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Katrina's wrath still lingers in Mississippi

BILOXI, Miss. - Two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, it's hard not to find a story.

Katrina is now as much a part of this place as space and time. The legacy of the storm is everywhere, wrapped around the towns and people like the air they breathe. It is impossible to be here and not feel Katrina in your bones.

A drive along the coastal highway is like a surreal trip back in time. It starts with the trees, the huge, gnarled trees, 250-year-old sentinels, looking almost prehistoric, so firmly rooted here that not even Katrina could wash them away. Staring at the fields of trees - and the nothingness beneath them - it is easy to imagine that it is 1808 or 1608 and not 2008. Only the occasional bit of debris still stuck in the limbs belies the fact it is present day.

The fields of grass where houses and businesses once stood are subtle reminders that the Gulf Coast is, for now, not so much a place where things are but where they used to be.

Here was a casino, there a house. Here a souvenir shop, there a bank, all now just where things were.

The signs of Katrina are everywhere. They are literal:

· Excuse us while we clean up from the storm.

· This area has been deemed unsafe.

· Call us for demolition and debris removal.

There are more figurative: fences around buildings that are caving in. A sign in front of a store that does not exist. In front of an empty lot, a mailbox that will never collect mail again. Mounds and mounds of concrete and steel, looking more like the remains of a bombed-out, World War II-era European town than a modern American resort.

And there is the sand. The roads are still filled along the curbs with sand. The asphalt is crumbling, and stretches of road from Biloxi to Pass Christian are more suitable for off-roaders in four-wheel drives than beachgoers in convertibles. Men in bulldozers and loaders heap the sand in great piles 20 or 30 feet high, cleaning it out of the roads and rebuilding the manmade beaches, remaking what Mother Nature unmade.

As you pass through Long Beach, you see true devastation. Vast stretches of younger, weaker trees broken in two or pushed over by tons of seawater and relentless gales. In places, everything along the highway is gone. Here, you can't just run to the store or the gas station because they just aren't here.

But the stories are. They are as ubiquitous as the FEMA trailers and the sound of construction equipment. Ask someone and they can probably tell you a story. They are tired of talking about it, of course, but they talk anyway, seemingly resigned to the fact that the story here for the foreseeable future is Katrina - and they will always be part of that story.

Just sitting in a hotel lounge, it's easy to hear of being trapped in an attic as the water rose or returning to a flooded, powerless apartment building, only to be asked for rent right then "or get out." Or of a friend who found his kids' bodies in the trees behind his house.

But with all here that depresses and dejects, despair has been rejected by many. With all the signs of gloom and destruction are the signs of resolve.

This, too, starts with the trees, damaged ones that someone has carved into totem poles, turning ugly things into works of beauty.

There is the destroyed neighborhood where someone has built a colorful playground. A gathering of FEMA trailers named Camp Hope. A sign on a business - one that is actually open - that says "Thank you America."

And there are the American flags. They fly from businesses and homes being rebuilt, and from the tops of dump trucks and steamrollers. They fly in front of the memorials to the dead. And in many places they fly alone, solitary poles erected by someone after the storm. Here and there they fly and give hope to a place that has every right to have given that up.

Many of the people on the coast who survived and stayed haven't given up. The road ahead is so long and hard, but somehow the sounds and sights of rebuilding give the feeling that one day, somehow, these towns will make it all the way back.

It is best summed up by the words on a cross someone put up, perhaps for Easter, in front of a damaged house. They read "He has risen, and so will we."

Amen, Mississippi. Amen.

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays.