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Storms: A Journey to the Gulf Coast

Each month, we hear from long-time journalist and West Plains resident Marideth Sisco for our ongoing series These Ozarks Hills. Today, she reflects on a recent trip to the Gulf Coast.

This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. Last week, I went down out of these hills, down to Mississippi to say goodbye to a friend. It seems like I've been doing that a lot lately, but I guess it's like the fellow says - the older you get, the more it seems like you're either plantin' someone or getting' planted. So I guess I shouldn't complain, having avoided the latter so far. But I came back from the trip feeling uneasy.

This was the first time I had returned to the Gulf Coast since the nightmare that was Katrina, and I wasn't looking forward to it, afraid that too many of the things I remembered would be gone. And many of them were.

Oh, the casinos were back, and doing a land office business. Motels were open, and favorite restaurants, although not always in the same locations where they used to be. MacELroys had moved all the way from Gulfport over to Ocean Springs. But we tracked it down and had dinner there. It was nice to see they're rebuilding Jeff Davis's house, and the art museum's going back up, though it's still just a shell.

The saddest to see were the long stretches of beach highway that had been lined with homes, where now there was just sand pocked with debris and an occasional concrete front porch and a few brave daffodils. People are apparently reluctant to rebuild on the water just yet. And I suppose some of the people who lived there may not have survived.

But of course the Gulf is always a survival story, always a work in progress. She has always known storms, always weathered them. She even has names for all of them. People talk about Ivan, and Jorge, and Frederick, and most legendary of all ... Camille. Everyone has a story to tell about her.

Here's a curious thing, though, that may speak to something larger than hurricanes, in these times. Now, there is a storm these Gulf Coast residents won't name. The only time I heard the word Katrina was when I said it myself, and when I said it, always a silence followed. And then someone would say, "Well, after the Storm..." or "That was Before the Storm..." or "We lost all that in the Storm." They wouldn't call her by name. It was like they were afraid of invoking an evil presence.

After a couple of trips past the wounded live oaks, with the Spanish moss still torn and tattered, past the barren sand where communities once thrived, over the beach highway that is still, two years later, almost entirely a construction zone, I, too, stopped using the K word.

Sometimes a storm is more than a storm. Sometimes it's a metaphor for the things we endure that are beyond our capacity to take it in - when we read the newspaper and have to ask, as I heard in a restaurant here at home, "Is this a new mass killing at a college or are they still talking about that other one?" Or if someone sends us an essay describing the fall of an ancient empire and we suddenly lose our place in time, and have to stop and say, "Wait, are they talking about then, or is this about now?"

Or when the Ozarks weather shifts from ice to flower buds to ice again, and spring is caught in the deadly flux of climate confusion, and official sources assure us everything will be fine, so long as we pay no attention to Al Gore.

Sometimes a storm is more than a storm. Sometimes it's something you're unable to name, but you can see the signs. Everyone is feeling uneasy these days, but down in Mississippi and along the Gulf Coast, there is the storm with no name. It's left a mark that runs three states wide, a hundred miles deep inland. People on the Gulf have been reading those signs, and I saw them, too. The Gulf is a beautiful place, and people have worked hard to put things back in order, even to carving beautiful sculptures from some of the ruined trees. They're patching up the highway, the daffodils are blooming, the casinos are back in business. But nobody is building homes by the water. Just like they don't call the storm by name, like they don't really think they've seen the worst of it yet. This is Marideth Sisco, for These Ozarks Hills.