The storm came back. This time, her winds were weaker. They had lessened to 125 miles per hour, a strong Category 3, but not enough to spare the Mississippi coastline from destruction.
After its initial landfall in Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane on the morning of Monday, August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina returned to decimate Mississippi’s coastline—a fact I had no knowledge of until I arrived in the town of Gulfport almost 13 years after the arrival of the storm.
Today, Katrina’s damage remains like a silver scar that stretches the length of the coast. In most places, the scar is still new and shiny, freshly sutured skin stretched tenuously over the ragged flesh beneath.
Driving on East Beach Boulevard, alongside the 26 miles of man-made beach that runs alongside the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I pass gilded casinos, jutting peers, and hot pink trash cans that flash periodically in the periphery of my vision like a bacterial smudge at the edge of a petri dish.
The homes on the other side of the highway, the residential properties closest to the water, are either brand new, under construction, or still sitting in ruin; some are nothing more than concrete slabs and rotting furniture. Many of the new homes are meant to look like the Antebellum mansions that once bordered the coast. Others have been more pragmatically designed. Perched high on stilts, they are suspended safely out of reach from future floodwaters.
The massive angel oak trees, their branches stretched like arthritic fingers, are some of the only coastal survivors of the storm. The trees that were damaged have been repurposed, their jagged trunks carved into playful dolphins by a chainsaw.
I have spent the past few weeks studying the history of civil rights in Mississippi, governmental policies, and current political concerns in anticipation for my spring break trip as a student in Professor Premilla Nadasen’s course, The Mississippi Semester.
We—Professor Nadasen, my seven classmates, our teaching assistant Fatima Koli, BC ’17, and I—are the guests of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, a nonprofit focused on improving child care equity in Mississippi. We have been invited to tour the state, observe welfare policy in action, interview its beneficiaries, and better understand what it means to live in a state that until recently has been consistently ranked the worst in the nation. We are strangers to Mississippi, and we are here to learn.
Like most trips, ours begins with a cab ride from an airport to a hotel and by the late afternoon of Sunday, March 11, I am sitting in the back of Helen Stockstill’s cab having just arrived on a flight from New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport to the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.
Helen—who drives the taxi taking us to a Best Western minutes from one of Gulfport’s seminal tourist attractions, the Hard Rock Cafe, and who was born in Biloxi—likes to talk. We ride in a taxi plastered with sticker encouragements like “I freaking love you so much” and ornamented with dashboard paperweights including a pink plastic flamingo.
Helen is white and middle aged, has a crew cut, and is dressed in a checkered button up shirt, blue jeans with an elastic waist, and orthopedic sneakers. Before she drove a taxi, she drove an eighteen-wheeler semi-trailer truck. She has seen most of the United States, she says. She likes New York City, but has found that the people there often do not like her.
“I walk up to people in New York, and they look at me like, ‘What do you want?’” Helen jokes. Her comment is punctuated by three hiccups of a nassaled laugh, like a puckish schoolboy.
She assures me that she means no offense, that New Yorkers are nice enough to her as soon as they realize she “isn’t after something.” She is often “after” the same thing: a restaurant recommendation—she tells me she likes to eat.
She tells me the best place to eat dungeness crab in town, which is different than the best place to eat royal reds, a deep-water shrimp that tastes like lobster. She knows where to eat in and where to do takeaway for a meal that is half the price.
Her voice is legato and so is her attitude. She says both are typical to Mississippians.
“We are so laid-back,” she jokes, “Northerns describe us as dead.”
As she drives, her thick, tanned arms resting heavily on the steering wheel, Helen, without my prompting, begins to tell her hurricane story.
While New Orleans got most of the media attention, explains Helen, Biloxi was ground zero for the storm. Her home was entirely destroyed. While she waited for money from the insurance company that would allow her to rebuild, she camped in a tent in her front yard for three months. She had no water and no electricity. Still, Helen says she was lucky.
Her new home sits miles away from the coast. It has a small diesel generator and stockpiled drinking water and nonperishable goods, such as saltine crackers and cans of tuna fish. Listening to Helen, the idiom, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me” comes to mind. Helen is no fool.
While the story of the decimation in Louisiana, particularly the failure of the city’s levees in New Orleans, was well documented, the media forgot Mississippi. It forgot Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, Gautier, and Pascagoula. It forgot the 238 Mississippians who died.
People within and outside of the state have continued to forget Mississippians—a fact that is abundantly clear to anyone who visits the state and only grows more apparent the longer you stay and the harder you look.
I come from a well-manicured suburb on Long Island with tidy bike lanes and heavy shoulders for safe walking, though my mother still worries when I go for a run on my occasional trip home. In New York City, I prefer to walk. But in Biloxi, no one walks. I try to anyway.
Charting a 0.8 mile trip to the Moore Community House, where I am scheduled to interview administrators of an Early Head Start program, I am naively confident in my ability to traverse the distance of several city blocks.
But there are almost no sidewalks in Biloxi. The intersections are entirely closed. I walk through construction zones with mud, chunks of concrete, and orange traffic cones dusted in yellow sand. Except for the men in hardhats, stained undershirts, and square work boots who labor to fix the perennially disfigured roads, I am the only one on the street. The lack of pedestrians is unnerving. Walking the street the sun holds solidly in the sky, hours away from sunset, but it feels to me like the dead of night.
At a certain point, I find the road closed. Determined not to turn back, I sprint through someone’s backyard, passing rusted playground equipment and sidestepping small piles of dog shit which set my heart racing for fear the animal will soon appear. This is the last time I offer to walk.
I arrive at the Moore Community House, a small collection of former churches, its main building painted key lime yellow, to interview Mary Harrington, the director of Early Head Start—a government program that provides early education to children living below the poverty line.
The roads have made their lives difficult as well. Parents have had to devise creative routes to successfully deliver their children, often tacking on additional travel time to their commutes. Mary is not aware of families that walk. I cannot imagine navigating the torn sidewalk with a stroller or toddler.
Later in the week, as I ride shotgun in the car of Director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative Carol Burnett on the way to the Mississippi Delta, we hit a pothole.
“I guess torn-up roads is kind of a theme for the week,” she says laughing as the car dips. Carol is small and bird-like and I am thankful for the seat belt that holds her in place.
The roads have been awful for some time in Biloxi. It began when local officials said they would tear up the old roads in order to make improvements. They tore them up, Carol says, but the improvements never came. It’s different in the delta where roads have simply deteriorated over time through chronic neglect.
The delta is flat. After a heavy rain, small groves of petrified trees form roadside swamps. The scene feels otherworldly, extra-terrestrial.
While government neglect is acknowledged by almost everyone I speak with on our trip, some also consider the failure of Mississippi’s parents to care for their own children.
Back in Mary’s office, when I ask her what economic concerns the parents of her students face, she describes the financial debt that many accumulate in order to keep their families operating. This includes mortgages, if they are fortunate enough to own their home, but more frequently means using student loans on food or gas rather than on classes and books.
But the woman sitting across the office, who like Mary is also white, does not believe that debt is always taken on selflessly.
“Or they get their hair done,” the woman says from across the room in her first entry into our conversation. “They take out a loan and they use it on themselves. They go shopping.”
When we meet with Sylvie Barber, the director of Little Darlings Child Care Center in Greenville, she shares similar criticisms. She says that parents often have to learn to do without, to give up the things they want in order to provide for their children. This was something Sylvie says she had to learn as a black single mother raising three sons. Making sacrifices, she argues, means setting your children up for the future.
She sees some of the parents she meets as selfish, and through the work in her center she tries to change that by teaching them how to be better parents.
The parents work mainly at McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants, some are gas station attendants. Most of these jobs pay at or close to the minimum wage, which in Mississippi is $7.25 an hour. All but one child at her center, which cares for more than 30 children, comes from a single-parent household.
But Sylvie also acknowledges the state’s role in abusing individuals who receive welfare, such as funds distributed through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Act (TANF).
Parents who are able to get their children into a Head Start or Early Head Start program, of which there are few, are guaranteed child care for their children until they enter into the public school system. But for those who receive vouchers through TANF, parents must be employed or fulfill work requirements.
“Some people abuse TANF workers,” Sylvie says. “You go mop, you go clean the bathroom, but you don’t get paid. You are a volunteer, but you [have to] volunteer to get your TANF money.”
Sylvie says that Head Start and Early Head Start centers also pose a threat to independently run child care centers like hers.
Moreover, while Head Start has been celebrated as a successful federal program that is both progressive and personalized in its approach to teaching, the program fails to thrive in Mississippi as it has in other states.
Sylvie says that part of the struggle to improve child care systems in Mississippi is “racial bashing” that paints Head Start in Mississippi as a program that only serves black children and as therefore less of a priority. While some states employ models that ensure Head Start classrooms are racially and socioeconomically mixed, in Mississippi, the program only serves those children living beneath the poverty line, a population that is disproportionately black.
The idea of a mixed Head Start classroom has not been considered in Mississippi. In urban areas such as Washington D.C. and New York City, integrated program models invite higher income parents to pay for their children to attend alongside children who attend the program free of charge. Parents identifying Head Start’s progressive teaching model, and in some urban areas the added benefits of classroom diversity and bilingual instruction, rush to enroll their children. But in Mississippi, where residential segregation continues to perpetuate a segregated educational system it seems unlikely that the same enthusiasm would exist.
And while Head Start has its critics, the greater issue is the growing number of children who receive care at unlicensed facilities where no oversight measures are in place. Over the last ten years, Mississippi has added additional registration requirements, effectively cutting down the number of parents who are able to successfully obtain government child-care vouchers. Without this support, parents often can no longer afford to send their children to licensed facilities. Some parents can no longer afford to send their childcare at all and instead must stay home with their children, quit their jobs, and lose what government assistance they do receive that is dependent on employment.
After Carol, several classmates, and I visit Sylvie, we try to find her child care center among a maze of residential streets.
We never find it, but in our search we inch along passing single-level homes in nauseating colors like mustard yellow, clover green, and fuschia. Their front yards are unkempt with crabgrass and the carcasses of weathered living room furniture.
Two little girls with neat rows of braids stop and get off their bikes as we drive by. They both place their bikes on the ground, there are no kickstands, in order to wave. There are adults outside too, mostly men. They sit in lawn chairs or on front stoops. They watch our car pass, too.
On another day we visit another endeavor of the Moore Community House: Women in Construction (WinC), a job-training program that prepares women to work jobs in construction.
WinC is an initiative born out of Katrina. The program’s founder Julie Kuklinski was living in Wisconsin when she volunteered to work on an all-woman demolition team in Mississippi after watching news coverage of the storm.
Since then she has trained hundreds of other women to work jobs in construction, which typically offer much better wages than other roles traditionally ascribed to women, such as housekeeping and waitressing.
These women learn to measure, solder, and operate drills and table saws. For the duration of their training, the program provides child care, and if they complete the program, they receive another year of child care to help them while they get started.
Julie says as the state struggled to rebuild, it didn’t care what gender its laborers were.
I ask Julie if there had been a backslide since construction demand has begun to lessen with time. She assures me there hasn’t. But one building over, Mary had said the opposite. That much like the women who had worked in shipyards during the Second World War, when the demand for their labor diminished, they were pushed out of the market. Mary said it likely wouldn’t be as pronounced a backlash, but in talking to mothers who had worked construction after Katrina, they had reported that they had noticed the space for women in construction diminishing.
Many of the woman at WinC are from Mississippi, but some had come from as far as Maine and Pennsylvania just to participate in the program. The group is racially diverse containing an almost equal split between women who are white, Black, and Hispanic.
Contrary to the images of selfish parents described by some, the women participating in WinC tell stories in which they disclose the faults in their parenting while also highlighting the considerable sacrifices they have to make; working jobs that left them overworked and underpaid, sending their children to school without breakfast, having to sleep several people to a bed.
As the women speak, many sit with their shoulders hunched, chests concave as they mold themselves to their individual folding chairs. They discuss illness, both mental and physical, abuse, homelessness, and constant traveling—in some cases from one friend’s couch to another, in others from faraway countries and lives they will never return to.
Our conversation is held in another building owned by the Moore Community House, a long rectangular rectory with stained glass windows, secular, mosaic patchworks of purple, green, and gold. Like Mardi Gras kaleidoscopes, they cast colored shadows across the room.
Not all of the women speak. While most remain upright in their seats, a black woman with closely cropped hair covered by a tight black skull cap and dressed in oversized men’s clothes, black jeans and large green Purdue University sweatshirt, sits reclined. For most of the conversation she doesn’t speak, but instead monitors her classmates with veiled eyes. When she finally joins the discussion, her voice is low and hoarse. She has worked as a mechanic in garages for most of her life. She believes that sexism and racism had not impacted the events of her life.
Around the room, all of the other women, more than thirty, made noises of agreement. Rather than acknowledge that maybe they hadn’t gotten the job because of the color of their skin, roughly half of the women were black, or spoke English as their second language, or were considered an inferior candidate because of their gender, they all provided the same answer: The failure to obtain a job was entirely their own fault.
Several hours from the Moore Community House and its panels of colored light, Ellen Reddy, founder of the Nollie Jenkins Family Center, addresses us in a conference room on Mississippi’s Capitol Hill in Jackson.
Ellen is not shy about acknowledging and discussing the existence of systematic oppression and the impact it disproportionately has on women of color. After founding her center more than 20 years ago, to provide teen parents a safe and affordable place to bring their children, Ellen now focuses her efforts on molding young women into community leaders.
Ellen appears to be a practitioner of tough love. She pokes fun at her girls, she speaks fast and her words are sharp, but her love for them is boundless. Recently she has purchased two homes, one for herself and another for the girls to use as a clubhouse. Together, they discuss how they plan to decorate it. Ellen says that each girl will have her own key and that the house will serve as a place for conversations on positive body image, mental health, and sexual health that the girls likely will not have access to at school. Many districts follow “abstinence plus” curriculums that are often missing the “plus.”
It is unclear whether the South continues to subscribe to stereotypes not because they exist in reality, but because outsiders continue to pretend that they do. There are plenty of people in Mississippi who do not consider abortion at any time or under any circumstances. There are women and men who believe they are better than others because of the color of their skin. But I do believe that Mississippi is far more progressive, and continues to become more so, than we as outsiders are led to believe.
As a second grader in the 1960s, Carol, who is white, lived in the Mississippi Delta when public schools were forced to implement racial integration after defying federal law. Her adult life has centered on social advocacy projects such as organizing for textile workers, fighting for gender equality in organized religion (She was ordained as a Methodist minister after a seven-year-battle with the church) and, most recently, ensuring that more federal and local funds are used to provide child care for low-income children. Carol also believes that in the Trump era, Mississippi is one of many states with the potential to flip from red to blue.
She calls it her 13 Percent Project—and she is noticeably excited when I ask her for further explanation. If just 13 percent of voters switched, says Carol, the state might be able to elect a Democrat to the Senate as it is trying to do with former Congressman Mike Espy, who is currently the lone Democrat and will square off against two Republicans in the November election.
When I think of Mississippi, I think of snapshots of highway, blurred images viewed from a car window: abandoned child care centers, Waffle Houses, roadside stands selling Hawaiian ice, gourmet popcorn and egg rolls, Dog’s Fried Chicken.
At the Half Shell, I eat myself sick on seafood paella. I watch a hungry man standing in the Waffle House parking lot. I’m sick, but no longer from the food.
I learn that sport pepper is a vinegar pepper sauce. A tabletop condiment, the sauce is eaten on turnip or collard greens while the individual peppers remain in the jar.
We are told by Jason, our waiter, that not knowing this marks us as “out-of-towners.”
I am an out-of-towner. But if I moved to Mississippi, I wonder how long the feeling would last.