Families lose everything
September 28, 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 community of Pearlington, Miss., an unincorporated community on the Gulf Coast that took the full force of the storm. This week, The Aspen Times sent reporter Scott Condon and photographer Paul Conrad to Pearlington to find out what’s left, how residents are coping and what needs to be done to help them rebuild their lives and their community.PEARLINGTON, Miss. – Margaret Ladner sat outside the mangled shell of her house Wednesday and calmly recounted how Hurricane Katrina killed her sister, nearly drowned her and her husband, and destroyed the homes of two of her children.She paused in the middle of the incredible story to ask a visitor if he wanted a cold bottle of water from her cooler. Few people on the Gulf Coast lost as much as Ladner in the hurricane, yet she remains willing to share what she owns.That seems to be the approach among the few people remaining in Pearlington, a working-class town of 1,700 people in the extreme southwest corner of Mississippi. It’s the town on the Louisiana border that Carbondale “adopted” in an effort to give direct aid to a place in need. The governments of Aspen, Basalt, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County have also vowed to help Pearlington directly in its recovery rather than offer assistance through an organization like the Red Cross.The town took a direct hit from the eastern wall of the eye of Katrina, where winds and storm surge were at their worst. One month later, the level of destruction remains hard to fathom. Nearly every building was either leveled by ravaging winds and swirling waters, or covered with layers of thick mud that have dried and cracked in the hot sun.
All the lawns are covered with a thin layer of crusty mud that breaks through to underlying glop when any pressure is applied. Stagnant, briny water lines the ditches. The buildings reek with the musty smell of stale water and mud.The structures that are still standing bear a high-water mark like the line in a bathtub after a dirty kid hops out.Many structures have collapsed. The post office disappeared; its cement foundation sits alone, wiped clean.St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was washed out into the main drag, Route 604. Its belfry is still intact in the front yard of the partially collapsed house across the road.Waterlogged wood, twisted metal and copious amounts of debris, such as mattresses and household appliances, are scattered everywhere.A handful of property owners have tried to pile the debris on the curb, and here and there backhoes pick away at the strewn garbage.For the most part, Pearlington is a ghost town, the majority of residents scattered throughout the South, living with family and friends. Ladner and her husband, George, are staying with a daughter in Louisiana but come back to the remains of their old home every day to see if the Federal Emergency Management Agency will swing by. They hope FEMA will compensate them for at least some of their loss. The Ladners, like most people, didn’t have flood insurance.Margaret, 73, and George, 74, have lived at a site on the main drag of Pearlington since 1954. Wind tore siding and shingles off the house. Water gutted it.Next door, the one-two punch of wind and rain collapsed the house of their daughter, Andrea Coote. In the same block, the hurricane destroyed the home of their son, George “Eddie” Ladner, who had bought the place from Margaret’s parents.
The Ladners are old-time residents of Pearlington, but they don’t know yet if they will rebuild.Margaret said there was never a threat of major flooding before, despite a slew of hurricanes over the years. She and George fled Pearlington for slightly higher ground at her brother’s house in nearby Bay St. Louis when Katrina put the area in its cross hairs.They figured they would be safe in a house 24 feet above sea level. But when Katrina sent walls of water inland, backed up rivers and inundated lowlands, her brother’s house started filling up with water. First they attempted to stem the flow by putting towels underneath the doors. That was futile, and they soon were wading in three feet of water inside the house. Fortunately, the water didn’t rise higher.Margaret’s 84-year-old sister wasn’t as lucky. She drowned in the house where she lived, a block or so away from her brother in Bay St. Louis. She had declined their repeated invitations to ride out the storm with them.
“She’s like me. She’s hardheaded,” Margaret said.Andrea, Margaret’s daughter, said the family is still in shock from Katrina. Her parents’ and grandparents’ homes, the places where she grew up, are gone.”It’s the loss of the memories more than the material things that hurts the worst,” she said.
George Graves and his family are ready to give up their memories and material possessions in Pearlington. They are living in a travel trailer and preparing to buy a home elsewhere in southern Mississippi.”I would love to live here, but my wife said, ‘Unh-unh, buddy,'” he said.Wind and water destroyed their home on the Pearl River. He was one of the lucky few who was totally insured.The Graveses lost almost everything, including his medals from the Vietnam War. George came to town to get a post office box key out of a Buick he owned. Graves abandoned the vehicle in Pearlington because he didn’t want his dogs messing up the fancy interior when the family evacuated. Instead, it was destroyed by floodwaters.Like Margaret Ladner, Graves found ways to laugh about the disaster. He noted that he put a new roof on his house two years ago. The contractor told him it could handle winds of up to 150 mph, the estimated high during Katrina. The contractor was right – his roof was intact, atop the rubble of the rest of his house.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org