A slow recovery in Pearlington | AspenTimes.com

A slow recovery in Pearlington

Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

Pearlington, Miss., no longer looks as if it had been struck by an atomic bomb.Twenty months after Hurricane Katrina laid it to waste, the small community appears to be making huge strides in recovering from the storm.Construction is under way on scores of homes. A handful of businesses in the small, unincorporated community have reopened. The stress has disappeared from the faces of some residents.But Pearlington is a town of dichotomies. Taking a deeper look and talking to more people is like peeling the layers off an onion: It exposes a community still in critical condition and desperate for aid.”All of us lost, and I guess it is overwhelming at times,” said resident Joe Keys.Keys put his college education on hold to return to his hometown and help members of the black community deal with life post-Katrina. He helps elderly landowners fill out reams of applications necessary for state and federal aid; he organizes trips to grocery stores in the region for those who cannot drive.Keys is also trying to start an after-school programs for kids 6 to 17 years old. The social structure of the town is still sorely lacking, he said. The elementary school was closed and demolished. The post office hasn’t been rebuilt. Only the churches are bouncing back.Keys is worried that Pearlington will wither on the vine if youngsters aren’t given some reason for sticking around and staying engaged. “If we don’t get this after-school program, what’s the future for these kids?” he asked.

Many people are struggling to get their personal lives back in order, so repairing the town’s social structure is far from their minds.Some people are still in the process of sifting through their personal belongings to see what can be salvaged. It is easy for an outsider to think that residents should have completed that task long before now, said homeowner Sam Bailey. But day-to-day challenges and running a pet-rescue operation have prevented him and his wife, Lyn, from getting the work done. A crew of volunteer workers from Aspen High School recently helped sort through mounds of the Baileys’ possessions stored under tarps in their yard.Other residents haven’t sorted through all their belongings simply because it is emotionally painful. “You do a little at a time, then regroup,” said Sam Danese, as he and his wife, Connie, pulled belongings from a tent where they have been stored for the last 20 months. The Daneses moved back into their home of 30 years last month. They just don’t have anything to put back in it. Like many residents, the Baileys are still living in a small trailer supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Pearlington is a town of large, rural lots that are filled with trees. Neighbors are separated by several hundred feet or even a few acres. Residents were able to pull their FEMA trailers onto their property, next to their ravaged houses, as long as they had sewer, water and electrical hookups.Pearlington doesn’t have any of the massive trailer camps that FEMA established in other hurricane-damaged areas.

Because Pearlington is so spread out, progress is difficult to gauge. Tom Dalessandri, a Carbondale resident who coordinates the Roaring Fork Valley’s well-respected aid program to Pearlington, estimated 35 to 40 percent of the houses are habitable.Some houses were gutted of Sheetrock, flooring, walls and everything else from the interior and then rebuilt. A greater number of houses were erected from scratch by volunteers groups.”If it wasn’t for the volunteers, there wouldn’t be anything here,” said Denise Swanson, a single mother of four kids. They are crammed into a tiny FEMA trailer that sits beside a new house volunteers are building for them. The Aspen High schoolers spent a few days patching the seams and nail holes in her Sheetrock.But signs of progress are often tempered by images of devastation.

“Some of the houses have been redone, and right next door they haven’t been touched yet,” noted Skyler Maclean, an Aspen High School senior, during a break from his volunteer work.AHS sophomore Paige Thomas said she saw personal belongings strewn in a wrecked house that was abandoned. When asked if it was spooky, she replied, “It was really touching is what is was.”One month after the storm, it was difficult to navigate through Pearlington. Bulldozers plowed through debris to open roads.Six months after the storm, contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were busy demolishing the ruins and piling wood and construction debris in mounds by the road.Most of the trash is gone now. However, the shells of scores of homes remain. The owners removed all the water-logged materials from the interior, then walked away. Occasionally you see a house with a downed tree poking through the roof. Elsewhere, a roof blown off a house is rotting in the water.Some of the abandoned, gutted homes are listed for sale. Others just sit, giving Pearlington an eerie feeling.

Debbie Piacsek, a resident of nearby Waveland but a member of St. Joseph’s Catholic parish in Pearlington, said South Mississippi will never be the same as it was, something many residents cannot or will not acknowledge. She and her husband lost their home and are contemplating whether or not to rebuild.She believes it was better to get “slabbed,” or have a house pushed off its foundation and destroyed, rather than filled with mud. Starting from scratch is easier than “mucking” out a house, she said.West Hancock County fire chief Kim Jones said there were about 2,500 homes before the storm in the fire district, which is bigger than Pearlington. He said 435 building permits had been issued at last tally, but not all were being exercised. Homes in outlying areas, often exposed in the open along canals or on the bayou, took a greater beating than even Pearlington. Mailboxes and driveways along Highway 90 west of Pearlington lead nowhere. The houses were slabbed.

Government agencies face the same burdens as individuals in dealing with the storm. In addition to the loss of the elementary school and the uncertainty over the post office, the fire department is struggling to recover. It lost nine of 11 trucks and other firefighting equipment in the storm. A couple of districts outside the state have leased the department older fire trucks to help them scrape by. The department is in desperate need of about $21,000 to acquire a used “Jaws of Life,” a piece of equipment used to extricate victims from wreckage in vehicle accidents.Acquiring equipment will be a slow process due to the district’s financial condition. “We’re begging, borrowing and stealing to come up with the money,” Jones said.The district was told not to expect property tax revenues for three years, but it collected $7,200 last year because an industrial park recovered quicker than anticipated, according to Jones. In a normal year, the district received between $18,000 and $21,000 annually in tax revenues, a humble amount by Aspen’s standards.

By some estimates, as many as half the residents of Pearlington haven’t returned since the storm. The loss is reflected in the fire department. The number of volunteers firefighters dropped from 34 to 24 right after the storm and dipped as low as six firefighters in the following months. It is back up to 12 with returns and new recruits.Isiah “Ike” Oliver, 77, never considered relocating. The U.S. Army veteran of Korea and Vietnam climbed to his attic to escape the floodwater of Katrina. He slept in a tent for two months after the storm and now lives in a FEMA trailer.”I figured if I stuck through the storm, I could stay on after,” Oliver said.Aspen students helped encase the pilings for the frame of his new house. Oliver is optimistic that both his house and the town will bounce back. “It’s slow but it’s coming along,” he said.Dalessandri has insights into Pearlington’s situation that most observers don’t see. Construction on numerous houses is stalled because volunteer organizations are running out of labor, money or both. There is often an emphasis on getting the floor, walls and roof up, but there is no one to follow through on vital finish work. Craftspeople, like electricians and plumbers, are in high demand and low supply.The aid effort has also lost steam in the Roaring Fork Valley. The Pearling Project: Mountains to Mississippi was started by Carbondale fire chief Ron Leach less than one month after the storm. Governments, organizations and individuals in the valley enthusiastically joined the effort.More than $300,000 in contributions, grants and in-kind materials have been funneled into Pearlington by the valley’s aid program, Dalessandri said. Another 8,800 volunteer hours have been organized by the Pearlington Project.But the valley’s program is out of money, Dalessandri said. The short-term goal, he said, is to raise $75,000 to continue the effort through January. (Contributions can be made through a link at http://www.pearlingtonproject.com.)Pearlington residents are well aware that the volunteer effort is waning. Piacsek said it is her perception that people elsewhere in the country wonder why residents in hurricane-ravaged areas are “still whining” nearly two years later. She fears they don’t understand the area’s condition.”It’s not that we’re looking for sympathy,” Piacsek said. “We still need the flow of volunteers.”

Residents are also anxious about another hurricane season. The Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University is forecasting a 40 percent chance of a major hurricane striking the Gulf Coast between the Florida panhandle and Brownsville, Texas, this year. “Down here, you live year to year,” said Larry Randall, co-director of the Pearlington Recovery Center, a clearinghouse for supplies and volunteers. “You hope something doesn’t come your way but you don’t fret over it.”Many residents expressed confidence that another hurricane with the fury of Katrina won’t strike again. Betty Arnold said Pearlington is due to be spared like the Israelites at Passover.”Many, many years we’re going to have the blood over the lampposts,” she said after her Bible study group wrapped up at St. Joseph’s hall.Sam Danese is among those who don’t think another devastating storm will strike soon. But most of the residents remaining in Pearlington are natives or have lived there for a long time. They know a killer storm is always possible.”If you had another Hurricane Katrina, it would just be all gone,” Danese said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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