By Lana Turnbull
On August 29, 2005 Hurrican Katrina was barreling towards New Orleans, it suddenly turned slightly east, putting coastal Mississippi directly in it’s path. Once the winds subsided and the waters withdrew, what was left for many Gulf Coast communities was almost total destruction and unfathomable loss.
Katrina has taken its place among an infamous list of national tragedies, so traumatic, we all remember exactly where we were when they happened – the day JFK was shot, the attack on 911 and now Katrina. Even the name looms large when we remember the day it came ashore and the many, many days, weeks, months and years since, when life as we knew it changed forever.
Well-Being spoke to Ken Murphy, Bay St. Louis native, commercial photographer and creator of four photographic coffee table books about Mississippi. The first, My South Coast Home, released in 2001, documents the Coast the way it looked prior to Hurricane Katrina, or as he, says, ‘Post-Camille and Pre-Katrina.’
When Katrina struck, Ken and much of his family, his wife Tina, daughter Christina, mother, stepfather, sister and her family evacuated their Bay St. Louis homes to stay with his sister Mary in Florida, until it was safe to return. His daughter Nicolette, son Dylan and brothers Ray and Audie (along with their wives), stayed at Ray’s house, one block off the beachfront in Bay St. Louis.
Amid reports of the severity of the storm and its destruction, the Murphy’s asked a friend who was a pilot to fly them home the next day.
“What we found was utter devastation,” remembers Murphy. “Most of our homes were large piles of debris, with the exception of Ray’s house. We created ‘Fort Ramsel’ on the lot where my sister Danelle’s house had been, and stayed there together, eventually getting FEMA trailers we lived in until other housing was available almost three years later.”
Ken’s brother Ray, a life-long police officer, whose 100-year-old home one block from the beach was damaged but spared, set up what they called “Fort Murphy,” and immediately began taking care of people who needed help – feeding them and providing water.
“He basically opened his home to people,” noted Murphy. “It became the local supply depot. The way he and other people tried to help, lots of people from all over the country, renewed my faith in humanity. It was unnerving to see all of the volunteers who came to do whatever they could.”
According to Ken, parts of Bay St. Louis are coming back now, such as the downtown area, but he admits they still desperately need more people to return home. He estimates that only about half of those who relocated after the storm have come back.
We asked Ken as a photographer who had chronicled his beloved Coast, how it has changed since Katrina.
“The Gulf has come back. Changes to the natural coastline are almost imperceptible,” he explains. “Nature heals itself, but the things of man are not so easily restored. There are still empty pilings and vacant slabs to remind us of what was lost. We haven’t been able to rebuild our business, ten years later, but in many ways we’re more fortunate than a lot of people. We only lost material things.”
Did Ken and the rest of the Murphy clan ever consider moving away after Katrina?
“Maybe for a few minutes,” he notes. “But this is our home. You have to remember, this wasn’t our first rodeo. We went through Camille, too. We don’t believe our loss entitled us to any special treatment. When the storms come, you clean up, rebuild and go on with your life, and hope there won’t be another big one before you die.”
Ken and most of his family have still not rebuilt their homes. Their beachfront land was taken by “inverse condemnation” by the State of Mississippi for the new Bay St. Louis Harbor, and while the jury in a civil case found in favor of the Murphy’s, the State is currently appealing the decision.