Visitors to America's Gulf Coast are struck by the vastness of hurricane Katrina's lingering destruction. An area as big as Britain. The largest displacement of people since the Dust Bowl migrations. It's almost too much to grasp.
So let's perch (via cellphone) on the shoulder of one coastal Mississippi mayor for her take on this near incomprehension one year later.
Just six weeks in office before Katrina hit, Mayor Connie Moran of Ocean Springs would be within her rights if she let loose a river of woes. Her own house now stands as the lone sentinel on her street. She's a single mother of a special-needs child. Her once quaint community of 20,000 – known for its history, art galleries, and shady live oaks – lost two lives, 700 rooftops, its harbor, parks, and lifeline bridge across a bay to Biloxi.
But when asked what message she might have on this premier of Katrina anniversaries, a great big thank-you is what first comes out. "All of the mayors and citizens on the coast are overwhelmingly grateful for the outpouring of support, volunteers throughout the nation, for their donations ... and of course, their prayers." There's also this blessing: Ocean Springs' commercial center sits on a bluff, and was saved.
Ms. Moran has her criticisms – of FEMA (its red tape and ever rotating staff have delayed rebuilding) and of slow or nonpaying insurance companies. Both are sources of regional frustration and need addressing.
But mostly she's full of gratitude, which is a good place to start in any crisis. Its calming effect clears up thinking, spurs resourcefulness, and opens the heart to receive more. And it sure takes the edge off political and bureaucratic friction.
Preparedness is also essential to handling disasters, and not just in hurricane areas. Many Americans live in flood or earthquake zones, or in cities targeted by terrorists.
Moran learned from "test runs" with two lesser hurricanes that hit in her first weeks in office. They alerted her that the town's first responders needed a new communications system. It arrived in time for Katrina, and Ocean Springs stands out as a place where emergency workers could actually talk to one other. This year, Ocean Springs has lined up help from a charity in North Carolina and out-of-state vendors for everything from portable toilets to fuel.
That's manageable for a town this size, but preparedness remains a much bigger challenge for state and national government. Still unresolved: how strong to make the restored levees of New Orleans and how much to invest in coastal wetlands restoration. Sadly, officials seem unwilling to say "no" to rebuilding in the most dangerous areas.
One last thing Moran's big on: planning. Katrina presents an opportunity to rebuild better, to create more attractive, walkable, and affordable communities. That's why the mayor's been an advocate of modular, sturdy, and cute "Katrina cottages," as opposed to FEMA trailers (of which Ocean Springs has many).
Gratitude, preparedness, planning. That's not everything that can or should be said a year after Katrina. But they are useful messages, and they come straight from someone in the middle of that vast swath.