Saturday, August 29, 2015

Katrina in Mississippi: Loss, Law, Love and Food

Ten years ago today, I was an associate at Watkins & Eager in Jackson, Mississippi.  I was in the quiet office early to finish a brief, with a window open on my monitor showing the weather radar and Hurricane Katrina's front pushing onto shore. I finished the project and went home to batten down the hatches with my wife, Jennifer, and Betsy, our eight month old. 

Katrina was still a Category 1 when it hit Jackson, about 150 miles inland. Katrina pummeled south Mississippi and the Gulf Coast.  We had one death in our neighborhood, from a falling tree.  We were out of power for just a week and lost some big branches in our yard, far more fortunate that hundreds of thousands of our neighbors to the south.  (Including my dear friend, Al Sturgeon, now Dean of Students at Pepperdine University School of Law, who lost his home and pastored the congregation on the coast in whose church building he and his family had to live for weeks).

Our church, Meadowbrook Church of Christ in Jackson, became our primary hub of relief activity, distributing tons of material every day to shelters without Red Cross Support, donated by thousands of people from across the country. We served on some chainsaw crews that helped dig out little towns in the pine woods of southern Mississippi, weeks after the storm but still before FEMA arrived.  The Mississippi Bar mobilized young lawyers for disaster legal relief, and I worked my first-ever pro bono cases for some tenants who had arrived to find themselves displaced by landlords who needed some place to live. 

Among the destruction, my favorite moment was the morning after the darkest, quietest, hottest night of our lives. Our neighborhood was wrecked, and we knew we would not have power for a long time. The restaurateur next door, the pastry chef across the street, and all the others on our block realized that we all had a whole lot of food about to go bad. We dragged our gas grills into the street, under downed power lines, around fallen oak trees, next to splintered telephone poles, beside crushed cars, amid piles of debris, and we had the most hopeful, most delicious, most neighborly cookout Belhaven had ever seen. Before we all left for our respective refuges, we gathered in our street to eat, to comfort, to commiserate, to love on each other and to bear witness to the mighty storm.

I have a map of Mississippi on my office wall.  It’s my home, however long we live far away, and, in all my growing up and lawyering in Mississippi, that moment in the middle of Manship Street with our neighbors was the quintessential manifestation of hospitality, neighborhood, community and potluck love.  

Mississippi’s motto is Virtute et Armis, by Valor and Arms, but valor wins every time, especially when it’s valorous, gritty hospitality, hope, optimism and good food in a sweltering August morning.   

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