carolina described how she finally threw in the towel and left Bay St. Louis for good when the sewage system of her FEMA trailer backed up in the middle of the night. “I threw my poor dog into the car to keep him from getting into any of the horrible mess, then starting tossing into it anything not yet touched by the growing cesspool. By 8 am I was calling FEMA, telling them ‘your keys are on the propane tank, your trailer's full of shit, and it's all yours now, babycakes.’”

Those who remained on the Gulf Coast apparently respected the decision of the emigrants.  Only three out of the 19 ex-pats reported any negative reactions from former neighbors, and those few felt that time had smoothed any small wrinkles of resentment. Empathy ruled the day. Peggy Dutton observed, “there was no virtue attached to staying and no vice involved in leaving … People made the best decisions they could in light of their individual circumstances.”

But as anyone impacted by Katrina will testify, making major life decisions when sorrow and shock have scrambled your brains is a titanic undertaking. After Mark Guest and his wife found only a savaged lot where their house had once stood, they eventually settled in Asheville, N.C.  Mark wrote that “the initial confusion and guilt associated with our decision to leave or to rebuild was compounded by post-traumatic stress.”

Although few of my ex-pat friends used the technical name, all referred to some sort of psychological distress, including survivor’s guilt — something Deb Gross, as a psychiatrist, was able to identify. “Any comfort or pleasure or basic necessity,” she wrote, “brought both gratitude and lacerating thought of what all of you who were still there were going through.”

When asked about emotional recovery, one friend wryly queried, “What recovery?”  Four of the letters seemed to convey a serious continuation of the grieving process. However, the rest showed a hard-won acceptance of the situation as friends detailed the positive aspects of their current lives. A widow reported creating a covey of friends by volunteering in her new Florida community. Several had switched careers or discovered the opportunity to pursue long deferred dreams. A tone of assimilation ran through the e-mail, with one man believing that his new city “recognizes that the Katrina evacuees have added to the dynamics of the community.”

The final question I asked my ex-pat friends: Do you ever dream or scheme of coming back to the coast, or have you rooted in your new home?  Again, another mixed bag. “My interest does not fade. We’ve not given up on having a weekend retreat to use for the rest of our lives.”  One former full-time resident now divides his time between Jackson and his new Bay St. Louis home, which stands on the site of the one Katrina devoured. While on the coast, he savors the signs of recovery: “I love to watch all the beauty coming out of the devastation.”

The exiles who have no plans to return cite factors like astronomical insurance rates, age and fear of future storms. “As much as I would love to return, I know that I cannot,” wrote one.

“It will never be the way we remember it and emotionally, I’m not ready to cope with the changes.” That  remark came from a mentor as well as a friend, and during the past five years, I’ve repeatedly urged her and her husband to at least visit. Sure, we’re still under construction, but we’re rebuilding on the old bones, I’ve told her. Yes, it’s changed, but we’re stronger now and more beautiful than ever before! You’ll be pleasantly surprised, I promise! Besides, so many still hold you dear in their hearts and would love to hug you again.

Each time they decline, I tell myself to be patient. The important thing is that they understand a jubilant welcome will always await them. The threads between us still exist. And as I read again the letter of Deb Gross, I think of the ancient Greek origin of the word that once I never used: The scattering of seeds.

“Bay St. Louis is the home of my heart,” writes Deb.  “All I can do is be grateful for what I had once upon a time and use that grace to live fully in the life and place where I find myself now …  Bloom where you got blown.”

* U.S. Census estimated population figures: Combined population of the two cities in 2005 was 15,479. In 2009, 14,105. It’s important to note that the 2009 figures reflect annexations by both cities in 2007 — areas that contained around 4,000 people at the time of the 2000 census.