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Washed away

What happens when your hometown simply disappears?

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Bay St. Louis, Miss., is my hometown. It is the town where my foundations were built, where my dreams were born, where my faith was fused. It is the town where my mom and dad grew up and where they raised their 10 children, seven boys and three girls.

It also is the town that looked Katrina in the eye and didn't survive. Katrina, who unleashed her deadly winds and swept a wall of unforgiving water across the entire Gulf Coast, left Bay St. Louis and all of her sister cities -- big and small, from New Orleans to Mobile -- a mere memory of what used to be. And, with a brutal disregard for life, she left an ever-growing list of the dead and broken and hundreds of thousands of shattered hearts.

Many of my family members still live in our hometown, including two brothers and a sister and dozens of nieces and nephews, one of whom is the mayor, and cousins. The prayers of many were answered, and they all are safe.

But what happens now? The town I knew as a child no longer exists. She withstood the mighty blow of Camille in 1969. The winds and water of other storms. But this time she went to her knees and couldn't rise.

The church where I was baptized has been reduced to a shell, but most of the beautiful stained glass windows were not harmed. The elementary and high schools where I spent 12 years have been gutted. The bridge that connected us to other coastal cities is gone. And the scene is repeated street by street, block by block. What was a launching pad of promise for us is now just a gumbo of wood and bricks and mortar thrown without care across the landscape as far as the eye can see.

But the report of destruction coming from Hurricane Katrina was not the lead paragraph for me. The buildings could be replaced. My questions were simple: What about my sister and brothers and their families, and all of my many other relatives? And friends I have known all my years? And those same questions were being repeated thousands upon thousands of times by families across the land. It took more than 72 hours and a lot of heroic efforts of others to learn that all our relatives who stayed behind had survived. So many families are still awaiting word. And for so many of them, the news will not be good. The list of the dead is still being written.

Bay St. Louis is my hometown. But in a way, it is everyone's hometown. The little Alabama town, Bayou La Batre, is everyone's hometown. New Orleans and Ocean Springs and Biloxi and Gulfport and Long Beach and Pass Christian are everyone's hometowns, even if you have never been there.

Every stricken location is our hometown.

So much has to be done. And it will never be the same. As I talked to my younger sister for the first time after she was rescued from 5 feet of water in her home, we spoke of many things, but the one thing uppermost in her mind was that she had to get back as soon as possible and search the rubble in what was left of her home to find the cross that was our mother's. It is her material link to the love shared by a mother and daughter.

There are thousands of other stories just like my sister's. And that's why when all the water is gone, when reconstruction begins, when there is a sign of hope to rally around, the ground of my hometown, and of all the hometowns in Katrina's path, will continue to be soaked again and again with our tears.

Gregory Favre is a faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the retired editor of the Sacramento Bee. He's also an editorial adviser to Creative Loafing Media.

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