“Granddaddy! GET BACK IN THE HOUSE!”
Of all the things I thought I’d be doing on this visit back to Mississippi, yelling at my grandfather in the middle of a hurricane wasn’t one of them. I had spent the better part of that summer, before my senior year at Oberlin College, working at Cambridge University Press in New York City. I didn’t think I would ever make it as a writer, so I was bracing myself for a writing-adjacent career in the publishing world. At least I’d be close to books.
I never thought I’d yell at my grandfather, ever. He was my grandfather, we are black, and I like having teeth in my mouth. My grandfather never raised a hand to me, but I just assumed that any sort of backtalk would release a giant rock from the sky to smite me.
On the other hand, I never thought I would see a hurricane in Port Gibson, either. We’re no stranger to thunderstorms, floods, tornadoes. But hurricanes? That’s a coastal problem, and we are about 200 miles from the Gulf Coast. The “port” in Port Gibson denotes its position on the mighty, mighty Mississippi River. But Katrina was a different kind of storm.
Maybe that was why my grandfather thought it was a good idea to go recover the feeder for his beloved hummingbirds after the wind knocked it down. It was all so unbelievable, so why believe it?
“Granddaddy.” I tried to soften my voice. “It’s a hurricane. The birds aren’t out right now.”
“What do you know?” he shot back. “You not a bird.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
But I didn’t have to. As soon as he got off the back porch, Katrina declared her dominance and knocked him off balance. A man for whom confidence was everything lost it all to the wind. He came hustling back toward the house, avoiding the concern in his granddaughter’s eyes.
My grandfather was a very proud man. I don’t think I ever saw him lower his head or shrink his shoulders. For a black man who grew up in Alabama in the 1920s and 1930s, served in the military in the 1940s, integrated the schools in Nashville with his own children in the 1950s—he had a lot to be proud of.
Now, he said nothing. He just shuffled back into the house, where my mother had cable news pundits and meteorologists blaring in every room.
Things hadn’t gotten bad yet. The power was still on. The water was still running. And I was in the middle of an ill-advised experiment of steaming okra. I would never try that again.
I was worried for New Orleans, that beautiful, beautiful city in a soup bowl. But I also felt relief because, that morning, it had been announced that Katrina had not hit New Orleans head-on and had instead made landfall at Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. I was worried for the people there, but I thought the loss of life would be contained.
Because Katrina’s aftermath was so horrific, we forget how utterly strange she was as a storm. We forget that she made landfall in Florida before sweeping back out to sea to gather more strength for the Gulf Coast.
We forget that, by the time she made landfall, she had weakened from a Category 5 to a Category 3. But what Katrina sacrificed in strength, she more than made up for in size. At the time, she was the largest hurricane ever to hit the United States, affecting millions of people over approximately 90,000 square miles. And that was just in the short term. Just before the electricity went out for what would be a week, we saw on the television that Katrina was covering the entire state of Mississippi. Right down to the Delta.
We forget the tornado outbreak she spawned as she traveled over land. Fifty-seven tornadoes over the space of eight states—from central Mississippi to Pennsylvania. With eighteen tornadoes across Georgia in a single day, she far exceeded the state’s previous daily tornado record of two.
The other thing often forgotten, but which I can never forget, was that Katrina descended the day after the 50th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till. If you are black, and especially if you grew up in the South, the name “Emmett Till” brought immediate, arresting, gruesome images to mind. The name sank to the bottom of your stomach like a bag of rocks—or like the cotton gin fan that weighed down his barely pubescent body to make it surrender to the Tallahatchie River.
The anniversary was the biggest news story in Mississippi before the storm. How far had we come? Or had we stood still? What comes next? There, in my three-generational home of black southerners, I couldn’t not think about the anniversary, even then, even with the storm overhead.
I remembered the meteorologists explaining how hurricanes start off the coast of Africa and gather strength as they cross the Atlantic, following almost exactly the route of slave ships.
I wondered if Katrina was really a 14-year old boy named Emmett.
The property damage in Port Gibson was fairly minimal. Almost everyone got roof damage, and lots of yards had fallen trees—nothing that couldn’t have happened in an exceptionally strong thunderstorm. We were relieved, if a little lucky. But still, we held our breath for news about the Coasts and New Orleans.
Our only source of news came from our battery-operated radio. The local NPR segments dripped with such overt racism it was impossible to trust them. You could hear it in the way they described certain neighborhoods and the people who lived there. They were looting. They were rowdy. The armed vigilante groups had no choice but to defend themselves. We knew those neighborhoods. We heard those dog whistles. They’d just been devastated. Who wouldn’t be rowdy? Who wouldn’t take what they needed from a store that would be closed indefinitely? Were they supposed to wait for help from above?
We waited all day, instead, for the national broadcasts. That was the only thing that kept us even halfway informed about the unfolding tragedy. Here, we heard people described as what they were: people. We heard the stories of loss from all over the city, every neighborhood. We heard about people in need, people waiting for help that wasn’t coming, so, yes, they broke into a store. We heard about rumors of violence, but they were also described as what they were: unconfirmed rumors.
(The woman who did that reporting is my colleague at the NRDC. I’ve thanked her over and over, but I still don’t think she knows what she meant to us.)
We lost water for a little less than a week. That was the hardest part, because we forget how hot it was right after Katrina. I don’t remember the exact temperature, but that day is seared into my memory as the hottest I’ve ever lived through. And we couldn’t even splash our faces. I tried to curb my water intake, to save it for my grandfather and my mother. We all slept a lot, including the dog.
We couldn’t even go for a drive to cool down in the car’s air conditioning—it was in the shop. That really became a problem once the groceries started to run low.
I was supposed to leave to go back to Oberlin a day or two after the storm, but I had to put that off for more than another week. I’d flown into Dallas and taken a bus to Mississippi, and planned to do the same to go back, but there was literally no path to Texas after the storm. (My ticket wasn’t even refunded because the storm didn’t hit Dallas.)
We went without power for about a week, and without phones (both cell and landline) for two or three days. The landline came back before the cellphone did, but with incoming calls only. We fielded call after call from distraught family members. Each one gasped after they heard my mother’s or my voice. They’d been calling for days.
None of my other relatives had ever really been to Mississippi, so they didn’t know if the newscasts were exaggerated. We didn’t know ourselves how bad it was until we talked to my brother, who told us the interstate was broken up like dominoes.
When my cell phone came back on, it was full of increasingly distressed voicemails from friends at Oberlin. All the way full. Apparently, there had been an automatic message that started, matter-of-factly, “Due to the hurricane in the area you are calling…” They didn’t know how close I was to the coast or how much danger I was in. And because these were the days before text messages, they had no recourse other than to leave voicemail on top of panicked voicemail.
We were essentially cut off from the rest of the world, but Mississippians are no strangers to blackouts. Blackouts were part of the setting. You expected them. They forced you to hold still, to be patient. Especially in the nighttime, when the fever of day had broken and the frogs played you a symphony, you could close your eyes and find the beauty in being cut off from the world.
We never knew when a tornado or a thunderstorm would knock power out, or when a tree would fall on a power line, or when the grid would simply get overwhelmed and give out. Since we couldn’t predict, we just stayed ready. Everyone had flashlights and batteries and candles, and most people had battery-operated radios. Years ago, I’d made my mother buy a battery-operated phone to cut down on my own panicked phone calls. The town hospital around the corner had generators. That’s where I went to charge my cell phone when it was finally working again. The elderly woman who lived next door also had a generator for her breathing machine.
When the power came back on, we saw it all with our own eyes. We saw that the towns on the coast had been completely washed away. I can still hear Governor Barbour’s voice: “I don’t mean they were badly damaged. I mean they’re simply not there.”
We saw beautiful, beautiful New Orleans flooded to her brim. We saw pictures of the vigilante groups that patrolled white neighborhoods to keep black people out. Again, I thought of Emmett and his open casket, as I watched New Orleans and the coasts turn into open graves.
We saw the “looters” and heard one of them shout to the camera in that beautiful New Orleans melody, “Yes, we stole the shoes ’cause all ours got lost in the storm!”
We saw the overhead footage of all the people stranded on their roofs. It stretched so far we couldn’t tell where it began and ended. We heard conflicting reports from channel to channel, segment to segment, about violence in the Superdome, in the Convention Center, on the Danziger Bridge. Reporters talked of people shooting at police helicopters from their roofs, but also of people so desperate for help that they shot into the sky to signal distress.
I thought about how hot those people must have been. We were suffering with no fans or air conditioning. They were suffering under the direct glare of the sun: children, pregnant women, elderly people.
The swamp reclaimed the city. Snakes and alligators and fish swam in equal terror through swallowed neighborhoods, only the roofs peeking out.
I grew up in the Mississippi River region, which is to say I grew up in both the shadow and the embrace of New Orleans. We had Mardi Gras parades, and it was easy enough to find King Cake. It wasn’t unusual to see ATMs with French as a language option. If the day was clear enough, we could point the antenna just right and get New Orleans radio stations that played the newest Master P, Hot Boys, and DJ Jubilee before we heard them anywhere else.
It was devastating to see these people, whom I’d always known to be as generous with their culture as they are with their laughter, suffer so hideously. We’d always known that New Orleans was unlike any other place in the country, or the world, but we never thought we’d see New Orleanians referred to as refugees in their own country. It was as heartbreaking as it was unbelievable.
I never thought that I’d see the Mississippi my grandfather had known when he was my age, or even the one my mother saw. The Mississippi that brutally murdered a 14-year old boy for a wolf whistle that we now know never happened. But Katrina revealed things that I could never unsee.
I didn’t know it then, but that vision formed the lens I would bring to the climate movement a decade or so later. I can’t help but see the layers of injustice that led to our current situation. The climate crisis is covered in the fingerprints of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and genocide and patriarchy. It’s what happens when large swaths of people are not only systematically “left out,” but forced to be their own gravediggers and pallbearers. I can’t help but see how those same layers complicate and exacerbate the crisis. Who is saved and who is abandoned. Whose bodies litter the road to the “greater good.”
I never saw my grandfather the same way. He’d already begun to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and in the years after the storm, I saw him become less cognizant with every visit home. We lost him in 2012.
I never saw New Orleans the same way. The next time I visited was about ten years later, and the grit of the storm was still apparent. There was construction everywhere—not to build, but to rebuild. Homes were still boarded up, with giant orange X’s on the outside and markers to show how many bodies had been found inside. To this day, everything can be dated as either “before the storm” or “after the storm”—and no one questions which storm.
Like my grandfather, New Orleans became more fragile, more tenuous. I saw the things that made them both—the pressure that made the pearl—in a way that I never had before. They became more beautiful, more precious. And I couldn’t unsee it.