California Forum

Gregory Favre: Going home, but it’s not the same

With apologies to Thomas Wolfe, a fun-filled family reunion proves you can go home again, with one caveat.

People you love, the sweet and sad memories, the happy yesterdays and the happy days of the present are there, as well as dreams for the future. But the place you left behind might not be the same.

That is especially true of my hometown, a small spot on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Bay St. Louis, which too often has come eye-to-eye with mighty hurricanes and wears many scars left from those confrontations.

The waterfront downtown has had three full facelifts in the past six or so decades. Tourists still arrive in clusters, and the new $27 million marina will surely attract more, but it’s not the same.

Where is the barbershop where kids got their first haircut, the drugstore that sold the world’s best fountain drinks, the movie theater that showed Saturday afternoon double features with a serial that kept you hanging on the cliff week after week? Long gone.

Where is the mercantile store, the Western Auto, the dentist office, the men’s clothing store, Sunshine’s, where we got our po-boys and milkshakes, the bars and the pool hall with the bookie joint in the back? Long gone.

Where is our father’s newspaper office where my own journalistic roots were planted, the garage owned by one of my best friends’ dad, the Chevrolet dealership? Long gone, like the era in which they existed.

Some would not have survived the passing of time, but a few of the businesses did, and others might have had it not been for the brutal forces of nature.

The 1947 no-name hurricane sucker-punched the town, arriving without fanfare. The damage it left was substantial, and downtown would never be the same.

Twenty-two years later Camille, a beautiful name for one of the ugliest hurricanes in history, a rare Category 5 storm, took aim and landed dead center. The Associated Press’ first bulletin said it all, “Downtown Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, has been destroyed.” It was. Another makeover was needed.

Camille was the last killer storm to hit the United States without sufficient early warnings. Before she finished her destructive journey, more than 250 people were dead, and in today’s dollars about $9 billion worth of damage was left behind.

But for Bay St. Louis and other coastal cities, as terrible as it had been, the worst was yet to come. It did in August 2005 with Katrina, 24 hours of hell that left nightmarish images and interminable grief over the loss of lives and property.

Katrina arrived with her 22-foot surge over the seawall that had never been imagined before, much less witnessed. When it was over, the little city by the bay looked, as a niece put it, as if it had been tossed into one of those chipper machines that turns limbs into splinters. The raging winds and waters of the past had engraved their marks on the city’s hide, but Katrina had brought Bay St. Louis to its knees.

Concrete slabs rested where stately homes once stood. Stairs that led to nowhere were the only hints of the two-story homes that once occupied those plots of land. The 2-mile bridge that connected cities was swept away. The dead were mourned, and the tears of thousands soaked the ground along with the waters of Katrina.

But the determination to rebuild and to rise from the ruins endured for many. Perhaps one family whose home had been flooded by 6 feet of water summed it up best. The youngest child’s room had been jammed closed, and when they finally pushed it open they heard a voice: “There’s a job to do and we can do it.” It was the son’s Bob the Builder doll, and the door had activated the voice box.

Another new downtown has been built, but not as robust as it used to be. A small art colony has nested on Main Street, and new restaurants and bed and breakfast locations have replaced a number of destroyed buildings and private homes. But there is still so much to be done.

The memories of Katrina, nearly 9 years old, will not go away. And there is always that lingering and frightening thought: Will today’s friendly waters and the whispers of the wind once again turn into the angry and destructive waters and winds of yesteryears? As historian Douglas Brinkley wrote in his important chronicle on Katrina, “The Great Deluge”: “Before the Gulf South can rebuild it needs time to heal.” It is still healing, and it will be for years to come.

But the questions are still swirling around: Why do people stay here, and should the federal government pay the repair bills so they can? Why do people stay in San Francisco and Oakland and Los Angeles after earthquakes? Or return to Oklahoma and Kansas and Nebraska after tornadoes? It’s home. And when disaster strikes my hometown or your hometown, for that moment in history it becomes everyone’s hometown.

Many left after Katrina, but more than likely those who did were mostly newcomers. If your family has been there for nine or 10 generations, as my family has, it is not easy to start anew. But it would be nice if Mississippi politicians would drop the hypocrisy and stop running against “big spenders,” specifically those who support programs that help the poor or men and women of color.

Remember, this is a state that receives three dollars for every dollar it sends to Washington. A simple thank you, rather than a repulsive response, would seem appropriate.

Meanwhile, the stories of Katrina and other hurricanes will continue to be written, especially as anniversaries grow near; may they always be recounted in the language of hope and the language of accountability, and always with a nod to the treasure of memories so many of us share.

After all, that’s the reason you can and do go home again.