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Coast recovery story must continue to be told

Last Saturday, almost 10 months after Hurricane Katrina, I gotmy first in-person glimpse of damage the storm brought to the GulfCoast and the rebuilding effort that is under way there.

Aside from family vacations there when I was a child and somepast Mississippi Press Association functions during my time withthe newspaper, I’ve not made many trips to the Coast. I’ve simplynot had the time, interest or inclination to go.

It would probably be many more months before I went had it notbeen for this year’s MPA convention. But, as the “Killing two birdswith one stone” cliche goes, I welcomed to the opportunity tosurvey storm damage while attending the convention.

I missed some guided tours for out-of-area press people Friday,but took some time Saturday to check out the scene between Biloxiand Gulfport on my way back to Brookhaven. I suspect a truck withan Arkansas license plate in front of me on Highway 90 was doingthe same thing.

Shock. Awe. Bewilderment. Amazed. Mystifying.

All those words came to mind during my brief tour. Had I seenharder-hit areas like Waveland, Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, Iimagined a struggle to find words to describe those places.

Being the fast food junkie I am, one of the oddest sights for mewas seeing “Drive-Thru” signs that withstood the storm next toslabs that once supported a restaurant. “Drive thru what?,” Ithought.

Not being all that familiar with the Coast, several times I felta little lost – as if I had missed a turn or passed by somethingthat was no longer there. There was precious little on the southside of the highway to help me get my bearings.

The other thought that dominated my brain was the enormity ofthe destruction. It wasn’t just the small stretch I traveled; Iknew it ran the length of the Mississippi coast and into Alabamaand Louisiana.

While brightly colored construction fences encircled work zonesfor rebuilding, other areas looked as if they had not been touched.Rebuilding has come a long way, but it still has a long way togo.

This year’s MPA convention theme was “Mississippi Newspapers:Lighting The Way.” Some Saturday morning programs focused onrecovery and rebuilding and the role state newspapers will play inthose efforts.

Mississippi’s five coast newspapers, which were featured in adocumentary by Ole Miss Student Media Center Director Dr. RalphBraseth and shown during the convention, understand fully what theCoast went through and what will be needed to bring it back to whatit once was. Other southern Mississippi newspapers whosecommunities were impacted by Katrina’s fury also understand.

For many other communities and much of the rest of the nation,though, the perception is that coast life months after thehurricane is pretty much back to normal. Just from my brief visit,I could tell that perception is far from the truth.

Another Saturday morning program was “Getting Mississippi’sStory Told,” featuring CNN correspondent and Bay St. Louis nativeKathleen Koch. She discussed a documentary she did in Bay St. Louisin the days and months after Katrina and another one planned to airaround next month’s one-year anniversary of the storm.

Koch was asked about her expectations of news coverage markingthe anniversary. Her response – that attention would again be onNew Orleans – was disappointing.

Koch relayed stories about comments from her televisionassociates who were impressed with Coast residents’ resilience anddetermination to pick up the pieces of their lives and to make thenext day a little better than the one before.

Mississippians aren’t ones to wallow in misery, but assistancewill continue to be needed as the Coast endeavors to come back fromKatrina. Newspapers – and other media – must continue to shine thelight so that fact is not forgotten.

Write to Matt Coleman at P.O. Box 551, Brookhaven MS 39602,or send e-mail to mcoleman@dailyleader.com.