Protect and Defend

Will the historic structures of the South be salvaged post-Katrina?



Every disaster has three phases: Emergency, assessment, and rebuilding. I like to call them: Screaming, listening, and communicating.

Katrina slammed screaming into the Mississippi Gulf coast and when the twenty-five foot tidal surge receded, the resilient residents yelled back at her. But she was long gone out to sea, so they shrieked at whoever would listen. Unfortunately, some of the desperate screams of the Forgotten Ones were so feeble that no one heard them -- like the cries from the stranded Vietnamese fishermen, or the confused sobs of those already discarded by family and society long before the storm.

When the wind and the flood subsided, the survivors slowly chain-sawed their way back to their neighborhoods. My friends, Scott and Annie of Bay St. Louis, wasted no time after they discovered that their own house was completely annihilated. (To this day, they don't mention that fact and that they have lost everything they ever hoped to own, unless somebody asks.) Instead, they jumped back into their pickup, drove to Mobile, and for the next several weeks, ferried hundreds of miles back and forth bringing water and supplies to their neighbors.

Mississippi still weeps. Ol' stalwart Scott choked back alligator tears to tell me that when he went to Target or Wal-Mart to get those supplies, total strangers would see his Hancock county license plate, and they would throw their crisp, new shopping bags with their just-purchased items into the back of his truck. Things like clothes, diapers, infant formula, food, paper towels, batteries, and everything to survive in a forgotten war zone. "Here," they said, "ya'll need this more than we do. We can always get more."

The National Guard from many states knocked on every single door along the Mississippi coast and spray-painted their findings as ritualistic hieroglyphics on each facade. After they counted about a thousand bodies, they left the suffering to other out-of-state volunteers and to the locals to take care of their own.

Then the Listeners started tiptoeing in. We were volunteer teams of architects, engineers, historians, and graduate students from all over the U.S. Our task was to assess storm-damaged buildings, specifically his-toric structures. Mississippi, and the United States of America, were also now in a cultural emergency. Katrina affected almost all of our pre-Civil War structures along the Gulf and she threatened to annihilate our own history. Katrina completely wiped off the face of the earth almost all the stately antebellum homes along the coastal highway and other buildings inland. The historically significant towns of Waveland (established in 1812, 113 years after the French discovered it in 1699) and Pass Christian (whose earliest land grant dates to 1712) are no more. City Hall in Pass Christian is only a trailer and the residents take their meals in a canvas mess hall nestled within row after row of 300 green tents reminiscent of a World War II infantry unit.

The teams ate lunch there, too. I was particularly mindful not to take water or food from someone who deserved it more, for I did not want to be yet another burden on those who had been working so tirelessly to help the truly needy. I was there strictly to listen, to document, and to report my findings to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and to the Mississippi Heritage Trust.

Listening was easy in the mess hall. Every-body loves war stores. However, listening with-out breaking down into a fit of compassion was challenging in the field.

Mr. S. is the proud owner of the last re-maining antebellum Creole cottage in Pass Christian, even though Katrina knocked the house about ten feet off of its foundations. He loves old things and collected them most of his 72 years. Now his prized possessions are water swamped and buried time-frozen in the mildewed muck like the ruins of Pompeii. FEMA offered to bulldoze the house and remove the debris for free. Gone, then, would be a piece of the South's history.

But this was the happiest day of Mr. S.'s life since before Katrina. The city had just finally turned the electricity on to his FEMA trailer. (He had the trailer, but no power for about three weeks.) The timing could not have been better, because the bone-chilling damp winter air was creeping in from the sea. He danced a jig and gave me a hug to celebrate his good fortune. Then he went to the tent city mess hall to commemorate the event with his buddies.

I stood before Mrs. B.'s collapsed Ocean Springs beachfront house with my clipboard and camera. I witnessed her life going back five generations as she wept for help. Should she hang on and rebuild this twisted mess of genealogy? Of course she should. After all, if the building is not flat on the ground, it can be (and should be) saved. In the name of preservation, all it takes is commitment and money.

She had the commitment, but thanks to the endless, autocratic quagmire of insurance companies and the lack of federal grants, she had no money. In fact, she had only the clothes on her back. I could give no money, only advice on how to stabilize her house and what steps to take to preserve it. How absurd I felt telling this kind soul how to care for her home when the location of her next night's bed was yet to be determined. However, she seemed grateful for some symbol of order among her senseless chaos where every, single, utter possession she owned streamed and flapped in the barren trees like shredded Christmas tinsel.

Over the course of two weeks, I assessed hundreds of shattered buildings and heard some desperate stories. However, the stories were few and far between because typically, there was no one to tell them. Some days, I walked miles of blocks without encountering a full-time resident. Occasionally, I met a fleeting stranger who stopped long enough to grab a possession or make sure the house had not been vandalized. Most of the time, I walked in silence. No electricity, no music blaring from radios, and no life. Not a stray dog in sight. Even the Spanish moss, a parasite, had abandoned the live oaks.

Abandonment occupies the minds of the Mississippi Gulf Coast's citizens. However, at the state level, the governor of Mississippi has done an excellent job of dialog. He wasted no time blaming and went straight into solution as soon as the Katrina monster slithered back to sea.

Now, Mississippi is in the communication phase and some of the best designers, archi-tects, and planners in the world have her ear. My hope is that we all listen and speak to each other with dignity and respect. I know we are tired, frustrated, and homesick, but let's do what's best for Mississippi and preserve our magnificent history, as our ancestors have done before us. Listen to the majestic Live Oaks and watch what they do. They will never abandon us and we should not forsake them. These ancient live oaks are now the custodians of the present as they stand vigil over the tangled ruins of the past. Their tenacity is our hope.

I know we are tired, frustrated, and homesick, but let's do what's best for Mississippi and preserve our magnificent history, as our ancestors have done before us.