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Susan Deily-Swearingen Headshot

Déjà Vu All Over Again: Contemplating Katrina and the Gulf

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It is difficult to imagine a more wearying and heartbreaking scenario than the one playing out in my hometown and all along the northern Gulf Coast right now. Pensacola, Florida has endured temporary destructions at the hands of unruly hurricanes ever since she was settled. This, however, is the first time that the storm has floated in on the Gulf without hurricane hurly burly while nonetheless destroying shrimp, birds, fish, tourism and hope.

Nearly five years ago, my three young children, my husband, our two dogs, myself, and my daughter's turtle made the frightening trip out of our then home in the greater New Orleans area to escape the monster known now simply as Katrina. For various reasons, we had to leave the day the storm was to wash ashore, and a two and a half hour trip to Pensacola became a 12 hour crawl with the outer bands of the storm buffeting our car and washing away parts of our route. Still, as anyone who saw the news during those dark days knows, we were incredibly lucky to get out at all.

When we reached our destination, we hunkered down in my Mother's home for what we thought would be a few days respite from the hot, muggy weather that would accompany the inevitable power outages back in Louisiana. We had no idea that what actually lay ahead was weeks of waiting without means of communication with our friends and neighbors. We lived in limbo watching the Dante-esque struggles along with everyone else on the omnipresent television sets and wondering : "Do I recognize that street?" "Do we know those people?" "Are we deserters for not being there when our community is suffering so vividly?"

Desertion is very much on my mind these days. Again, omnipresent televisions blare the news about the slick of oil moving towards Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and my Florida, and the familiar sense of 'I should be there doing something' nags me. I grew up on those beaches. I learned to swim and sail and surf in that water. I dug in that sand and baked in that sun, all elements which, although I am far from home , still infuse every pore of my being.

To really understand this area, you have to understand shrimp. Up here, Gulf Shrimp are an expensive delicacy, but, back home, shrimp are the food of everyman. They are plentiful, sweet and, just ask Forrest Gump, the staple of at least a million different recipes. I remember going to the docks at Joe Patti's Seafood with my Mother to buy shrimp fresh from the nets. Shrimp Boils populated my childhood, and songs of shrimp boats returning still fill my ears.

Now, shrimpers who just got their lives back in order after losing boats, and nets and businesses to Katrina are likely to lose their livelihoods again to a different kind of environmental destruction. The oil slick has already reached the Louisiana wetlands. As it moves farther east, it will likely destroy the shrimp harvesting of Gulf Shores, Dauphin Island, Pensacola, etc. as well as the livelihoods of thousands who can ill afford such setbacks.

Alone on my way back from a reconnaissance trip to New Orleans after Katrina, a man walked out on into the fast lane of Interstate 10 and lay his body down on the road perpendicular to my car. The road was mercifully uncrowded that day and I was able to stop in time. I waited while he got up off the highway and he turned to me, uttered something in disgust, and walked off towards a bridge. I called the State Police and waited on the median until I saw them come, but I didn't get out, and I'll never know what happened to him.

To this day I am haunted by that man and what I might have said if I had gotten out. I don't know if he would have listened, and it would have been a dangerous thing to do. What do you say to someone that desperate? I wish I knew. I fear that in the wake of this new disaster there will be desperation to spare. I hope someone more eloquent than I is able to find the words and the actions to help.

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