August 29th, 2008
03:10 PM ET

Fixing Katrina: Millions of ants can move a mountain

We look back at CNN's Kathleen Koch's visit to her hometown of Bay St. Louis a year after Katrina
We look back at CNN's Kathleen Koch's visit to her hometown of Bay St. Louis a year after Katrina

Editor's Note: Anderson Cooper 360° is in New Orleans tonight, as Tropical Storm Gustav barrels toward the Gulf of Mexico, expected to reach Category 3. We'll look at whether New Orleans is ready, after being devastated by Hurricane Katrina exactly three years ago today. Watch our special report tonight at 10p ET.

Kathleen Koch
CNN Correspondent

Katrina for me is like a recurring nightmare you have so often that every detail is etched in your mind....the massive debris fields, the stunned survivors wandering shell-shocked through the rubble, the smell of rotting food, rotting vegetation...death.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast was my home. And when we moved there after Hurricane Camille, I always knew there was a chance that our two-story brick house on South Beach Boulevard could be reduced to an empty slab like the ones that still dotted the beach. Curving driveways and stairs leading to nothing.

So driving down the beach after Katrina, searching in vain for landmarks, neighbor's houses, anything to orient myself, I knew what I would find. An empty slab....a pile of bricks...a driveway and stairs to nowhere.

But it was the enormity of the destruction that was most stunning. Nearly all my friends and neighbors, and their brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents had lost everything. I've never felt so powerless. I knew that even as a reporter, any effort would fall short. I felt like an ant trying to move a mountain.

But that's when it began. Mississippians came out of the rubble and started helping one another – some, even before they went to check on their own homes. And volunteers began pouring south from every corner of the country. And I realized that together, millions of ants can move a mountain.

That is how the Mississippi Gulf Coast is being rebuilt. Because of the fortitude, determination and resilience of the people who live there. And the incredible generosity of volunteers who just keep coming, helping, building, giving.

Three years after Katrina, Eddie Favre, the mayor of Bay St. Louis, is still holding his "shorts protest." Katrina destroyed his home and left him with what he was wearing – sandals, a shirt and a pair of shorts. So Eddie vowed not to wear long pants until the town was rebuilt. He's kept that promise, even in winter, even when President Bush came to visit, even when Eddie came to Washington, DC. Eddie and his wife are still living in a trailer, but hope soon to move into a home they bought on Main Street.

My other friends in Bay St. Louis, and the characters we focused on in our two documentaries on the town, have all by this third anniversary moved back into homes or apartments. And they all wrestled with a painful choice. Stay in the town where they grew up – the only home they've ever known – or go north of I-10 into the county where they'll be safe. Most stayed. But some moved north and are sleeping easier as Gustav churns in the Gulf with Hanna hot on his heels.

The town is still rebuilding slowly. Much work is underway now on the infrastructure that was destroyed by Katrina. There is still no grocery store. None of the city or county buildings have been rebuilt. And in the devastated neighborhoods closest to the water, there are more empty lots than homes. Even if people manage to scrape together the money to rebuild, they learn that their homeowners and flood insurance payments will be higher than their mortgage.

So they live one day at a time on hope. They inspire me with their courage. Katrina taught us all that life is short. Everything you know and love can be gone in an instant. So reach out each day, connect and do something to make this world a better place. This may be your last chance.

Filed under: Hurricane Katrina • Kathleen Koch
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Heather

    It was very painful to watch on TV on CNN. I am so very sorry your family and friends had to go through this. I'm sorry your home town had to go through this.Of course my sorry pales in comparrison to being their and I just hope all of you never give up.

    August 29, 2008 at 6:01 pm |
  2. Mike - Houston

    Mississippi is my home state. Thank you for reminding the public that Mississippi took the brunt of Katrina. New Orleans is hurting but they also get all of the publicity.

    August 29, 2008 at 4:58 pm |
  3. Eugenia - San Francisco

    I will always have the satellite images etched in my memory of Katrina, watching and waiting for news reports to come out. What really shock me was that the people around me had no clue what you all were going through. I remember a co-worker had no idea of what had happened and him saying "But we have a convention there (NOLA) in 2 weeks". Listening to people make comments in stores and not understanding the reality of it. I know I wasn't there but I have cried many times for all of you.

    August 29, 2008 at 4:38 pm |
  4. Cindy

    It is sad to see that even after three years that in Mississippi, NOLA and all up and down that area that people are still homeless and that they have received little to no help at all from the government. That is ridiculous.


    August 29, 2008 at 3:15 pm |