Monday, January 11, 2010

Under Surge, Under Siege, a blog becomes a book

I rode out Katrina in my town of Bay St. Louis, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Unfortunately, it turned out to be ground zero for the worst hurricane in U.S. history. Soon after, I created this blog where I posted some of my writings about the storm and the next three years of aftermath.

Thanks to encouragement from readers and supporters all over the world, I completed the manuscript for Under Surge, Under Siege, the Odyssey of Bay St. Louis and Katrina in the summer of 2009 and it was published by University Press of Mississippi in June, 2010. The hard-bound book includes 50 photographs by myself and Joe Tomasovsky. It won the 2010 Eudora Welty Book Prize and the Mississippi Library Association's Non-fiction Author Award for 2011. I stand in amazement, remembering the first time I anxiously pressed the "publish post" button.

Below, you'll find the book's prologue. Go to the official Under Surge, Under Siege site for more excerpts, book reviews, and a ton of pictures that weren't posted here - including a "visual epilogue" of Bay St. Louis.

THANK YOU, blog-world!


The atmosphere of compassion that transforms a mass of alienated individuals into a caring community is created by countless acts of kindness… To re-mind and en-courage myself in the practice of applied compassion, I collect images and stories with which to create my personal pantheon of local heroes and consecrated neighbors…”

Sam Keen, “Hymns to an Unknown God”

The invisible net of fellowship that broke the horrific fall of my town was woven long before Katrina. The knitting of that marvelous mesh was begun three hundred years before by the mariners and merchants and fishermen who first clustered their cottages on the Mississippi coast at the Bay of St. Louis. During those three centuries, the hurricanes that periodically hurtled in from the Gulf merely strengthened the weave, teaching hard lessons about the benefits of solidarity. In “the Bay,” the skills required for a flourishing community – courage, tolerance and humor in adversity – were passed down to children like a legacy and taught by example to newcomers like me.

Yet Katrina had to knock the stuffing out of the coast before I understood community as a survival mechanism. During catastrophe, those neighborly connections created lifelines of support for the individual – sometimes literally. Here at ground-zero, that supple safety net caught people during the full fury of the storm, even while the wind and tsunami-like surge scoured the shore. Few gave way to the panicked mentality of every man for himself. Seasoned and steeled by an ingrained concern for others, most of my neighbors remained calm. Many risked their own lives to save others. My serene little village was suddenly revealed as a hotbed of heroism. The portly public official, the soft-spoken shopkeeper and the zany artist were transformed into real time adventurers who faced down the most awesome storm in this country’s history with grit and with grace.

In the days that followed, when the coast was shorn of electricity, communication and law enforcement, the Bay didn’t degenerate into chaos. Despite the pain, dignity reigned. In a darkness unbroken by any light, I flung open the doors of my house at night, hoping to catch a stray breeze and then slept without fear of malice. Witnessing shell-shocked residents comforting each other, offering food and hugs and laughter, I began to understand that heroism didn’t necessarily entail the risk of a life. It could be found in a small act of generosity in the midst of fear and loss.

Soon, the elastic boundaries of our community stretched as thousands of volunteers converged on the coast. Allies materialized from unlikely corners of the country, bearing supplies, fresh energy and hope. At this writing, it’s been four years since Katrina upended the town and still volunteers continue to come, realizing that our full recovery will take decades.

During these years of grinding aftermath, the journal I began to document a fleeting weather event took an odd turn: Instead of recording the effects of a hurricane, my pen became possessed with the phenomenon of crafted kinship that sustained me - that sustained all of us in the town. I came to realize that in the Bay, community is a living web, one laced with the diverse fibers of my neighbors’ courage and the bright threads of volunteer service.

This book introduces some of those unassuming heroes. In first part, “Under Surge,” I write of the storm and the immediate aftermath, when breath-taking bravery was the rule. The second part, “Under Siege,” chronicles the perils that have threatened our town in the years since the hurricane, requiring residents to embody a more enduring kind of valor. The eight sections weave entries from my journal with the stories of townspeople and volunteers who serve so well as my source of inspiration. May they enrich your life as they have my own.

Welcome to Bay St. Louis.

all material on this site is copyright Ellis Anderson, 2009

may not be reprinted without owner’s permission