I first drove through Mississippi in July 1977, en route to New Orleans from Gulf Shores, Alabama. All I remember are frame houses, many in disrepair, live oaks draped with Spanish moss, and the heat and humidity. I went through the pine forests of central Mississippi on the way back to my home in North Carolina. Again, my recollection is of the rural South — red clay, tar paper shacks, and kudzu (a creeping vine brought over from Japan that envelopes the Deep South every summer).

I returned a year ago; after being bumped from flights in New Orleans, I returned to Mississippi to catch a flight out of Jackson, MS. I had spent the afternoon amidst the gathering of the Uptown Mardi Indians in New Orleans. The day was exhilarating and just about anything would pale by comparison, especially when it ended in a cheap motel among the strip malls of the Jackson suburbs.

Most of my thoughts of Mississippi are from afar and through the media. The shooting death of Medgar Evers in 1963. The murder of three young civil rights workers in Philadelphia, MS in 1964. Extreme poverty. Conservative politics. Casino barges in Biloxi. Beauvoir, the last home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, which is being rebuilt (from being damaged by Katrina) in time for the 200th anniversary of his birth in June.

My view of Mississippi changed somewhat when Katrina slammed into the shortest coast of the any of the Gulf states. While it has received more federal money, per capita, than Louisiana — more political connections perhaps — its coastal areas were devastated by the brunt of the storm and the accompanying storm surge. And they have a long way to go. In Waveland, MS, where we will be working, only 20% of the homes that stood on August 29, 2005, have been rebuilt or repaired and subsequently occupied.

I really want to get to know southern Mississippi. Its past. Its current realties. Its cultural similarities and differences from New Orleans. And I want to contribute, in some small way, to its long, hard slog towards recovery.