It was the deafening silence that unsettled me the most, the absence of any sounds of life. No sounds of people speaking, working, going about the day. And none of nature's sounds—no sweet bird songs, no squirrels scurrying in the trees, or dogs sounding the approach of something unfamiliar. Just a vast, eerie quiet greeted me when I returned home to Gulfport following Katrina.

I'd been glued to the news and received this text message from my next-door neighbor: "We got 6 ft. of water in all the houses. Couldn't find Violet [my cat]. Have not been able to get in touch with mama. Found so many of my friends dead. Your car was in garage, mine has a tree on it." To prevent looting and because of the toxins unleashed by storm-tossed shipping containers, the entrance to my neighborhood was secured by concertina wire, National Guard troops, and local police, access permitted only to residents with photo ID.

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