Friendship Oak's Katrina Story

by Shelia White

It was only wind and water. Wind and water that destroyed a century of God’s work. Wind and water that destroyed manmade structures that have stood the most violent of storms. Yet, one thing remained.
The Friendship Oak tree, Gulf Park Campus, The University of Southern MississippThe beautiful Gulf Park campus of The University of Southern Mississippi is positioned in what many called paradise – fifty-two acres of oak-laden grounds in Long Beach, Mississippi.

At the southern edge of campus, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, lives a magnificent live oak tree believed to be more than 500 years old. This is the Friendship Oak.

The Friendship Oak has served this campus well. Faculty have held classes in the platform that rests in the security of its limbs. Weddings have been held under its canopy. Tour buses stop daily to witness its massive strength and beauty.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina unleashed her fury on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Through the violent winds and water that ravaged this peaceful campus, Friendship Oak has survived.

I am amazed at its strength. As a child growing up in this quiet neighborhood, I climbed its limbs; I marveled at its beauty.

As reports came in on the tremendous storm damage, I wondered about Gulf Park and my friend. Three days after Katrina I am able to make my way to the campus.

Many buildings are heavily damaged. Many no longer exist. The three multi-story buildings that face the Gulf of Mexico tell the story of Katrina's fury. These structures, built in the early 1900s, are badly beaten. The first floor of each has been washed through and through. Offices, records, history have all been destroyed.

Piles of debris make my journey difficult. Yet, as I turn the corner I see my old friend. Standing tall and proud. Looking naked in the scorching south Mississippi sun. Its bark is warm and, as I rub my hands across a limb, I am overwhelmed with emotion.

Friendship Oak has survived. So much is gone, yet my old friend remains.

Its endurance is symbolic of this community. We are tattered and torn but we will thrive again. We have strength that will overcome this catastrophe.

Eventually, new leaves will adorn this magnificent giant oak tree, just as a new economy will grow in this community. Friends will again visit to witness the beauty of the Friendship Oak, just as friends will again visit the Mississippi Gulf Coast to witness our strength, determination and beauty.

 The Friendship Oak tree, Gulf Park Campus, The University of Southern Mississipp
Shelia White is retired from The University of Southern Mississippi where she served as director of University Communications at the Gulf Park campus. A native of Long Beach, Miss., she worked at Gulf Park from 1977 to 2014.
Photos courtesy of Tim Isbell, The Sun Herald.