After riding out Hurricane Katrina, survivors say anything is possible
September 29, 2005
Editor’s note: In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, valley residents and governments decided last week to devote most of their relief resources directly to the people of Pearlington, Miss., an unincorporated community on the Gulf Coast that took the full force of the storm. Aspen Times reporter Scott Condon and photographer Paul Conrad are now in Pearlington to find out what’s left, and to report how residents are coping and what needs to be done to help them rebuild their community.PEARLINGTON, Miss. – Tim Smith and Don Lee refused to evacuate this small town when Hurricane Katrina approached. They lived to regret their decisions but managed to save several lives in the process.Now their homes are in shambles, and their families face years of difficult times. They epitomize why Pearlington requires long-term aid from places like the Roaring Fork Valley.Smith, who is in his 40s, decided to ride out the storm to protect his home and to keep an eye on his elderly neighbor, who was too stubborn to leave. Besides, he figured he had history on his side.”We stayed here during Camille [in 1969] and stayed dry,” he said. “We figured this couldn’t be any worse.”He couldn’t have been any more wrong. A savage wind started blowing about 8 a.m. the day Katrina struck and snapped several big pine and oak trees in his yard. He didn’t feel threatened so much by the wind as by the prospect of a tree crashing through the roof.
Two mammoth trees fell but spared the sturdy, one-story brick house. Smith never had time to relax. Following the wind came water rushing in from two directions even though his house is about five miles off the coast. As it kept rising, Smith decided to make his way over to his neighbor, 74-year-old Bobby Baxter, figuring they would be better off together than alone.The current of the rapidly rising water was so strong that he made it only by pulling himself along by a row of azalea plants. Once inside, he figures, he and Baxter were spared only because the wood house floated but didn’t drift away. Nevertheless, the water filled the house to about two feet from the ceiling. Smith put on a life jacket, placed Baxter on his back and floated themselves out to a big oak tree.There they stayed for six to eight hours in neck-high water until the water receded. It disappeared as quickly as it came and before long Baxter and Smith started walking around their devastated town and running into a handful of other people who had stuck it out.
“There was a few people coming out in a daze, like World War III,” Smith said.As bad as Smith had it, it was probably worse for his wife, Susan. She and their two kids, a senior and junior in high school, evacuated to a shelter about 10 miles away at Tim’s insistence. Susan, also a Pearlington native, had never evacuated for a storm before but “felt different” this time. She tried to talk Tim into leaving, too.As the magnitude of the storm became apparent on the day it struck, word spread at the shelter that Susan’s husband had stayed in town. People, she said, couldn’t help but glance at her when reports came out on television news about damage in Pearlington.”It was a difficult time. I tried to keep my composure for the kids,” she said.She never made contact with Tim that night, but her mind was put at ease by a friend who reached her by phone and told her Tim had survived.Susan and Tim were reunited the next day. She had to abandon her truck and walk into Pearlington because the highway was littered with downed trees.Their house is uninhabitable because of water damage. They are camped outside, waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to bring a trailer for temporary shelter. They have every intention of staying in Pearlington. Tim said he won’t try to ride out another major hurricane, but he may plant azaleas.
Smith wasn’t alone in thinking Pearlington was untouchable by a hurricane. Don Lee, 50, another native of the town, stayed put with his fiancée even though 35 members of his extended family, who live in eight other houses around his, fled to Atlanta.Lee also felt secure in his brick house and emerged when the wind died as the eye of the hurricane passed over town. He was checking his sister’s house across the street when “something told me to turn around.”It was a carpet of water. Before he moved 20 feet back toward his house the water was up to his knees. “By the time I got to the front door it was up to my neck,” he said.He said he had to sink his weight into the door to open it and get his fiancée out. He placed her in the back of a pickup while he unhooked his boat. By the time he was done, water was up to her neck in the back of the truck.Lee floated around his neighborhood and found a remarkable number of friends and acquaintances in need.”I rescued two people who were up in a cedar tree,” he said.
By the time the water receded, about 9 p.m., he rescued four more people in his boat and helped gather 30 people from his neighborhood. They slept in the Greater Mountain Zion Church, the only structure in their area that survived somewhat intact.Lee said his brick house looks fine from the outside. “Once you go inside, there’s nothing left.”The members of his extended family just started filtering back into town. Lee said he tried to brace them in telephone conversations for what happened. It didn’t work. A lot of tears were shed in disbelief.About 60 percent of the county’s 45,000 residents are homeless, according to Steve Sautter, a public information officer with FEMA. The floodwaters from the storm surge reached 20 to 30 feet, depending on the part of the county.Lee and his family also remain determined to rebuild. Right now, though, rebuilding seems a long way off while trying to recover from so much devastation.”We’re going to make it, man, you know that,” said Charles “Joe” Burton, Lee’s brother-in-law.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com