It seems impossible that four years have passed since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the coastlines of Mississippi and Alabama. As the secondary tragedy of New Orleans’ levee failures compelled the world’s attention, the destruction strewn across the Mississippi coastline faded into the background. In a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial, the South Mississippi SunHerald put it succinctly:
There is no question that the New Orleans story, like ours, is a compelling, ongoing saga as its brave people seek to reclaim those parts of the city lost to the floods. But it becomes more and more obvious that to national media, New Orleans is THE story – to the extent that if the Mississippi Coast is mentioned at all it is often in an add-on paragraph that mentions “and the Gulf Coast” or “and Mississippi and Alabama.”
Christ Episcopal Church, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
Given the nature of things, neglect of Mississippi probably was inevitable. Given the realities of human nature, it also was inevitable that some Mississippi residents would express bitterness at their relegation to the fringes of the story. The bitterness surely was understandable, as was the accompanying anger at the unfairness of life, but in the end it was the sadness which touched me – the deep, pervasive sadness of people who know the living death of surviving a cataclysmic event. Standing in the rubble of his life, a man from Waveland who was interviewed shortly after the storm captured all the poignancy and pathos of events when he turned to a reporter and said, “You know, we had a storm here, too.”
Traveling to Mississippi in July of 1970, I arrived just prior to the first anniversary of Hurricane Camille’s historic landfall. I’d never been exposed to hurricanes, and even a year after the storm was overcome by what I saw of its aftermath. Returning to Mississippi in December of 2006, sixteen months after Katrina wreaked her havoc, I carried with me decades of life, the experience of surviving Alicia, Allison and Rita, and a new pair of eyes. While vacant slabs and uprooted trees are nearly interchangeable to someone from the outside, people are not. Unique and irreplaceable, each has a viewpoint, a collection of memories, a way of telling and retelling an individual story that weaves it into the fabric of larger events.
One afternoon I met a little girl and her mother down at the shore near Waveland/Bay St. Louis. The girl, perhaps 6 or 7 years old, stood alone at the water’s edge in a green and white checked dress, her hands encircling her head like a ballerina. Her feet were bare, the curved arch of her right foot barely touching the sand. “Does she dance?” I asked the woman. “No,” her mother said, “not any more. She used to. But since the storm, she just puts out her arms, or holds them up above her head. She says she’s afraid to dance because she doesn’t want the water to come when she isn’t looking.”
That little girl, overcome by the enormity of events she was unable to anticipate, understand or control is a fair representation of any storm survivor. Standing at the edge of life, facing wave after wave of chaos, they can be frozen by fear or numbed by pain. Always, there is a sense of being overwhelmed by events. No matter how realistic human expectations prior to a storm, no matter how diligent the preparations, the consequences are difficult to absorb. When the first task is finding strength to begin putting one foot in front of the other on the road toward recovery, an invitation to dance seems frivolous or irrelevant at best, and delusional at worst.
Bay St. Louis Bridge After Katrina
Remembering the survivors of Katrina, Rita, Ivan and Ike, Hugo, Andrew and Camille, I begin to see the task of writers and artists in those circumstances somewhat differently. Certainly it is a joy to engage in the pleasure of putting words together, playing with sentences and filling page after page with beautiful, elegant paragraphs. Of course there is satisfaction in capturing the complexity of a storm in a photographic image, or creating with canvas and brush an interpretation of events. But one of the basic questions any artist must ask and answer is this: Do I work for my own pleasure alone, or do I also bear some responsiblity to the world? However elegant our words, however beautiful our colors or exquisite our images, if our work fails to awaken life, to renew a sense of wonder and nurture an ability to respond to the gifts and challenges inherent in the universe, have we met the demands of our calling?
Another way to express this is to affirm the existence of a moral dimension in art. I don’t intend to suggest “moral” in the sense of insisting upon a particular world view, encouraging a particular political or religious agenda or hewing to a specific ideological line. I mean moral in the sense of creating space for freedom, decision, responsiveness and responsibility. When artists dare remind people they are free to choose the path they take in life, free to determine their relationship to other people and events and free to accept or reject this unutterably beautiful life we have been given, it may be that morality, ethics and aesthetics can begin to form a newer and more creative partnership, just as disaster and hope will sometimes partner in the exquisite dance known as life.
In Mississippi, as in every hurricane-vulnerable state, August is turning to September, fingers are crossed and life goes on. In Gulfport, aspiring painters join one another for Canvas and Cocktails, surely one of the more innovative approaches to an art class. At Ocean Springs’ Mary O’Keefe Cultural Center, painter Steve Shepherd’s Uncomprehended Coastal Wilderness is on exhibit. The Flea Market’s back in business in Pass Christian, as is the Market in the Park and Abbey Road art classes. And in Bay St. Louis? Perhaps there is a child – a slightly older child - standing again at the shore, arms raised, ready at last to whirl and jeté as the memories fade and the glint of sun off the water washes the shadows away.
Watching her, hearing the music of the swelling waves, feeling the arc of her raised hands encircling your heart and an inexplicable grace permeating your mind, remember the artists who dare suggest you have a choice. You can stand, frozen, at the edge of the receeding storm, or you can accept the hand of life and dance.
Pascagoula, Mississippi ~ “Do Not Allow Katrina to Steal Your Joy”