Published in 2010, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast
is poet Natasha Trethewey’s intimate profile of the Gulf Coast and the individuals whose lives were forever altered by Hurricane Katrina, which struck the area in 2005. Trethewey grew up in Gulfport, where much of her family still lives. Interweaving her personal memories with experiences of those in the region, Trethewey delineates the gradual erosion of the local culture as well as its rising dependence on tourism. The author also chronicles years of wetland development that has worsened destruction in the region. Most movingly, she illustrates the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina through the story of her brother and his efforts to recover what he lost.
The first section of the book is devoted to detailing the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina. Residents of the coast refer to events as “BK” or “AK”—that is, before Katrina or after Katrina. The most destructive hurricane BK was Camille, which struck the region in 1969. It destroyed buildings and washed boats ashore, although its rage does not compare with that of Katrina. Trethewey speaks of her aging grandmother who struggles with dementia and whose memory has conflated these two events.
Trethewey takes a moment to note that people in the region tend to compare Mississippi to Louisiana, stating that things like levees and local government were successful after the storm in Mississippi, whereas they failed in Louisiana. In Mississippi, volunteer efforts were very effective; in Louisiana, ineffective and corrupt decision making led to the deaths of many poor people. However, the author challenges this oversimplification, indicating that stories surrounding Katrina are often untrue or only partially accurate.
Trethewey points out that the businesses that were the first to reopen on the Mississippi coast were the so-called “boats”—floating casinos created by the 1992 legislation that legalized gambling in the state but restricts it to navigable water. Their deep pockets allowed the casinos to fund their own rebuilding. Due to their massive contributions to the state’s tax coffers, the casinos received rebuilding permits quite easily, according to Trethewey.
The casinos provided people with jobs in one of the most economically depressed areas in the country. This was embraced due to a fear of the loss of the cultural heritage of the coast and the depletion of the wetlands. Thus, quaint towns were turned into neon-lit gambling resorts.
Trethewey interweaves her family history with the broader history the Mississippi coast. “Son” Dixon, her great uncle, was born near the turn of the twentieth century. His parents, former Delta sharecroppers, moved to the coast, and he gradually established himself as a businessman within the black community in Gulfport. Son possessed several rental houses, and he was considered a good landlord among individuals who often struggled with housing.
After World War II, the shipbuilding trade started to become a central part of the coast’s economy. Using his veteran benefits, Son constructed nightclubs that catered to shipbuilders. In tandem with Son’s story, Trethewey describes Gulfport’s growth as one of the country’s shipbuilding centers and the Mississippi coastline’s transformation from marshy wetland to the country’s longest manmade beach at twenty-six continuous miles.
Trethewey also takes a moment to note some small stories related to the destruction of Katrina and its aftermath, revealing that larger economic interests have wielded the disaster to push small businesses out of the community. Cicero Tims, a friend of Trethewey’s late great uncle, owns a snow cone stand in the Gulfport area where Trethewey’s family has lived for years. He asserts that permits for renovations and repairs on structures were hard to come by, and often city officials would outright refuse to provide permits for complete rebuilds, though the rationale for doing so was never given.
Trethewey the zooms out to expose some of the disparities in the way federal rebuilding money was distributed and how restrictions were ignored in some places and enforced in others. Rather than replacing all of the low-income housing that was lost in the storm, says Trethewey, Mississippi found a means of diverting those funds to the expansion and refurbishment of the Gulfport Port. This project was in the planning phase long before Katrina struck.
Joe, Trethewey’s brother, inherited the majority of properties owned by Son Dixon. Prior to the storm, Joe was filling his great uncle’s shoes as a landlord and using his building skills to expand into a small contracting business. However, Joe found himself unable to find steady work and could not pay his taxes or mortgage on his uninsured properties. As a result, in desperation, Joe decided to transport several ounces of cocaine, which yielded him $4,000. He eventually was caught and received a felony conviction.
Trethewey is convinced none of this would have occurred if Katrina had not destroyed the coast, had rebuilding funds been managed fairly, and had city governments not put undue burdens on small and largely minority-owned businesses.
The author notes seeing a politician’s billboard that states, “Katrina isn’t over.” She contends that the coast’s future is “ever evolving”—the storm’s ramifications still very much alive in the minds of those whose lives are forever changed.