Special Report

Extreme Makeover — Gulf Coast Style

Three months after Katrina much of southern Mississippi remains a gargantuan mess.

By 11.21.05

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JACKSON, Miss. -- "Scattered, Smothered, Covered, Chunked, Capped and Topped" -- no, not an order at Waffle House for hash browns almost all the way, but rather a sober description of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, post-Katrina. Waffle House, by the way, lost seven restaurants to Katrina, not just out of operation, but scraped clean to the slab like a griddle at the end of a shift. But words, pictures, and even wall-to-wall television news coverage can't capture the all-inclusive enormity of Katrina's devastation. You have to be there in person and wander around, visit with some of the locals to really appreciate the event and its aftermath.

Neighborhood after neighborhood of street after street after street of home after home after home -- guts ripped out -- carpet, sofas, sheetrock, other stuff -- piled up curbside. And the smell -- the unforgettable nose-stinging stench of mold and rot -- mother nature followed her gargantuan walls of wind and water with the minuscule march of microscopic spores.

It is now almost three months later and many parts of the Gulf Coast are still cluttered with debris as if Katrina had just passed through -- a testament to her unprecedented breadth and depth. Estimates are the coastal counties contained 30 million cubic yards of debris or about an 18-wheeler full of trash for every man, woman, and child still there. And that doesn't include the thousands of shipping containers, trees, boats, cars, and other odds and ends from church pews to even the kitchen sinks that got caught in the surge waters as they swept back out to sea, where this junk now litters the Gulf waters. Thad Cochran may have the Jeff Davis desk in the U.S. Capitol but Davy Jones's locker now has complete sets of Trent Lott tables, chairs, beds, and silverware courtesy of what is now Lott's lot on Beach Road in Pascagoula.

A suggestion to the weather experts whose predictive skills have improved so remarkably these past 30 years: How about some new metrics from the science of storm-ology? Give Category 5 Camille her due, she set the bar for hurricanes and disasters really high, but in the wake of Katrina that bar is just a spindle of driftwood. If Katrina was a Category 4 then Godzilla was just another lizard. Wind data from N.O.A.A. and the National Weather Service show that hurricane force winds (74 mph and greater) got all the way to the Tennessee border and level 3 winds (111-130 mph) reached over 120 miles inland turning heavily forested towns like Hattiesburg and Laurel into bowling alleys of fallen pine and oak. In total, 70,000 homes were destroyed in Mississippi, which is a near term problem beyond FEMA's scope.

The churches were the most effective safety net on the Coast -- not the buildings but the denominations. The Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi lost six churches in Bay St. Louis, Long Beach, Pass Christian, Biloxi, and Gulfport. While the buildings are gone, the congregations return to their slabs for Sunday morning services. When the grieving stage is passed where does recovery begin? A good place to start is these hand-typed words of wisdom retrieved from the bulletin board of a flooded home in Pascagoula.

FOR SUCCESSFUL LIVING
1. LIVE ONE DAY AT A TIME
2. DON'T GIVE UP
3. DON'T TAKE IT PERSONAL
4. DON'T HAVE ANY SELF PITY
5. DON'T WORRY (PUT YOUR WORRY ON GOD)
6. SHOW LOVE AND GRATITUDE

Good advice for sure and especially good advice for those in dire straits. An unscientific sampling has found these rules for living on great display all along the Mississippi Coast the past two months. Perhaps such elegance of character comes easier to those who find themselves suddenly "un-trapped" from society's usual "trappings" of success. Regardless it gives hope and great promise to the daunting task ahead.

This recovery will be different. It already is -- after all Katrina wasn't your mother's hurricane and Mississippi 2005 ain't your daddy's Mississippi. In the quest to re-build and re-birth the Gulf Coast, Governor Barbour created the Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal and appointed Jim Barksdale of Netscape fame to head it. Governor Barbour's commission to the Commission was simple: "Out of this terrible disaster, beyond all imagination, comes our opportunity and I beg you not to let Mississippi miss it." For all the glittering resumes and previous deeds of the appointees, the task now in front of them, if well done, may prove to be their finest hour. An extraordinary collection of architectural talent from around the world has already contributed ideas and plans for rebuilding the communities along the coast. Nothing is final but the architectural proposals can be viewed on the web at www.governorscommission.com. In Enterprise, Alabama, there is a monument erected in 1919 to the boll weevil for the changes the bug wrought on the economy of Coffee County. Don't expect any monument to Katrina, but the re-birth is underway.

On a side note, the TV show "Extreme Makeover -- Home Edition" is already filming episodes in Biloxi and "Trading Spaces" is planning Gulf Coast episodes to be taped this winter.

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About the Author

Ashby M. Foote III is president of Vector Money Management in Jackson, Mississippi.