California Forum

‘Your city is gone’

Officers from the Florida Highway Patrol inspect the damage left by Hurricane Katrina in Bay St. Louis, Miss., in September 2005 – weeks after the storm had blown through.
Officers from the Florida Highway Patrol inspect the damage left by Hurricane Katrina in Bay St. Louis, Miss., in September 2005 – weeks after the storm had blown through. Associated Press file

It was just four words. A short declarative sentence that ended with a muscular exclamation point, four words that personified the pain of loss and grief and heartache, four words that will never be forgotten.

“Your city is gone!”

They came from a weary and stunned freelance photographer as he entered the newsroom of the Sun-Herald in Biloxi, Miss.

Outside, Hurricane Katrina’s ugly voice, mighty winds and unholy water continued in her path of destruction. The date: Aug. 29, 2005.

Katrina would rage for hours, smashing the levees in New Orleans, covering 80 percent of that city in water, and leaving a death toll of more than 1,800. The last count: 1,577 in Louisiana and 238 in Mississippi.

My hometown, Bay St. Louis, about 20 miles down the shore from Biloxi and the center of the target for Katrina’s second landfall, was one of the cities that was gone. It didn’t have a fighter’s chance.

A massive water surge, never witnessed before, swept above the seawall, leaving slabs of concrete, some with an occasional tile struggling to hang on, random clothes eerily hanging from trees, remains of homes pockmarking the land as if they were millions of Lego pieces, drowned cars strewn like Hot Wheels on the roadsides. And, most brutal of all, the dead, bodies with toe tags and families frantically asking where they could find loved ones.

No, it couldn’t be happening again. There was another August day in 1969 when the Associated Press machine in the Palm Beach Post newsroom, where I was the editor, burped loudly three times.

It was a bulletin: “Downtown Bay St. Louis, MS. has been destroyed.” Another hurricane, this one also with a beautiful and gentle name, Camille, a rare Category 5, had left her calling card.

Thirty-six years apart, two unyielding forces of nature, eight words or four words, the end was the same: “Your city is gone.”

It is wrong to say we celebrate anniversaries of disasters. We remember them. If lucky, we learn from our mistakes. If believers, we pray this is the final time we will have to witness such devastation.

We remember the 13-year-old who heroically saved his family; the 102-year-old woman who wouldn’t leave her home because she forcefully said no one else was 102 so no one could understand why she stayed; the Catholic priest reminding us that we can’t pick the time of our suffering, but “we can choose whether we let it burden our hearts, or expand them.”

We remember then-Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi stuttering in disbelief when he first saw the destruction. “I mean, I mean … I mean there is nothing there in many places. Nothing left. It’s destroyed. That’s what I mean.” And Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway saying many people died during Katrina because they had survived Camille and believed nothing could be worse.

We remember a sister, two brothers and many nieces and nephews who lost their homes and irreplaceable treasures of memories, pictures and souvenirs of precious moments, and gifts handed down from another generation.

We also remember the goodness and generosity of the thousands, young and old, who helped. Hundreds came in person, carrying their chain saws and hauling their backhoes and pledging their commitment to do what they could for people they had never met and would probably never see again. That is what good neighbors do.

And we remember the men and women at the Sun-Herald and the New Orleans Times-Picayune and at other media outlets who told the story, who provided islands of facts in the ocean of rumors, especially for those of us who were far away and felt powerless.

In times of anguish, people need places where they can come together to share the pain of the known and the fears of the unknown. They need to see the faces and learn the stories of the heroes who came to their rescue. And that’s what these men and women did while ignoring their losses. Sixty of the 200 employees at the Sun Herald lost their homes, and others suffered major damage.

The 24 hours of Katrina changed the face of tomorrow.

As a Sun Herald editorial proclaimed, “It’s up to us to restore the way of life that we have always appreciated. It is up to us. We dare not stay either in shock or in mourning forever.”

What would be the new normal? Would it be the postcard scenes we have seen so often of people walking hand-in-hand on the beach just minutes before nightfall? Would it be the casinos and hotels and entertainment venues jammed again with people?

It is wrong to say we celebrate anniversaries of disasters. We remember them. If lucky, we learn from our mistakes.

Would new homes and businesses be built? Would there be a new architectural vision for the coast? Would most people stay or return? Would people still be standing together, or would they be looking out only for themselves?

“Our people have great spirit,” my nephew Edward Favre, then mayor of Bay St. Louis, told me 10 years ago. “We will rebuild together. It will take years, but we will be back.” That’s what I heard over and over again. It’s what was on the handmade signs in the vacant lots where homes once stood.

That is happening, another facelift for my hometown. A $21 million marina has been built and people are coming in their boats. Artists reside on Main Street, new restaurants serving Creole and Cajun delicacies have opened, one in the rebuilt building that used to house my family’s weekly newspaper. More new homes on the beachfront can be seen on each visit, but few have the stately sense and charm of those they replaced. A more elegant 2-mile bridge now spans the bay.

It is good, but healing is still needed, and the old-timers who can recall Camille can help the newcomers complete the journey of recovery.

But the question remains: Why stay or why come when the chances are that one of Katrina’s progeny will return to remind us of things we cannot control?

I had no ready answer to the question when Scott Simon, the brilliant and eloquent NPR journalist, posed it a decade ago as we walked among the ruins.

This is the place where generations of families have lived, where people know each other, where you rarely pass anyone on the street without greeting them by name, where my mom and dad and four brothers and three sisters are buried. I left, but the majority of my extra-large family stayed.

Why? Maybe it is as simple as this: It’s home.

And now, 10 years after Katrina, I pray we will never forget the images, the voices, the cries for help, the landscape filled with the remnants of what was everyday life, the hopes and dreams and visions that were soaked in a valley of tears.

How could we ever forget those four words?

“Your city is gone.”

Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for The McClatchy Company.

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