For most of us Katrina was just another news story, and while the videos of the destruction were horrific, it was quickly forgotten when the news services moved on to the next hot story. Hurricane Katrina happened three years ago, so what new could possibly be written about it?

Actually the answer is lots, there is still much happening as a direct result of this violent storm. My wife grew up in the area affected, New Orleans, and for a number of reasons wanted to leave the frosty world of Calgary, Alberta to be closer to her family. I had no real ties to Calgary, and the idea of an adventure appealed to me. So it was off to the deep south we headed.

Two days ago we moved into our new home, a duplex in the small Mississippi town of Picayune. I love new places, so as soon as we had our ‘stuff’ inside, I was off on an explore. I had no car, so it was a foot powered adventure. I actually like foot power, you get to see so much more.

What I discovered was that the destruction caused by Katrina was still very much evident. Picayune is an hour north of New Orleans but it still got smacked hard. The houses I walked by fell into one of three categories, brand new, very old and sturdily built, and last, but by no means least numerically, abandoned, decrepit, and falling down. Many people had no insurance, and certainly no money to rebuild. Where did they go? I have no clue.

It was a very revealing walk that I had. The world sees the CNN or FOX footage, but has little understanding of what is really happening, or the long term effects. A shopping mall deserted and falling down, a McDonald’s long since gone, these are the obvious clues, but what about all of those deserted houses? Where are those people?

The one thing that I have noticed is how friendly the people are here. Everyone seems to go out of their way to be helpful. I can cite a great example, I had bought a bed and a couch but had no way of getting them from point ‘A’ to Point ‘B’. I decided to take a walk, and I stopped by a small coffee shop named Cafe Amore, bought a coffee, and had the, now common conversation about ‘not being from around here’. I guess the English accent is a dead giveaway! On a whim I asked the young couple if they knew anyone who might have a truck and wanted to earn $20 transporting some stuff half a mile. After giving it some thought they suggested that I talk to Mike next door.

It turned out that Mike owns a furniture store. Mike and his wife are originally from Puerto Rico, he moved to New Orleans in the 80’s. Penniless, but having each other, they worked their way up from such lowly positions as dishwasher to becoming a store owner. Alas Katrina hit them hard, they lost their hard earned house, and they had no insurance on it. The one redeeming feature was their store in Picayune, it survived. They have rebuilt their lives, but it is not going as well it could be.

It is one thing digging out from a hurricane, and they clearly have done that. Unfortunately they now face an even bigger crisis. The US economy is in decline, and selling top end furniture has become a liability. “I don’t know how much longer we can stay in business, people just are not spending money the way they were” Mike explains.

Discretionary spending seems to have hit an all time low. “What little money people do have, they are holding onto” Mike ruefully comments.

I also talked with Raymond, he drives a large truck and commutes to New Orleans 6 days a week. “It costs me $95 to gas it up, and I do that twice a week”, he lamented.

Raymond went on to explain that Katrina forced him and his family to relocate, and that he was considering finding a job closer to Picayune but his current employer gave him a pay raise, and he enjoys what he currently does, so for now that $800 a month fuel bill is just a way of life.

Having secured a place to sit and a place to sleep (bed and couch) I decided to find out more about what drives people to live in Picayune, and the obvious place to do this was Cafe Amore. The cafe is owned by Angel and his wife. They too were victims of Katrina, with no money and a young family they moved to Picayune. The Cafe was just another deserted and hurricane beaten house. “We built this with our own hands” Angel explains. With no capital or investors they converted the front part of the structure into a vibrant cafe and the rear into a small but comfortable living area.

Angel has big plans, he would like his cafe to become a cultural focal point of downtown Picayune, but that is proving to be a difficult task. Pearl River county is a dry county, and it has taken him 18 months just to get a permit to sell beer! While he wants to move forward the town council seemed set on keeping Picayune firmly in the 1920’s. Undaunted he just keeps inching forward, I admire his stamina.

The one thing that is very evident based on my short time here in Picayune is that the town consists of two very different factions. The old school wants everything to stay the way it has been since time began, while a younger and more liberal force wants change. Even music is a battle, Angels sidekick is a dreadlocked young man who goes by the handle of ‘Trunks’, “you can’t even buy decent music in town, your only choice is Wal-Mart, and they think Frank Sinatra is risqué”.

Chris, another of the Cafe Amore crowd, is an older gentleman who originates from Austria, has a much more cynical view on life, “Picayune is the gateway to purgatory” he grumbles.

My thoughts? Well it is early days, but I am encouraged. Yes I can make this small town home, it may not have all of the luxuries of a big city, but it certainly is full of very friendly and helpful people. My wife Jan laughs at me, in her mind every time I leave the house I make new best friends! Well I guess in someways that is true. I love life, and like to enjoy it to the max. Picayune may not be for everyone, but I like to think that life is what you make of it. So, as the title of this article says, Katrina may be gone, but it is far from forgotten.

Simon Barrett

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