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What's life like?

For South Mississippians who emerged from the rubble of their homes Aug. 29 to survey the devastation of their coast, their cherished treasures and so many dreams, it would have been impossible to foresee the future six months ahead.

In those earliest days, the complete focus of those who survived Katrina was still on that most basic human instinct -- staying alive for another day.

The stakes then were that high as so many desperately sought water, food, shelter and medical help. Thankfully, it came -- carried in pickup trucks and vans and in family sedans packed with every imaginable staple necessary to sustain life and hope here on our destroyed coast.

Relief workers came from everywhere, but perhaps no other state's residents stood taller in the squalor of that late August and early September than the good people of North Carolina. And they have never left us, their good deeds evident every day since, and the promise they will stay much longer continues to fortify our spirit.

If the good Lord and caring Americans kept us alive in the crucible of Katrina's pain and sufferings, the people of this place have climbed out of the rubble and the despair and have embarked on the road to recovery far faster than perhaps even they could have imagined on the day Katrina swept over us.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that we are by no means back to "normal" -- and will not be for years. Neither is everyone recovering at the same rate. Towns such as Waveland, Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian were swept almost totally away, and they exist more in the hearts and minds of their citizens than in a physical sense.

There is a great deal more activity in Biloxi, for example, where three casinos have reopened to players from places such as Florida, Alabama and Georgia who have swarmed back to the slots and tables games in astonishing numbers, helping to refresh the region's tax coffers.

Indeed, the recovery is uneven for so many. Some have intact homes and jobs and their lives are somewhat normal, but there are untold numbers who have no jobs and are living in FEMA trailers while daily battling with the massive question of insurance claims. They may be left indigent -- without a home or a job. The uncertainty and the stress do not diminish with the passage of time -- they grow.

So how do you get from Aug. 29 to today? One day at a time, one step at a time. It is amazing how strong people can be under such circumstances.

We celebrate even the smallest triumphs -- when the pelicans returned, when our battered old oaks showed new life, when a hamburger joint opened. Success begets success; each milestone a building block for our future.

Perhaps the most important part of South Mississippi's comeback was the sense from early on that we would not be defeated. Within a week of the storm's passage, the Governor's Commission for Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal had been sketched out on the back of a napkin, and a week later a group of diverse and able Mississippians had accepted this civic duty.

Respect and homage were paid to the heritage of each of the coast's unique cities and towns as the best architects, engineers and planners in the nation came to help us. Like almost everything related to Katrina, the rebuilding forums conducted here were on an unprecedented scale, and the efforts for the coast's revival are advancing daily.

Prior to the storm, the Mississippi Coast was a collection of mostly small towns where people lived the idyllic lifestyle that such places bestir in the hearts of those drawn to the water. Since Katrina, we have learned more of our common bonds, and there is a great deal of planning and thinking now that incorporates a sense of the larger place.

We have come to this six-months milestone mostly by looking ahead to the next day, or week, or month. There has not been much looking back simply because we understood there was too much wasted motion in that approach. We did not need congressional hearings or GAO reports to tell us of failures by the government -- we saw them firsthand. We hope that the lessons of the failures will be learned well before the next storm that will come here, or somewhere surely, in the 2006 hurricane season, which begins in little more than three months.

Of the lessons we have learned so well, we have learned thankfulness the most; for life, for each other and for those who came to help us. It seems so little to say: thank you. Yet for now that is our greatest currency -- thank yous for pulling us out of the rubble, keeping us alive and for giving us hope. Thank you.

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