No Coast resident who passed through our fields of rubble after Hurricane Katrina would have considered calling it “paradise.” We stumbled through our broken streets in shock, wondering how on earth we’d ever piece together our lives, our families, our communities.
Yet, the past five years have shown us that catastrophe can sometimes act as a catalyst for change. Survivors and volunteers tested in the worst of circumstances often discovered an indelible inner strength and later trusted that courage as they tackled new, unimagined challenges.
‘Everything’s gonna be OK’
“If I learned anything from Katrina,” says sculptor Greg Moran, “it’s that you won’t get what you want. But sometimes, it’s like the song. You get what you need."
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Moran rode out Katrina with his son and four dogs in a barn he’d built himself on the old family farm in Lizana. The Amish-style structure was to serve as a workshop for his foundry just outside the doors. The day Katrina struck, the foundry itself — a complex and costly system of machinery for casting bronze sculptures — was nearly complete after six years of labor.
Although most of the farm’s trees fell during the thunderous winds, none scored a direct hit on the barn. Yet surveying the property afterward, Moran saw that the foundry itself had been buried by 10 feet of splintered pines. The foundry, utterly destroyed, was uninsured.
“I coped by looking at the bad things that didn’t happen,” Moran recalls. “I didn’t lose my son or my family or my barn."
While renovating a friend’s home in 2006, he received a call from Mississippi Department of Transportation. They were looking for a sculptor.
Moran was surprised. “Sculpting was the furthest thing from my mind. I was just trying to make it day by day.
He was told that the highway department had salvaged some of the metal from the structural members of the old Bay St. Louis bridge and wanted a series of bronze plaques cast from it to be installed as mile markers on the two new Coast bridges. Moran would need to make 83 three-dimensional sculptures from line drawings created by Coast artists, then cast them in a foundry — one he’d first have to rebuild from scratch.
Moran’s masters of fine arts degree and extensive sculpting experience qualified him for the job, so despite the formidable challenges, he accepted the commission. MDOT selected the drawings and Moran began the process of translating them into sculpture. As he carved the waxes from which the molds would be made, he worked to reflect the artists’ individual style. However, he noticed one strong similarity in them all.
“Although the drawings are very different in style and subject matter, each one has a sense of recovery and hope,” Moran says, gesturing at the stack of drawings he referenced. “As I studied them, I realized that all these artists inherently captured the same theme: everything’s gonna be OK."
As the last of the plaques are being completed and installed on the Ocean Springs bridge, Moran maintains that the magnitude and complexity of the project pushed him far beyond his pre-Katrina abilities as an artist and sculptor. He calls his part in the community project “humbling,” and expressed satisfaction in knowing that these “snapshots of survival by our artists will be there forever."
“Right out of grad school, I was offered several teaching positions,” he muses. “I had this vision of myself as a professor with a tweed jacket and a pipe. Now, I’m tired, sweaty and burning myself making things, but I’m loving it. The world unfolds the way it’s supposed to."
‘It helped me to be able to help others’
The “unfolding” for Ocean Springs resident Lisa Segarra began when she climbed a ladder onto the roof of her beachfront home in the middle of Katrina. As waters rampaged ceiling-high through the house that had never before flooded, Segarra and her husband huddled in the lee side of raised skylights on the roof as they sheltered four cats quaking in their carriers.
“The wind was fierce,” she remembers. “When I stood up, I could see the tornadoes everywhere. We were up there in God’s hand for about eight hours before the water receded.
“For me, it was actually a good thing to witness the storm,” Segarra says. “It helped me assimilate the losses. I was astounded, but not shocked."
Moving into a trailer on the property, she spent her days stripping the house of mud. One day, two carpenters happened by Segarra’s abandoned house and asked if she needed help.
“What kind of question is that?” she asked them, laughing.
With their assistance, renovation work began in earnest and by Christmas 2006, Segarra was living back in her home. Three months later, she took on a job as a dietician at Gulf Coast Medical Center. Although she hadn’t worked in the field in 12 years and felt “a bit rusty,” Segarra calls the job a godsend.
“It helped me to be able to help others,” she says. “When I felt bad for myself, I’d go to work. I’d been so inspired by the outpouring of love and kindness from the whole nation after the storm."
Segarra credits the job with bolstering her sense of inner peace and giving her a brighter perspective.
Presently working for the Singing River Health System, Segarra says her spiritual life has taken on more significance. “While you can’t rely on things or even people all the time, God is always there."
An event like Katrina certainly builds character,” she says. “It instilled a deep sense of humility and gratitude — even if it came with a high price.'
‘My life has definitely been enriched’
Gratitude and humility are qualities also apparent in longtime volunteer Willard Deal. Deal prefers to shift attention to other volunteers who were “utterly unbelievable.” As for the folks they’re helping? “I need to thank them!” he insists.
After the hurricane, throngs of volunteers poured onto the Coast from all corners of the country. Many had no real connection here — yet often they were so moved by their time spent here, they returned repeatedly.
Some changed the course of their lives completely and now call the Coast “home.” Deal is one of these Katrina transplants. Born and raised in Virginia, he’d spent most of his 64 years in the pristine mountains of North Carolina.
Like many Americans in 2005, Deal was stunned by the news coverage of the Katrina. Involvement became more personal when an acquaintance trapped in New Orleans with her invalid husband sent e-mails to friends on the “outside.” One of her dispatches explained how they’d finally been rescued, but too late — her husband died. And Deal’s priest had a sister living on the Mississippi Coast, where six Episcopal churches had been severely damaged or destroyed outright.
Over the following months, Deal cleared his slate of commitments and for 10 days, he joined a team from his church that volunteered at Camp Coast Care in Pass Christian. Uniting with other volunteers from around the country, the group camped at Coast Episcopal School, distributing food and water to more than 2,000 people.
One student’s Christmas “art” project on display at the school made an unforgettable impression on Deal. Children had been directed to build gingerbread houses showing the way their homes currently looked.
“Some of them were just piles of gingerbread rubble,” Deal recalls, shaking his head. “Others had blue napkins over the roof."
Returning to his mountain home, Deal began planning his next trip southward. Although he had served for years on the administrative faculty at Appalachian State University, he’d also partnered in a home-building business, learning a cross-section of construction skills. After two more volunteer trips in 2006, Deal accepted a six-month job as construction supervisor for Camp Coast Care in 2007.
“We scrounged up tools and supplies and just started building homes,” he says. “Some of the volunteers we worked with had no building experience, but they all came with open hearts and hands."
After his second stint with Coastal Camp Care, Deal sold his North Carolina home and moved to the Coast in 2009. He purchased a small cottage in Bay St. Louis, becoming one of dozens of volunteers he knows who have relocated to the region. Currently, he works part-time as a construction supervisor with Mission on the Bay.
And the reason for Deal’s dedication? “It’s the people who live here,” he explains. “They’re genuine and friendly to everyone. It doesn’t matter what your ethnicity or background is, or how much money you have.
The administrator-turned-carpenter believes that for years before Katrina, he’d been unknowingly searching for a way to make a difference. The recovery work gave him that chance, even though in his case, it meant leaving evident security behind.
“My calling was clarified by the storm,” he says. “Nobody wanted Katrina to happen; it was thrust on us. But because of it, my life has definitely been enriched.”