Four years ago this Saturday, the worst natural disaster in modern American history hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast and moved through the state costing more than 230 lives and causing damage generating tens of billions of dollars in federal aid. More than half the state was a disaster zone and eighty percent of Mississippians were without electricity. Katrina wiped clean an eighty mile stretch of the Mississippi Gulf Coast transforming ports and factories and homes and towns into unidentifiable rubbish fields of more than 45 million cubic yards of debris. More than 70,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, and another 160,000 took significant damage.

There are events that in a matter of hours change lives and history. September 11, 2001 did that for the United States. August 29, 2005 did that for Mississippi.

Two days before Katrina, I was on the Gulf Coast to fish off the Mississippi barrier islands. The storm Hurricane Katrina had changed course so instead of going to the islands, we rode the boat inland through the Biloxi Back Bay. We joined a stretching line of boats of all shapes and sizes: pontoon boats, charter fishing boats, shrimp boats, yachts - it looked like a sci-fi movie of space refugees from a destroyed planet. Little did I know how true that would be. We floated by hotels, casinos, bed and breakfasts; I never thought they would be erased Monday morning. We waited in line under the Highway 90 draw bridge for our time to move under it. That bridge, too, would be gone, its concrete slabs tossed into the water and the highway buried under sand and debris.

This seemed routine to the Coasties. Unfortunately, that hurricane fatigue affected many of us. Some of our group left Saturday night. Some others, including myself, stayed behind. Sunday morning we awoke at the Grand Casino Hotel to a note slid under the door that said the casino was closed, the hotel was closed, and we all had to get out immediately. The Weather Channel was on mute and someone asked what it was reporting. I said, "I'm not sure, but it looks like a red blob the size of Georgia is heading for our pool." To make matters worse, Jim Cantore, the Weather Channel's harbinger of doom, was broadcasting live from our parking lot. We packed and left along with thousands of others.

Governor Haley Barbour had been telling people this would be a storm like Camille. That 1969 hurricane still haunted the Coast and invoking its name began shaking people from their storm fatigue.

Monday morning I left Jackson and drove into the top edge of the storm on my way to Laurel. I was on a leave of absence from my job with Congressman Chip Pickering and was helping his father Judge Charles Pickering write the first of two books on his experiences in a confirmation fight for the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. We worked for a few hours that morning until the power went out. We moved onto the porch where there was more light until my laptop battery died. Then we watched the storm.

Despite being 90 miles inland, Katrina hit Laurel as a category two hurricane with 110 mile-per-hour winds. As the eye of the storm passed over Judge Pickering's farm the wind and rain subsided, the sun came out, and there was quiet. The storm began anew as the eye moved north.

Once the storm passed, I traded my laptop for one of two chainsaws and a pair of work gloves Judge Pickering had brought from the barn. My job description, like thousands of other Mississippians, had just changed.

The storm uprooted or snapped in half oak, pine, magnolia and other trees around the house and farm. We cut our way down the driveway to the highway and drove around checking on his neighbors and helping others face the immediate triage of the storm. It would be some time before power or communication would be restored and that evening I drove north toward Jackson.

It wasn't long until I caught the tail end of the more than 100 mile wide storm. There were no lights along Highway 49. Trees blocked the highway forcing cars into the median or onto the south bound lanes when the north bound was too obstructed from debris. Other than National Guard convoys, there were few vehicles going south anyway.

Jackson was mostly without power and Mayor Frank Melton had imposed a city wide curfew. My leave of absence was cut short; I returned to work in Congressman Pickering's office.

Like me, every Mississippian has their own memories of Katrina. Next week, I'll look back at the policy and recovery efforts by Mississippi's congressional delegation and Governor Haley Barbour in the aftermath of the disaster.

Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at