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Winds Of Change: On Making Lexington Home After Hurricane Katrina

Josh James
Former Gulfport, Mississippi resident turned Lexington transplant Janice Goodwin leafs through a booklet showing images of Gulfport

Countless families were left separated and homeless in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina a decade ago, but the catastrophe brought one family closer together as they resettled in Lexington.

You’re probably familiar with the title of Thomas Wolfe’s famous 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again, but in late August 2005 those words became, for Gulfport, Mississippi residents Janice Goodwin and her husband, quite literally true.

Aware the storm had trained its sights on their town, they wrapped up a visit with their son Danny in Lexington and headed back, finally getting close to home when Janice recalls, "we ran into the National Guard and they were armed with guns and they told us that we're not allowed to go any further."

With that the Goodwins made a U-turn for Kentucky, only later returning to Janice’s home of 50 years to find the French doors blown off, a crumbling fireplace, and a drenched, insect-infested interior. Unlivable, but still a blessing, she says, compared to the blank slabs that greeted some on the harder-hit south end of Gulfport.

Goodwin 's portrait of other neighborhoods resembles the stuff of a post-apocalyptic movie – rolls of barbed wire dotting the area like tumbleweeds, signs reading “if you loot, we shoot,” and "some of the homes vacated had a red 'x' on them, and the red 'x' meant that someone was dead inside the house."

Eventually restoring their property to sellable condition, the duo finally made the hard decision to pack up permanently and put down new roots in Lexington. But the memories remain raw ten years on.  

"I'd lived there all my life. My children were raised there and they really miss being around the water and the boats. It's just too devastation to go back. There's still contamination," Goodwin explains. "My children say, 'Why don't you want to go back more often?' I say it's just sad because it's so much unlike the way we always did live."

And while numbers of Kentucky-bound self-evacuees are difficult to pin down, it's safe to say Janice and Dan were far from alone. Between 5,500 and 6,000 displaced Gulf Coast residents registered with FEMA in Kentucky in the days and weeks following the storm. Kentucky Emergency Management spokesman Buddy Rogers had been on the job just three weeks at the time.

"It was just mind-boggling watching it all come together," he remembers.

Rogers says Kentucky took part in 54 Emergency Management Assistance Compact, or EMAC, missions to affected states.

"We were activated for 28 straight days to support this effort and we matched that since then with the 2009 ice storm, but it's one of the longest durations of activations we've had at the Kentucky Emergency Management operations center," he observes.

Most of the evacuees housed in the Louisville Convention Center, along with shelters in Lexington and Owensboro, would either return home or carve out news homes elsewhere, but for the Goodwins Central Kentucky became a magnet. They chose Lexington to live near their son, but eventually their daughter Stacy also relocated to the city – knitting the family even closer together than it had been prior to Katrina.

Still, Janice admits she longs for the familiarity and comforts of Gulfport, some of which she’s able to recreate in the kitchen.

"We still boil shrimp ourselves, make homemade gumbo, fry fish, and still have some of the coastal foods that we really enjoy," she says, smiling.

And with no plans to move back to her hometown, still struggling to emerge from the decade-old destruction, Goodwin says she intends to keep some of that Gulf Coast flavor alive here in the Bluegrass for years to come. 

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.