Canebreaking is for all storm veterans

Hurricanes create a jumble of memories in the same way winds and storm tides jumble people’s belongings. Paul Jermyn, who collects vintage photographs and postcards to document Mississippi Coast history, took this telling one himself after Hurricane Katrina.
Hurricanes create a jumble of memories in the same way winds and storm tides jumble people’s belongings. Paul Jermyn, who collects vintage photographs and postcards to document Mississippi Coast history, took this telling one himself after Hurricane Katrina. From the Paul Jermyn Collection

What might we call this breath of time, this 12-calendar days between the two hurricanes that so changed our lives, our attitudes and the physical properties of our beloved Mississippi Gulf Coast?

With tongue in cheek, yet acknowledging this is no laughing matter, I propose the designation “canebreak.”

Two storms

Between Aug. 17, 1969, the date of Hurricane Camille, and Aug. 29, 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina struck, there are 36 years but only 12 calendar days.

For me, and I suspect for thousands of other veterans of these two storms, this canebreak is a time for reflective remembrance.

Did we survive? Yes.

Are we changed? Yes.

Can it happen again. Yes.

I was so young and so innocent of disasters when Camille arrived. I was busy packing a trunk to send by Trailways bus to West Virginia, where I was to be a freshman in the W. Page Pitt School of Journalism at Marshall University. When I’d read an article on the fascinating Professor Pitt in Reader’s Digest, I set aside any calling to a Mississippi college. I wanted Prof Pitt to teach me.

Pre-college summers

I spent many summers as a shrimp boat deckhand so I could pay Marshall’s out-of-state tuition. I suffered through classes of the inimitable Mrs. Granberry so I could work on her Gulfport East High School newspaper staff to prepare myself for the real world of journalism.

As Camille bore down that summer, Capt. H.R. Richards, a family friend as well as owner of the shrimp trawler Little Jug, asked Mom if my brother Richard, already in college and also deck-handing, could stay with him on the boat. Coast fishermen knew to get off front beach and head to the back bays, rivers and inlets to save their boats.

Captain H.R. assured Mom it would be safe in the back waters, that experienced fishermen knew how to raise and lower lines in response to rising and receding storm tides.

Imagine how we at home worried in the disastrous aftermath of the storm, realizing that Camille had killed many residents and sunk boats. The wait for news from the Little Jug was nail-biting.

Oh, the memories

Captain H.R. and Richard did survive and so did the Little Jug. I can still hear Richard, who died of cancer at 24, describing what it was like.

In the winds, which reportedly reached 200 mph, he couldn’t crawl to raise and lower the lines but had to slide on his belly with safety ropes.

College freshmen in those days were required to take speech classes, and when assigned to give an emotional speech, my topic was Camille.

During the presentation, I became teary eyed as did many fellow students. Talk about raw emotions. Camille had shattered my young innocence in a way even harsher than the earlier death of my father.

Years later

Years later, I got my personal revenge on Camille with words. At the storm’s 15th anniversary, I was the Sun Herald’s lead writer for a massive look at how the 1969 storm affected all aspects of Coast life.

Then at the 30th anniversary of the storm, I was fortunate to work with Julia Guice to announce in this newspaper how many people had actually died or disappeared in the 1969 storm. Before that, reports varied widely and included too much guesswork.

Julia’s tenacity at contacting family, reading endless reports and cross-referencing names led to the most accurate figure: 172 dead and missing. You should recognize the Guice name. Julia was Biloxi’s Civil Defense director and her husband Wade was Harrison County’s CD director. They were credited with saving thousands of lives by their forceful stances on Camille evacuations.

And then more memories...

Camille became the standard for all Coast hurricanes. But that changed with Katrina in 2005.

I remember standing in the middle of the newsroom and announcing to no one in particular, “I am getting tired of all these life-altering experiences!”

Katrina claimed my wonderful 1920s Craftsman cottage and forever altered the Coast’s historic aura. As a veteran “sense of place” writer, I felt the personal and community losses deeply.

I also got even with Katrina through words.

I researched, tracked down and interviewed now-scattered land-, home-, church- and business-owners to document their stories of loss in more than 400 “Before & After” vignettes published in this newspaper and a book.

Now and for generations to come, this Sun Herald “Before & After” project, which was the brainchild of photographer John Fitzhugh, is both wrenching and hopeful.

That “We will rebuild!” determination was over-riding after both the 2005 and 1969 storms, and that is what I think about during this canebreak.

What about you? If your life straddles both of these life-altering hurricanes, you too might indulge in a bit of canebreaking.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.