By Tish Williams
Close your eyes for just a minute. Think about your office, your home, your personal belongings, family pictures, all the little things that make your house a home. Now, open your eyes and imagine all of those things gone, overnight. That is what happened to the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Overnight, in Bay St. Louis, I became the director of the Chamber of NO Commerce - not what I planned for when I took the job three years earlier.
The Call Back to Bay St. Louis
In 2000, I took a leap of faith, followed my heart and moved back to Bay St. Louis. Ironically, right out of college I was offered the position of director of the Hancock County, MS Chamber of Commerce. But I turned them down. I was going places. I wasn’t going to stay in this small town forever. I’M GOING NATIONAL! I remember thinking I had a national calling, not really knowing why I thought this. I ended up working for several different national organizations, skidding my life out of control in the process. I spent too much time working, not enough time focused on my financial future, and my kids were left home alone too often. I didn’t exercise or eat right, and I lived a stress-filled life.
When our twin girls were first born, I found myself still focused on my career without integrating my new role as mother. I was flying all over the countryside, working too much, never seeing my husband and new babies. WHY was I focused in this direction? The honest truth was…I was dedicating my life to an organization that could have easily replaced me.
I actually thought through and answered three simple questions: What really matters most to me? What is the source of my passion in life? Where should I focus my energies? All of my answers came back to family and my hometown where my family roots and faith were. In my search to be a better wife/mother/sister/daughter, in my attempt to avoid falling over from high cholesterol, and to provide a better environment for my girls, my husband and I packed up in Baltimore and headed south, back to home in the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Two years later I was offered the job as director of the Hancock Chamber of Commerce. Hopefully, the first job I was offered---will now be my last. And thanks to an unexpected storm in 2005, it has been a challenging yet
Devastation Was Immense
All but two of the eight Chamber offices Coast-wide were destroyed by Katrina. Two hundred people were dead. More were missing. All communications were lost, and the entire seventy-five mile beachfront was devastated. Destruction from wind and rising water extended more than fifty miles inland. Out of 1,600 businesses countywide, at least 50% were either damaged or destroyed. Overnight, the county’s economy was incomprehensibly shattered. Business owners who worked a lifetime to build their businesses found themselves starting all over again with nothing except hope, faith and a drained retirement account. The lives of 400,000 survivors were changed forever.
But we couldn’t give in and we responded quickly on multiple fronts.
“Failure cannot cope with persistence,” is our mantra.
Only two weeks following Katrina, our Chamber of Commerce re-emerged as the first Business Assistance Center on the Mississippi Coast, bringing all of the resources for small businesses together under one roof. We were the “window to the world” for our businesses and residents. Through our efforts, the Hancock Chamber was recognized nationally as a model for disaster recovery. And in 2006, I was honored to receive the National Phoenix Award by the U.S. Small Business Administration for Outstanding Service by a Public Official. When the President of the United States showed up at the awards presentation, I realized it was a big deal. We weren’t setting out to win awards, we were just making it up as we went along. We did what we could to help our businesses get back up and running as quickly as possible.
Since then, we have literally rebuilt two downtowns from the ground up. The downtown in Bay St. Louis was partially destroyed, and the downtown in Waveland was totally washed away. Local governments received Community Development Block Grant funds to build the harbor and many other projects in Bay St. Louis. And, in Waveland a retail accelerator project was established to restart this new downtown near the waters edge at ground zero. The infrastructure has been completely rebuilt, and all of our roads have been replaced. Our new bridge, which connects us to the rest of the MS Coast, was rebuilt. With its walking path and the most unique display of local art found anywhere, it became a motivating, beautiful symbol of our recovery.
Trees, which were hit hard by Katrina, are being planted throughout the major corridors. Total destruction has been replaced with a new oasis of beautiful landscaping, new roads, sidewalks and homes. And in the aftermath of Katrina, we are painting, dancing, singing, writing, drawing, printing, sculpting—we are creating. Our artists have since displayed their works all over the country.
We addressed the low/moderate income housing in 2007 and 2008 through the establishment of the Hancock Housing Resource Center. This organization was tasked with getting people back in their homes to re-establish our population, labor market and customer base for our businesses. And in 2009, we launched a low interest/ forgivable loan program for small businesses, which has helped rebuild the retail and service sector of our economy, critical for many of the 1,800 businesses countywide, all which were shut down at least temporarily and 50% were severely damaged or destroyed.
Our last major rebuilding project, a new downtown harbor, is set to open in May 2014. This will be the economic catalyst to complete our rebuilding. Today, eight years later with this final milestone on the horizon, we pause to reflect on how far we have come. But we did not get here on our own. Volunteers from all over the country came to help and today still give us so much hope. These volunteers knew before we did that a community without hope would have many challenges, which federal assistance could not address. The people of Hancock County are eternally grateful.
When you witness first-hand the power of the human spirit, people helping people, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a God. And, He has a plan for each of us, whether we are leading a balanced life or a life that seems out of control.