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Archive for Monday, June 12, 2006

Healing after the hurricane

Victims of Katrina still dealing with destruction every day

June 12, 2006

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— Jake Kerth is caught squarely between devastation and progress.

His barbershop was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, so he's cutting hair in the back of his home in Waveland.

The house has been stripped to the floorboards and studs, and it reeks of bleach sprayed on the walls to kill deadly mold. The floor of his back patio is covered in debris, construction equipment and clipped hair.

The storm gushed several feet of water into his house, as it did with pretty much every house in this county. But Kerth, 70, has lived in this area 40 years and still plans to retire here.

"I think the coast will come back because of people like myself and my neighbors who have been here so long," Kerth says. "It's just in you that you want to be here."

Some people feel that way, and they'll never leave. Others have lined the streets with "For Sale" signs and won't be back.

That's the anomaly of this place, nine months after the largest natural disaster in U.S. history. A picture-perfect house with a pruned garden and front-porch swing sits next to a pile of splintered wood and twisted metal that used to be the neighbor's home. A ballet studio and a formal wear shop are open blocks from the shoreline, but there's still only one proper grocery store in the entire county.

Snapshots from the storm

Hear four people involved with recovery from Hurricane Katrina - a homeowner, an art gallery employee, a Chamber of Commerce official and a volunteer from Lawrence - talk about relief efforts nine months after the storm. See audio slideshow »

While New Orleans gets most of the post-Katrina related press, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi caught just as much of the storm's havoc. Debris still lines the streets, blue tarps still top houses, mold still grows on buildings and you can see Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers from pretty much every place you stand.

Most of the country has gone on to the next news story, but the people of the Gulf Coast are still living with Katrina every day.

***

This county had 45,000 residents before the Aug. 29, 2005, storm, and the local Chamber of Commerce figures there's about that same number today. Only now, many of them are volunteers and out-of-town contractors on a pilgrimage for a buck.

There are two main towns here, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, which abut each other.

The crown jewel, at least tourist-wise, was Bay St. Louis, a town with a kooky artist district not unlike downtown Lawrence, only with a white-sand beach.

Snapshots from the storm

See before and after photos of Hurricane Katrina clean up. View photos »

When residents emerged after the hurricane, an entire row of beachfront businesses, the restaurants and galleries and bars that made the town hum, were gone, along with the road that brought tourists downtown.

Not damaged. Not ransacked. Just gone, washed to sea by a 35-foot tidal surge.

"It never gets easier," says Jay Heitzman, a lifelong resident who lost his home and two businesses in the storm. "It's not easy to watch your town wash away."

Today, some residents, the ones who either had flood insurance or money socked in savings, are back in their homes. Other residents, referred to as the "lucky ones," didn't have water in their houses and have stayed there all along.

But they're in the minority. There are still 8,000 FEMA trailers in the county, where residents live while fixing their homes, and others are living in tents or just left the area altogether.

The spirit of this county hasn't bled out, but it needs stitches.

***

Geraldine Bryant looks to be in her 70s, though a proper lady isn't supposed to tell her age.

She has photos of herself, ones showing her in sequined dresses with fur around the shoulders. In those days, when she was known as Gerri Kay, she was a Southern star and pin-up girl, singing showtunes and telling jokes at hotels with names like the Governor's House.

Now, she's living in a FEMA trailer and on Social Security with Ty, her miniature poodle.

She tucked the photos and playbills into her oversized family Bible when the Katrina winds picked up, then spent 10 days at rest stops along the highway before going to a family member's house in Florida.

Eventually, the government said she could return to her home, where she used to entertain and where she won five gardening awards. The place was trashed.

Bryant looked at 42 years of her life sitting on her front lawn for two months before the dump truck hauled it off.

"I don't go anywhere because I cry," she says. "I cry when I see my friends' houses gone."

It'll cost $6,000 to rewire her house, and that's money she doesn't have. She's got $16,000 from insurance and from FEMA, but most of that went to repairing the roof and getting the mud out of the rooms.

"I try hard to be brave," she says, her mouth crumpled to force back sobs. "It's hard. I'm used to making people laugh.

"My doctor says I have no broken bones. My cholesterol's only 6 points high. I can still bathe and dress myself. He says, 'The only thing I can't do to help you is with your heart.'

"My broken heart."

***

After the storm, every business in the county was closed. Tire stores were the first to reopen, helping those who had punctured rubber in the debris. Then, the liquor and tobacco stores opened.

"It was very much Maslow's hierarchy of needs," says Kay Gough, business recovery coordinator for the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce.

Since then, a smattering of chain and local restaurants have opened, as well as other businesses. Most are along Highway 90, more than a mile from the coast.

Gough's organization figures 65 percent of the county's businesses are open again, though it's less in the south part of the county where the damage was worse.

The Stennis Space Center, a nearby NASA entity that tests rockets among other duties, remains the county's largest employer and encompasses more than a third of the county's land. Two casinos, both large employers, are set to open in the next year, and Gough says that will help return the tourism to the county.

But she says getting Old Town back in place will be a priority to restore the town's character.

"You hear people say, 'We want it to feel the same way,'" Gough says. "It may not look the same way, but they want it to feel the same way."

***

Spencer Gray used to hang out in those places that are now scattered on the bed of the Bay of St. Louis, the debris that shrimp boats dredge up.

Before the storm, he was a jeweler for a Bay St. Louis pawn shop, but now he spends part of his time running the counter at The Artists of 220, the first art gallery to reopen in Old Town.

Several artists make works out of Katrina debris.

Gray, who makes birdhouses out of the junk, realizes it will be difficult to get things back to the way they were before.

"The coast looked like if it was a 10-chapter book, somebody took nine of the chapters out," he says.

"Hopefully we can keep the quaintness, the way all the places were. It's going to be tough, but you can feel the resiliency of the people, their dedication to stick to it. It'll be a tough hill to climb, but the coast is coming back."

***

When Krystal Hernandez, 16, thinks about the coast coming back, it's more personal.

Her home wasn't damaged much in the hurricane. But her half-brother was one of the 50 people in the county killed in the flood ("He didn't want to leave his house," Hernandez explains).

She's been sad, and she spent some time in a treatment facility for depression.

Most of her friends are gone, with only 60 percent of the local school district's students returning by the end of the school year. Her favorite hangout, the beach, is gone, too.

Her house is fine, and she feels a little guilty about that when others are gutting their homes.

She's been feeling better, though, and she has a part-time summer job working at a shop that makes artwork for stores in New Orleans.

Katrina changed her town.

"Not too many people are stuck up," she explains. "A lot of people down here had big houses at the beach and thought they were better than everybody else. Now they're all in FEMA trailers."

***

Madona Peterson knows what it's like to live on one of those FEMA trailers. She's sick of it.

The 48-year-old administrative assistant, like everybody in her neighborhood, lost all her possessions. She got enough insurance money and FEMA funds - about $24,000 in all - to rebuild, and she's already painting her living room a bright, cheery yellow.

She was a single mother but never asked for a handout, not even in the tough times. Now, she's relying on the government and volunteers so she can have a place to live.

"Many a night I cried, thinking how I'm going to get this done, how I'm going to pay for it, or who would help me," she says. "There are still times I break down. It's less now, but it still happens."

She wants to be in her house by August, and she wants to watch that FEMA trailer being hauled off.

"I don't care if I just have a mattress on the living room," she says. "I just want to be moved in."

***

Asa Fayard hears the politicians say an improved Gulf Coast will rise from the debris, but he doesn't buy it.

He's lived here 79 years and knows the area's history.

"They say we're going to build it up bigger and better," Fayard says. "I don't believe them. Some of the homes were 100 years old. It was beautiful. Big lawns. Big, old trees."

Fayard lost everything in his home except an old grandfather clock that was too heavy for 3 feet of rushing water to knock over.

Still, even after the insurance man denied his claim because he didn't have flood insurance, he considers himself lucky. He didn't lose loved ones to the storm.

"You can replace things," Fayard says. "You can't replace family."

***

Talk to locals long enough, and they'll eventually tell you something like this: "I wish you could have seen our town before Katrina.

Janet McQueen doesn't say that. She just takes visitors to a long hallway at the Hancock Medical Center, where she works.

"This," she says, "is what our community represents to us."

On the wall is a colorful mosaic artwork. It's a beach scene, with children building a sandcastle, sailboats in the bay and a blazing sunset on the horizon.

"This is what we will return to," McQueen says matter-of-factly. "The spirit is here."

Comments

Ragingbear 8 years, 6 months ago

Blah blah blah. I am tired of Hurricane Katrina everything. Every time I turn around, we get another sob story about how a person that had nothing lost everything. This entire thing is being milked almost as bad as 9-11.

It's been over a year now. Yeah, there was great damage, people died, there is still tons of work to do. There will be work to do in 5 years. Get over it, move on, do your job. Stop milking this story already and leave us alone.

Better yet, find stuff to actually report on.

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