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Katrina could not destroy spirit of Gulf Coast

I’m from a small town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast called Diamondhead. I say the word town because up until recently, we weren’t even recognized by the state as a city. Literally. An 8-mile circle with no stop lights and some scattered stop signs. Home, just the way we like it.

But my hometown would forever change as I — as well as thousands of other Gulf Coast residents — knew it on Aug. 29, 2005. On that day, a little piece of us all was forever changed.

Let me preface by saying this: Coming from where I’m from, hurricanes are no big deal. We get them year in and year out. They start out as bigger storms, but by the time they make landfall, it’s nothing more than a big bully of a thunderstorm. I had lived in Diamondhead nearly my entire life, and that was always the case. Always.

I remember evacuating two days prior to Katrina’s arrival. We were urged by Gov. Hayley Barbour to get out of the area; that this storm was different, and my mom, being, of course, as every overly cautious mother is, told us we needed to get to Las Vegas where she resided.

My brother and I told her on numerous occasions that we’d be fine, that this was no different than every other time. Momma always does know best. Little did I know that when I left, I would be coming back to a place that my 16-year-old eyes would not recognize.

it was a beautiful day in Las Vegas on the day The Storm made landfall. I woke up to a shining sun, with the usually unbearable, dry heat of the Las Vegas Valley not being as breathtaking.

But the only thing I remember thinking was how, just over 1,500 miles away, the home I grew up in was filled with tree trunks, mud and water from the rain, and how the park I grew up playing basketball at was just a harbor for debris.

I thought about how friends I grew up with, families I considered my own, and places that helped me develop my very character and culture that I carried that day, were all in a literal fight for their lives.

I knew how bad Katrina was. How much worse — if one could imagine — it was on the little towns and cities that sat right on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico than what the news was portraying at that time.

The first phone call I made was to my best friend, a man who was gracious enough to let me be the best man at his wedding and whom I’ve long considered my brother, regardless of what our bloodlines say.

He lived in another town — which eventually also became a city — called Pearlington, which lies along the Pearl River and sits closely to the state line that separates Mississippi from Louisiana.

He didn’t answer. All I heard was the most ominous phrase I’ve ever heard on a phone call: “The number you have dialed is no longer in service.”

That recording is heard often, but in that situation, at that time, it was the worst 10-word phrase that I could’ve heard. For weeks I tried reaching him to no avail. I was able to get in touch with other very close friends, all of which hadn’t heard from my brother either.

I ended up getting ahold of him, and thankfully he and his family were all right. However his journey wasn’t as fortunate as mine.

They had walked 4 miles after The Storm hit, to the only erect gas station around, to scavenge for food. He told me that he slept in a tent, but what helped his situation was “finding a window unit in a ditch that I fixed and used for a little bit of luxury.”

That sentence right there — the ability to make light of a situation that was so treacherous and despairing — is what makes him, along with the thousands of other Gulf Coast residents, such great people.

I tell you all that — my story, his story and the harrowing story of Katrina herself — to tell you this: We have come back bigger, better and stronger than ever. The region itself, from New Orleans to Slidell, Pearlington to Diamondhead, Biloxi to the Florida Panhandle, is the toughest, most resilient region in the United States, and I couldn’t be more proud to be from such an area.

Katrina took a lot from us. She took our hope, our trust, our faith and some of our memories. But what she didn’t take, and what nothing will ever take, is the spirit of that region of the country. With the help of our Coast Guard, our sports teams and our residents, we have come back.

It’s been 10 years, and The Coast is now booming more than it ever has, and there’s no plan of stopping or slowing down anytime soon.

I’d like to also say thank you. Not just to those who sent their money to some event they thought might help, but to those who thought of us at that time, who sent thoughts our way or prayed to whatever it is you pray to. Thank you.

To borrow a line and paraphrase from one of the great writers and former residents of the Gulf Coast Samuel Clemens, “Reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.”

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