Aspen Times Weekly: Pearlington, 10 Years Later
New Orleans to Aspen via Katrina
The morning after my 25th birthday in August 2005, I flew to Colorado for the first time. The occasion was Hunter Thompson’s funeral in Woody Creek (the 153-foot Gonzo fist, the ash-firework, etc.). I partied late at Owl Farm and stayed at the Hotel Jerome. In the morning, I headed home to New Orleans, thinking that one night in Aspen would be my only one ever in Aspen.
But a week and a day later, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, and the levees broke, it put me on an unexpected trajectory to come back and make this remote mountain town my home.
I’d moved to New Orleans from the northeast for college in 1999. By the time I graduated from Tulane University four years later, I was certain that I was a New Orleanian for life – the offbeat rhythm of this not so Big and never Easy city was in my blood. Life anywhere else seemed bland by comparison. Out of school, I worked as a researcher for the historian Douglas Brinkley. This allowed me to stick around New Orleans and do interesting work on his books.
Immediately after the storm, Brinkley began working on a book about Katrina (it would become “The Great Deluge,” published in 2006). In the aftermath of the storm, my job was to collect oral histories on the ground and do my first real journalistic reporting. Since my French Quarter apartment didn’t flood or sustain significant damage, I was in a unique position to live in the middle of the city, help write the first draft of history about the storm, and take part in its rebirth.
Like everybody in post-Katrina New Orleans, I volunteered, I mourned and I rejoiced in the city’s culture with a renewed gratitude and passion. I published some personal essays about life after the storm and landed some odd freelance writing gigs (one involved blogging on the road with a New Orleanian who drove a golf cart from Los Angeles back home, talking to people about the city’s recovery along the way).
By summer 2007, Brinkley and my job were moving to Houston (like a lot of New Orleans did). But my work after the storm had hooked me on the impact and immediacy of journalism, and I wanted to write full-time. I didn’t want to leave – doing so was looked at as traitorous by many – but didn’t have any luck finding work in New Orleans. Then a friend from Boulder suggested I give Aspen a look.
I ended up living on Owl Farm as a writer-in-residence and reporting for the Aspen Daily News. I didn’t expect to be here for more than a year (I’ve since learned that every Aspen émigré says that). Now I’ve been here for a little over eight years, exactly the same amount of time I lived in New Orleans, and built a fine life in the mountains.
When I go back to New Orleans, as I do often and did last week to report on Katrina’s 10th anniversary in Pearlington, it still feels like home. And yet, somehow, so does Aspen.
Signs simply reading “Thank You!” were planted on the green lawns of homes throughout Pearlington, Mississippi on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
The message of gratitude was directed toward the thousands of volunteers from throughout the U.S. – and the Roaring Fork Valley – who helped rebuild those homes in this swampy Gulf Coast hamlet after the storm ravaged it with nearly 30 feet of floodwater.
At a community gathering on the anniversary, Pearlington reverently commemorated Katrina with prayer, song, and dance (and barbecue).
They honored the dead from the storm with American flags positioned in front of a lectern in the town gymnasium. Six honored those that died in the flood. Another 130 stood for each resident who has died since then, as premature stress-related deaths and a rash of suicides hit the community during its slow recovery.
“I thought I was going to be a big girl, but this is very hard,” Andrea Coote, whose mother and aunt both died during the long post-Katrina rebuilding process, told me through tears as neighbors gathered for the commemoration.
But Coote and all of Pearlington recalled the devotion of volunteers from towns like Aspen and Carbondale, who helped clear the hurricane’s wreckage and then rebuild.
“By the grace of God and the volunteers, we brought it back,” says Herb Ritchie, a local who rode out the storm on top in his house, which took on 27 feet of water during Katrina, and has helped organize recovery efforts in the months and years since.
Carbondale firefighters were among the first responders in Pearlington after the storm. Valley volunteers followed under the auspices of Mountains to Mississippi, a relief organization coordinated by former Aspen police officer and Garfield County sheriff Tom Dalessandri and then-Pitkin Couny manager Hillary Fletcher, with funds collected by the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation.
State and federal aid was scarce in rural, unincorporated Pearlington, as manpower and resources went first to population centers like New Orleans, Biloxi and Gulfport. So the job of providing basic services fell disproportionately to volunteers.
“The volunteers are what pulled this county back up,” says Hancock County supervisor David Yarborough, whose district includes Pearlington. “The federal government failed us in a lot of ways and still are today.”
Mountains to Mississippi cleared debris from some 300 home sites in Pearlington during the months after the flood, doled out supplies and managed home-building projects from the grounds of a flooded elementary school. As the need remained, so did Mountains to Mississippi.
“We were supposed to be there for three weeks, and then it was six months and the next thing we knew we were having annual meetings about our progress,” says Dalessandri.
As years passed, Dalessandri felt so at home in Pearlington that he bought land there, visits frequently, and is considered a part of the community.
“I’ve told him he needs to come and run for sheriff here,” Ritchie says with a laugh.
Mountains to Mississippi mobilized teams for Hurricane Gustav in 2008, and then for Isaac in 2012, and helped build the Pearlington Recovery Center – a community building dedicated in 2009 – and is committed to continuing to serve the area.
“We’re fortunate that we haven’t had the burning need since then,” says Dalessandri, “but we stay in touch and if we need to rally supplies and a crew of 40, 50 people we can do it pretty fast.”
In all, Dalessandri said, donations from the Roaring Fork Valley reached about $200,000. They built about 200 homes, many of them remodels of flooded houses that they gutted.
Though donations dried up after a few years, Mountains to Mississippi has kept efforts going in recent years with the quiet support of Gerald Greenwald, the former United Airlines CEO and part-time Aspenite. He began donating to the cause soon after the storm, when he read about what Dalessandri and his crew were doing in Pearlington. And he has stayed involved, making visits to Pearlington, recently donating a Bobcat earthmover to clear debris from future storms and funding a home for “Captain” John Nielsen, a retired swamp tour guide who lost his home in Katrina, then lived in a FEMA trailer until it was destroyed by Gustav. His new home was completed in 2010.
“[Greenwald] never failed to come through,” says Ben Taylor, who first met the Mountains to Mississippi volunteers while chain-sawing the trees that crushed his flooded home in Pearlington, and later became an on-the-ground coordinator for the organization. “And there weren’t 75 forms to fill out, it was just ‘What do you guys need?’ He trusted us.”
The post-Katrina experience has also brought Taylor from Mississippi to Colorado. He spent this summer working for Dalessandri’s private security company, detailed at events like the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Pearlington’s churches, of which there are nine today, are the centers of public life, and locals relied heavily on their faith after the storm. The chuches are largely segregated by race, but clergymen and choirs from from seven of them joined together for the Katrina anniversary event. Pastor Bobby McGill spoke about the flood in biblical terms, as a sign of divine destructive power, and of divine intervention in the form of volunteers. He recalled the days when Pearlington was a grey wasteland, caked in mud and broken trees.
“And then I look around and there were people coming from all walks of life as volunteers,” he told the gathered Pearlington residents. “The people that removed the mud out of the churches, and when we needed people to clean up the debris, he sent people for that. And he sent builders and people to fund the projects.”
‘WE WERE ALL RENEGADES’
The relief team that rallied around Pearlington was made up of some unlikely alliances. The Mountains to Mississippi ski town crew would work on houses, for example, alongside countless church groups from around the country and a contingent from Burning Man. Thousands of volunteers came through Pearlington. The most at once, according to Ritchie, was 350 for one week in spring 2006.
“I met some of the finest people from all over the world,” says Ritchie. “I went through a couple atlases trying to keep track of the volunteers.”
Paula Buhr, a Houston-based registered nurse, was one of the first people on the scene in Pearlington, but arrived there by accident.
She had driven to nearby Bay St. Louis the day after the storm with a friend whose family was stranded there. She went to the Bay St. Louis airport, hoping to send a helicopter to the family’s home. By chance, a military pilot was there with a Blackhawk, about to go survey Pearlington and seeking a medic. Buhr volunteered.
Roads into the Pearlington were washed out, and people were desperate, she recalls.
“They had the worst look,” she says. “They were sunburned, haggard, covered in this slime. It was another world.”
After that flight, she commandeered a series of helicopters – “I’m bossy like that,” she explains – to deliver the first medical supplies, food and water to Pearlington. That day’s triage turned into months working on the ground in a makeshift clinic in the local fire station.
“I didn’t go there to do this,” she recalls. “I was just like, ‘What have I stepped into?’”
Churches from nearly every region of the U.S. followed. Jon Collins, a preacher from southern Indiana, brought a group from his church to volunteer, and built 35 homes. Collins not only stayed, but built a new church in Pearlington, where he now leads a congregation.
“Pearlington certainly has no shortage of churches, but God called us here,” says Collins.
Bob Putnam was among the Burning Man crew. A group of his friends left the annual festival in the Nevada desert to assist in nearby Biloxi. He volunteered there until after Christmas, then came to Pearlington and stayed through April. Based in St. Coix when the storm hit, he has since settled in nearby Covington, Louisiana, and remains a part of the Pearlington community.
“They all had gauges in their ears and fish hooks everywhere – we were freaks,” he says of the Burning Man crowd. “But you never knew who you were working with and it didn’t matter.”
Buhr said the volunteers in Pearlington bonded through self-reliance and a focus on helping people on the ground without the red tape and bureaucracy that hampered relief efforts elsewhere.
“We were all renegades,” says Buhr. “Nobody came to help us.”
Adds Dalessandri: “It was just people helping people and neighbors helping neighbors. Race wasn’t an issue, religion wasn’t an issue – everybody was working together, helping out.”
‘A LONG WAY FROM OVER’
There is little left of Katrina in Pearlington today – some blighted properties, some post-hurricane graffiti warning “u loot I shoot.” A tugboat that washed ashore in the storm and stayed there was finally hauled away earlier this year. But there’s also less of Pearlington left today.
The population is about 1,400 – less 1,100 since the storm. The town elementary school didn’t reopen after Katrina, though a public library and gymnasium took its place, along with a new nonprofit that organizes activities children (it organized the 10th anniversary event and rented a waterslide for local kids to play in afterward). A grocery store opened in Pearlington a few years ago, but quickly went out of business and stands abandoned today.
Though the post-storm efforts of those from Aspen and elsewhere brought Pearlington back from the brink, its struggles today can’t be addressed with elbow grease, philanthropy and trucks full of building supplies. Pearlington’s progress is a testament to the tremendous power of volunteerism, yet the complex issues facing the town today underscore volunteer power’s limitations.
More than 100 homeowners are on a waiting list for state-offered buyouts of houses, according to Yarborough, the county supervisor. The county has $10 million in federal funds to spend on buyouts to return flood-prone residential areas into “green space” across the county. Who will get bought out and what that means, in the long-term, for the community is a matter of local controversy. Yarborough says he is pushing the five-member board of supervisors to give Pearlington residents – the lowest lying area in the county – priority, but doesn’t have the funds to buy out everyone who is now willing to leave.
Some see the buyouts as a step toward condemning all of the homes rebuilt in Pearlington, where mistrust of government runs deep, and forcing locals out who want to stay. Meanwhile, locals complain of rising property taxes and hefty bills from a new water and sewerage system installed in 2010.
“It’s only gotten more and more expensive,” says Henrietta Barnes, an octogenarian who still uses the well on her property for drinking water.
When the water system was built, locals saw it as a flag in the ground for families that have been in Pearlington through several generations and want to stay.
“Why build a multi-million dollar water system for the people you’re trying to run out of town?” says Taylor.
And while a new $14.5 billion federal levee system now protects greater New Orleans, there is no such flood barrier in Pearlington, and many fear those new levees will worsen future floods here, just over the Louisiana-Mississippi border on the banks of the Pearl River.
As volunteers and locals started putting up homes, building codes were constantly shifting regarding how far above sea level homes had to be raised. The mandate was to build 6 feet up in 2006, then inched up with little consistency from property-to-property. Taylor, for instance, rebuilt on six-foot stilts in 2006 with Mountains for Mississippi, but the same property would have to be built at 18 feet today, which makes flood insurance cost prohibitive for a community where more than a quarter of residents are living below the poverty line.
“All it did was open the door for insurance companies to charge more – they just opened the door to thievery,” says Taylor.
The insurance trouble extends to public entities. Yarborough said the county is contemplating abandoning the brand new library and the gymnasium where the Katrina commemoration was held, due to the insurance bills on them.
“The fight is a long way from over,” says Yarborough. “Recovery is long from over. And the federal government has shoved it to us.”