Note: It is important for people to understand that this progressive is actually quite fond of Haley Barbour. Yeah, he’s a conservative and has ties to some of the worst the GOP has to offer, but when it came down to it, though, Unca Haley didn’t abandon the Coast like other governors have or would. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is culturally and economically different from the rest of the state. We’re sane down here, but we’re in the shadow of our toothless, barefoot brethren to the north. Barbour didn’t allow that nonsense after Katrina. When most of those who elected him (re: religious nutters) wanted our aid to be contingent on eliminating dockside gaming, Barbour dismissed them and even pushed for the casinos to be able to build on land. Plus, if you’ve ever met him personally, you’d realize that he’s actually a personable and compassionate guy. He might have things in his past that are distasteful and he might have a different political ideology, but he stands as proof that not all conservatives are the “enemy.”
Today marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a storm that irreversibly changed our communities on the Gulf Coast. This is a reality that stretches from Texas to Florida. It is also of note that the storm continued to bring devastation on its march inland, all the way through to Canada.
Despite the tens of millions of North Americans impacted by this storm, people in Mississippi feel a special slight at not being the focus of attention following the storm. That focus tends to fall on New Orleans and rightfully so. Most Mississippians will tell you that it’s because “niggers” sell better on the news. That perception is exacerbated with President Obama visiting New Orleans to mark the day, eschewing other sites on the Coast. That perception is deeply flawed and evident of a failure to understand both political science and history. It is also evidence that, once again, the people of Mississippi are incapable of realizing why they are so distasteful to even other Southerners.
On August 22, 1969, Mississippi had its Katrina. Hurricane Camille literally altered the landscape of South Mississippi, creating the Camille Cut and washing out beaches and blowing down tree stands. Lives were lost and property was lost. The Coast, being the heartiest and most determined of Mississippians, rebuilt. The rebuilding was almost spiteful in its determination that this widespread destruction not be repeated. Civil, military, and corporate interests worked together to improve our infrastructure and building codes. Emergency response plans were implemented. Evacuation routes were finalized and codified.
Mississippi has a long history of devastating hurricanes, even if we just look at the years since Camille. There was Frederic, Elena, and Georges. All manner of minor storms in between worked with those major storms to influence our disaster plans. We also have the benefit of near-universal car ownership. In short, in Mississippi, there was no excuse for you to be in your home during Katrina. There was no excuse to have not secured your property and life. You had the warning and you had access to assistance to make that happen. We also have geography working for us, with largely untamed bayous allowing quick dissipation of storm surge and barrier islands that take the brunt of an oncoming storm’s damage.
New Orleans and the surrounding areas do not have those same benefits. The experience, quite frankly, wasn’t there on August 29, 2005. The lack of experience and planning, along with horrific geography, was a literal recipe for human suffering. The experience with tropical cyclones in the area involves a lot of near misses. Whereas Mississippians can take a holiday in Hattiesburg or Jackson during a storm, the people in the New Orleans area don’t really have a ready evacuation, even now. There isn’t really anyplace safe to go in the state. Even if a resident did want to leave and had someplace to go, odds are that they do not have a way to get out of the city.
Anyone that has ever visited New Orleans, even for just an afternoon at the zoo, realizes that car ownership is a futile effort. Most cities tend to be this way, but the act of owning and operating a vehicle in New Orleans is an expensive and miserable experience. If you have a car, there’s nowhere to park it for less than rent on an apartment. Driving in the city, too, is a non-starter. Low car ownership makes evacuation a Herculean feat.
One would think, however, that plans could be put into place. Attempts were made, but the Bush administration continued to cut funding to the very programs that were supposed to help the city prepare. Even just months and days prior to Katrina’s formation, New Orleans had seen their vulnerabilities laid bare. Funding and further planning were not to be, thanks to the need to pay for the Shrub’s Adventure Wars.
That is why the current administration is making it a point to make sure New Orleans is cared for properly. The last administration abandoned the area before the disaster even struck. It wasn’t just a federal failing, though, because local governments failed. The state failed. That didn’t happen in Mississippi, largely thanks to the sycophantic good ol’ boy running the state. New Orleans got screwed because they had the audacity to have a governor with a D following her title. Local corruption worsened this, too, but at least Ray Nagin is being punished for his part. We have yet to see punishment for the failures at the federal level, but that’s a different essay.
On the other side of the river, however, years of funding, direct hits, and near misses built a resilient system. Our roads and electrical systems may have been a total loss, but business still got taken care of and we had federal agencies on the ground as early as August 27. I know because I worked at one of their staging grounds prior to the storm. New Orleans didn’t have that sort of resource-staging. Of course, there wasn’t really any safe place to do so.
That’s one part of the story. Mississippi just, generally, fared better than Louisiana. We didn’t have standing water in our streets for days, after all. Hell, I had air conditioning and safe tap water within four days. That isn’t to say that there wasn’t suffering, but most of the people that stayed in their homes during Katrina and made those sad sack “Save me” calls were the ones most able to leave. Waterfront property is not cheap here. If you can see water from your house, you should not stay during a hurricane. And, yes, residents of Diamondhead, I am talking directly to you.
The other part of the story is cultural. As a general rule, Mississippi is a terrible place. The state, despite the protestations of the major international corporations that have moved in since the 1990s, still has the Confederate battle flag as part of the state flag. Prominent universities and important cultural and tourist centers are also demanding changes. Even the Lords and Saviors of the South, college football coaches, are calling for change. Mississippi’s greatest exports are calling for the flag to be changed. But, nope, gotta keep Peepaw’s rag a-flyin’.
Mississippi doesn’t get attention for the good things that happen here because we’re just so damn good at being bad. It’s become the state hobby. We’ve got Beauvoir. We’ve got a Sons of Confederate Veterans license plate. We elected Phil Bryant. Somehow, despite him having a Limbaugh-like history of being an insulting jackass, he’s about to get re-elected. We have the worst schools, but the most churches. We love welfare, but hate welfare recipients. We have the fattest kids, but those fat babies are making babies at levels that would make a fertility doctor proud. The few kids that manage to actually achieve a college degree get out of the state as fast as they can, but the redneck geniuses banding together to fix that problem can’t even acknowledge the root causes. That root cause is that, in the most technical terms, Mississippi sucks.
When the other forty-nine states treat Mississippi as a pariah, it is not without reason. We’ve earned it. We’ve earned having people look the other way when we’re in need. We’ve earned the derision. There’s a reason people can’t wait to go volunteer in Louisiana, but going to Mississippi is repellant. There’s culture on the other side of the river. There’s progressivism, in spite of Bobby Jindal. Mississippi, though? We’re stuck in the same 1860s mentality we’ve been in since Grant, Sherman, and the Union boys whooped everyone’s ass. In short, there’s a reason the world thinks Mississippi can go fuck itself.
That reason is simple: Mississippi can, in fact, go fuck itself.