I lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for 14 years. In fact, I started my job at the Biloxi paper on Aug. 17, 1982. I am able to remember that date because it was the anniversary of Hurricane Camille, which slammed into the coast near Pass Christian, Miss., on Aug. 17, 1969, taking the lives of 172 coast residents.
In 1985, on Labor Day, my wife and I pulled mattresses into the hallway of our Gulfport duplex and scurried beneath as Hurricane Elena ploughed into the coast. We listened as the storm roared through our neighborhood, flinching at the sound of massive limbs from the live oaks splintering and crashing all around. No deaths were reported from the storm, which hit at 6:30 a.m., but we were without electricity for five days. Elena was the most severe hurricane I experienced during my years on the coast, but every year brought with it the threat of a great hurricane, perhaps the next Camille.
When the toll from Monday's hurricane is at last compiled, in the future coast residents may well brace themselves for the next Katrina.
Here in Arizona the weather has its own challenges. Even so, Arizonans are free from fears of the great natural disasters that threaten other parts of the country. Sometimes people ask why anyone would want to live in a place where nature's fury is so often a real possibility.
It's a legitimate question.
In my time there, I had often heard it said that if you grew up on the coast and left, you would return someday. I saw it happen often enough not to discount that view. Like the tide that breaks upon the coast's 40 miles of undeveloped beaches, you are always drawn back.
Right now, the images of devastation we see on TV and in the newspapers invoke sentiments of horror. But the people who live there have seen other images. They have seen the stately antebellum-era homes built on the bluffs overlooking the waters, shaded by massive live oaks whose branches are draped with Spanish moss. They have seen incredible sunsets over Gulf waters. They have watched the distant fishing boats plying their trade, the sailboats gliding on a sea of glass. They have seen the Least Terns burst joyously from their grassy nests on the beaches, watched gulls and pelicans in their majestic dives into the waters to grab fish.
There is a serenity and beauty in the Gulf that eases the soul and calms the nerves in a world that often churns with distractions. When things crowd in on you, when the storms of life surround you, you go to the beach and draw calm from the sea breezes that dance on your skin, the gentle sound of the waters washing against the sand and the aroma of the salt air.
The beaches along the Gulf Coast are often referred to as "The Redneck Riviera,'' emphasizing the coast's identity as an unpretentious place. While the coast became a playground for wealthy New Orleanians, it was also home to working class people. It's an affordable sliver of what passes for paradise.
And, yes, there is a cost associated with it, as we are reminded this week.
Why would anyone live where the forces of nature can work its wrath? Because it is also a place where nature also works its wonders.
For those who chose to call the coast home, it is a risk worth taking.
It may be months, even years, before the coast recovers from Hurricane Katrina.
But the people who call the coast home will, like the tide, surely return.