Debra Sonnier’s story: Why Carbondale cares
PEARLINGTON, Miss. – Debra Sonnier’s bad luck didn’t end with Hurricane Katrina. It just got started.Sonnier, a 46-year-old single mother, has experienced a string of misfortunes over the last six months that would break the spirit of all but the strongest souls.”I was saying at first it can’t get much worse, it can’t get much worse. I quit saying that because it did,” she said.
Sonnier broke an ankle while evacuating her home in the once-charming Belle Isle subdivision in Pearlington. Her ankle hasn’t healed properly, despite her use of crutches and a boot. Her other ankle has become sore from carrying the extra weight.Sonnier then broke two ribs at Christmastime and her doctor discovered she is suffering from advanced osteoporosis, which is uncommon for a woman her age. She’s also suffered from pancreatitis since the storm and was recovering from thyroid surgery before Katrina hit.Her medical conditions have made it impossible to return to her job in a medical clinic.Nevertheless, Sonnier counts her blessings. “I’m a lot better off than a lot of people,” she said.Her house of 22 years survived the storm, much to her surprise. “I said goodbye to my house when I left,” she said. “I didn’t even expect it to be standing.”
The house filled with water, even though it stands 10 or so feet off the ground. The turbulent water acted like a big washing machine, scrambling her belongings and ruining most of them.In one way, Sonnier was more fortunate than many Pearlington residents. When she refinanced her house because of divorce, she was required by the mortgage company to get flood insurance.She used some of the insurance money to pay off the mortgage. Even though the house seemed a total loss, she didn’t want a debt hounding her.”I paid off the pile of mold here,” she said. The water-logged house grew mold on the walls and ceiling before she was able to attend to it.Still, the house was deemed structurally sound by government inspectors. Once that happened, the volunteer army that has been the salvation of many folks in Pearlington found her. A group of Mennonites provided free labor to repair her deck and re-roof her house. Another team of volunteers gutted the structure and cleared debris. Last week, a crew from the North Carolina-based Disaster Corp. was hanging sheetrock and preparing it for painting.Sonnier is a prime example of why the Carbondale Fire Department is continuing its Pearlington Project in conjunction with the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation and other entities from the Roaring Fork Valley.
In the first phase of recovery, the Pearlington Project provided supplies and labor to clear lots of downed timber and debris. Now, the focus has shifted to reconstruction.Tom Dalessandri, coordinator for the Pearlington Project, identified four families that are in the rebuilding process that could use free labor. Volunteers from the Roaring Fork Valley will be sent to work on those four homes. When they no longer need help, four new families will be identified.”God has blessed me and sent all these people,” said Sonnier, who bought the construction materials with her insurance money.She is currently living about one hour from Pearlington in a FEMA trailer with her daughter, Cheyanne, 12, on a friend’s property. Now that her lot isn’t a disaster site, she hopes the federal agency will allow her to relocate the trailer near her home.And now, five bleak months after the storm, Sonnier can see a future again in Pearlington.
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