People are often surprised when I describe the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
I assume they expect to hear of only farms and rickety shacks. But that couldn't be farther from the truth.
Instead there are art galleries on nearly every corner. Community theaters present shows that rival professional companies'. Million-dollar homes grace the coastline. Independent restaurants offer delicacies the big chains can't even touch.
Or at least that was how I once described the area.
Last Monday Hurricane Katrina destroyed a piece of the world that many people considered paradise. As television newscasters stand among the rumble and ruins, they have no idea what was truly lost.
As a former resident, I can only offer a glimpse of what life was like there.
I moved to the coast in the early fall of 1999, where I worked as a front desk clerk for a beachfront hotel in Gulfport and traveled an hour to Hattiesburg to attend college every other day.
After graduating two years later, I landed my first newspaper job with a community paper in Biloxi. By then I was getting familiar with each city along the shoreline. Each town was distinctive; yet there was a cohesiveness that joined them all together.
Eventually I settled in Hancock County where I worked as a reporter at a small newspaper in Bay St. Louis. It was there that I discovered I had fallen in love with the people and communities of the Gulf Coast. Although I wasn't a native of the area, I was at home. This was the place where I belonged.
Life moved at a slower pace on the coast, and therefore, people had more opportunities to enjoy themselves. I don't recall meeting many people there who were particularly serious or callous. Nearly everyone smiled all the time, and few people were strangers. A trip to any local store or restaurant naturally led to encounters with a friend or friendly acquaintance.
Festivals of all flavors punctuated every season, and Mardi Gras was an actual holiday. In October classic cars would dominate the roads along the entire coast as part of an annual antique car celebration.
Lunch and dinner were always occasions, and fried green tomatoes and shrimp po-boys were the staples of many menus.
Art and culture thrived there. Nearly every second Saturday, Bay St. Louis would host a mini-festival on Main Street for a chance to mingle and showcase local artists. Live music would cling on the breeze from the bay as locals and tourists alike drifted in every shop in Olde Towne while munching on hors de vors and sipping wine.
On the weekends during the summer, many people would cruise the back bay in their boats, and on Independence Day they would cast their anchors near the casino and applaud as fireworks lit up the night sky and the dark water.
Our lives were rich and decadent, and I honestly don't believe any of us took it for granted. Life was simply sweet.
In a single day, that way of life was destroyed. The towns that pumped life into the Gulf Coast will rebuild, and over the years some semblance of what once was will prosper again. But it will never be the same.
No, those who are stepping foot on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for the first time will never know what was swept away by Hurricane Katrina.
Shannon Jenkins is the education reporter for The Daily Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (770) 957-9161.