- by Carole McKellar
This month brings the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which will surprise no one who lived through it. I started thinking about the storm and my experiences after reading Aftermath Lounge, by Margaret McMullan.
The setting of Aftermath Lounge is Pass Christian before and after the hurricane. The focal point of the book is a house on Scenic Drive, lovingly renovated by the homeowners, Paul and Mary Zimmer. After their home is badly damaged by the storm, the elderly couple move to Chicago to live with their daughter and grandson. Their handyman, Catch, stays in a FEMA trailer to protect what remains of the house and the property. The difficult decision of whether or not to rebuild is central to the book.
The stories in the book do not tell my Katrina experiences, but they evoke strong emotions and memories of struggle and survival. My reminiscence led me to consider other books written about what FEMA reports was the costliest hurricane in the history of the United States.
Most Katrina books were written about New Orleans, which received the most press coverage. I particularly enjoyed Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, the story of a Syrian-born painting contractor who rescued people in a canoe before being falsely arrested as a looter. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink won numerous awards and was picked as one of the New York Times' ten best books of the year. It described the crises of patients, staff, and families who sheltered in New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital. Bestselling author Douglas Brinkley wrote The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and told the story of the heroes and villains of the catastrophe.
Under Surge, Under Siege: The Odyssey of Bay St. Louis and Katrina by our editor, Ellis Anderson, makes me glad to call the Bay home. The willingness of the residents to help each other bears witness to the bonding of a civil society. There are laughter and tears in the ordeals faced by the citizens of our community. These stories of generosity and resilience are a large part of the reason John and I moved to the Bay.
Rebecca Solnit, a writer from California, has written books on the environment, politics, and art. In 2009, she wrote A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, which chronicles a series of disasters starting with the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and ending with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In between are chapters devoted to the devastating fire in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1917, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, and New York City on 9/11/2001.
A Paradise Built in Hell provides evidence that human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathic, and brave. Ms. Solnit posits that, following disaster, survivors feel a “sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with others caused by the rupture in everyday life, an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive. We don't even have a language for this emotion, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear. We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological.”
The response of residents and volunteers on the Gulf Coast following Katrina proves the supposition that humans desire purpose and community. There is power and grace in the coming together of citizens for the common good.