Hurricane Katrina

MISSISSIPPI'S INVISIBLE COAST

As Aug. 29 recedes into the conscious time of many Americans, the great storm that devastated 70 miles of Mississippi's Coast, destroying the homes and lives of hundreds of thousands, fades into a black hole of media obscurity.

Never mind that, if taken alone, the destruction in Mississippi would represent the single greatest natural disaster in 229 years of American history. The telling of Katrina by national media has created the illusion of the hurricane's impact on our Coast as something of a footnote.

The awful tragedy that befell New Orleans as a consequence of levee failures at the time of Katrina, likewise, taken by itself, also represents a monumental natural disaster. But, of course, the devastation there, and here, were not separate events, but one, wrought by the Aug. 29 storm.

There is no question that the New Orleans story, like ours, is a compelling, ongoing saga as its brave people seek to reclaim those parts of the city lost to the floods.

But it becomes more and more obvious that to national media, New Orleans is THE story - to the extent that if the Mississippi Coast is mentioned at all it is often in an add-on paragraph that mentions "and the Gulf Coast" or "and Mississippi and Alabama."

The television trucks and satellite dishes that were seen here in the early days have all but disappeared.

While there has been no study to quantify the amount of coverage accorded to the plight of so many here or in New Orleans, it is obvious to any observer that the number of news stories on New Orleans is many times that of those focused on Mississippi.

So, why does that matter?

It matters first as it relates to journalism's obligations to cover human beings whose conditions are as dire as those that exist here.

The depth of the suffering and the height of the courage of South Mississippians is an incredible story that the American people must know. But, in the shadows of the New Orleans story, the Mississippi Coast has become invisible and forgotten to most Americans.

Could it be possible that the ongoing story of an Alabama teenager missing in Aruba has received more coverage on some cable networks than all of the incredibly compelling stories of courage, loss and need of untold thousands of Mississippians? Maybe a lot more coverage?

The second reason that the coverage matters is in the realm of politics. If the American people and their elected representatives do not truly know the scope of the destruction here, and if they are not shown the ongoing conditions afflicting so many, then there are consequences which are playing out even this week in Washington, where Congress will act, or not act, to relieve the incredible pain that has reduced the condition of so many American citizens to Third World status or worse.

If the people do not know, they cannot care.

We believe if they are shown the extent of the devastation and the suffering, they and their representatives will respond.

So the coverage matters. A lot.

The problem, to some extent, is that you have to be here and see it for yourself to comprehend the utter destruction that is so much like Berlin or Tokyo after World War II.

We would like to invite our news colleagues from across the nation to come and view the Coast with us. It is impossible to comprehend this disaster from afar. A television can display only a single screen of the damage. When you have driven mile after mind-numbing mile and viewed the complete nothingness where cities and homes and businesses once stood, only then will you begin to understand what has happened here.

Then you will begin to wonder, where are all the people who used to live on this beautiful shore? What has happened to their families and all of those shattered lives? That is when you will understand that the story of Katrina in South Mississippi isn't over, it has only begun.

On the third day after Katrina crushed us, this newspaper appealed to America: "Help us now," the headline implored. America answered with an outpouring of love and help. That response saved us then.

Our plea to newspapers and television and radio and Web sites across the land is no less important today: Please, tell our story. Hear the voice of our people and tell it far and wide. We are here. Do not forsake us.

We are no footnote.

by DAVID PURDY/SUN HERALD

Charles Gray gingerly navigates his way Tuesday across the large pile of debris that used to be his home on Washington Street in Bay St. Louis. Gray was watching the Army Corps of Engineers clear the pile in hopes of spotting some of the belongings he lost when his home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. More than three months after the storm, thousands of South Mississippi residents are still displaced and digging out from the piles of debris.

Katrina's toll in Mississippi

$125 billion

Estimated dollar amount of damage caused by Hurricane Katrina

231

Identified dead statewide

5

Unidentified dead

67

Missing

65,380

Houses in South Mississippi destroyed

383,700

Mississippi insurance claims filed (Katrina and Rita)

$5 billion

Claims paid (as of Nov. 21)

141,000

Insurance claims filed in South Mississippi

$1.3 billion

Claims paid in South Mississippi

$185 million

Red Cross money spent in South Mississippi as of Nov. 30

- Figures are most recent available

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