Part 1: The Calm After the Storm This one one of the first sights we saw after we first got to Stennis International Airport in Bay St. Louis, MS. Right next to the airport was a high school. Both had been taken over by the military, converting the entire area into what amounted to a forward operating base.
As the word got out about where the military was set up, people began showing up asking for pallets of water, gas, and food.
Nearly every airplane hangar at Stennis was demolished. This caused a bit of havoc, as emergency beacons from many of the planes inside hangars across the state started activating, making it difficult to discern emergencies vs. false alarms.
This was pretty typical of what we saw across the area. Heavy winds and massive tidal waves warped and destroyed much of the rail infrastructure across the entire area we were operating out of.
Everyone saw New Orleans flooded on television. What they didn't see was the mass of destruction across Mississippi, which was mainly caused by tidal waves and strong winds. For miles, it looked like a tornado had gone down the coast and ravaged everything.
it was at once peaceful and terrifying, haunting and beautiful to look out at the ocean. Over 230 people died as a result of the hell those waters wrought, but at that moment, it all seemed so serene.
"Keep Out or Be Shot." Signs like this littered the region after lootings were reported throughout the media. Not only did this do nothing to ease our parents at home, but as a 17 year old it disconcerting. A member of our team had a shotgun pointed at him in another area while trying to deliver food and supplies, increasing tensions in an already dangerous operation.
We saw hundreds of houses like these, formerly waterfront properties that became nothing but roofs and rubble.
This was our sleeping quarters on the sprawling grounds of Stennis International. My bunk was in the lower left corner, with the green sleeping bag.
While the sunsets, yes, were beautiful, the sun was brutally hot in the south. Just as soon as the sun would set and you would settle in to sleep, you'd wake up the next morning to an already sweltering atmosphere with in the 90s daily.
This was the constant life when at the air base. Nearly 24 hours a day we had jets flying in from all over the world delivering prepackaged meals and bottled water as the steady hum of military helicopters airlifted supplies to other bases throughout the state.
Even stilts couldn't save many of the houses in Waveland, MS. Waveland was considered the worst hit city in the Gulf and was almost completely wiped off of the map by the storm. A 26-foot wave and massive winds led to massive destruction, leading to disaster relief officials calling Waveland 'ground zero' for the hurricane's landfall. A year and a half later I revisited this same house, and it still stood untouched, looking the same as it did in this photo.
This is what our days mainly consisted of - doing welfare checks to make sure that no one was injured or needed assistance in houses. This particular area saw a large mud deposit making access exceedingly difficult.
The sun sets on another evening as supplies are still being flown in from across the world to Stennis. One resupply mission brought prepackaged NATO meals from Britain which contained meals like lamb stew and beef pate.
This area was in Diamondhead, a small city which had a flying community. Homeowners had runways that led right to their houses, allowing them to taxi their planes from their driveways right to a runway. Diamondhead Airport was struck by one of the most dangerous parts of the hurricane's eye wall and suffered massive damage.
There were many odd scenes like this. Chairs still stacked perfectly while everything else lay in ruin, family photos strewn across the street seemingly unharmed, and mailboxes standing upright while only the roof of a house remained behind it.
This plane was one that was part of the Diamondhead community. It was an older model, from the 40s or 50s, and the owner had just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars restoring it, finishing it not long before the storm hit.
Part 2: Desolation A year and a half after leaving Mississippi, I returned with someone from my original group to rebuild houses with his church. It just so happened that we'd be working a mere 15 miles from where we were the first time. I could get a glimpse at how things had progressed.
It was only after another long drive to the Mississippi coast that I realized there was no progression. Long after the looters faded from the CNN feed, Mississippi still seemed untouched. Houses were still abandoned, beaches empty, and business never reopened.
A lone McDonalds sign rises high above Long Beach, MS, still battered and broken from the storm, much like the community surrounding it.
The only sign of life in town was this Waffle House right along the coast, which promised its triumphant return.
Shopping centers were empty and the lots were being used for storage of junk, building materials, and stray carts.
Debris from the tidal waves still littered the beaches 18 months later, and there were no tourists around to build castles.
It seemed like the entire Gulf Coast, besides the Waffle House and the casinos, was stuck in a limbo between the old and the new.
After being bilked by insurance companies, many homeowners packed up, spraypainted messages to looters, and simply never returned.
In the decay, beauty. This was one of the few houses that we encountered that actually had people living there, or at least visiting.
Old structures, community staples, and entire livelihoods vanished overnight when the storm hit, and many still laid in ruin after the storm.
Far inland, signs of the massive tidal wave that swept through the area were still evident long after the waters had receded.
Houses like this one still dominated properties across the region. Structurally unstable and dangerous to even enter, many homes had to be razed to start anew.
One of the infamous FEMA trailers sits upended in what used to be a mobile home lot for refugees from the storm.
Out of chaos, a new beginning. With the small impact we made on the community, coupled with the hundreds of thousands of others who helped Mississippi and Louisiana get back on their feet, there was hope for a new dawn. The South is still reeling from the storm, and may still another decade from now. Community, friendship, and leadership will help create new memories that no storm can wash away.