Hard times and hope in a devastated town
October 5, 2005
Tim Smith survived Hurricane Katrina’s fury in his hometown of Pearlington, Miss. But her aftermath threatened to do him in.Smith rode out the storm in his brick house, enduring 150 mph winds. He later escaped the building and fought his way through rising flood waters to reach a neighbor, then they both clung for dear life to a massive oak tree.”I didn’t have time to be scared. We just kept trying to survive,” Smith said.Since the Aug. 29 storm, it’s been a test of will for Smith and hundreds of other Pearlington residents. Most have lost their homes.The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that 60 percent of 49,000 residents of Hancock County, where Pearlington is located, are homeless. About 103,000 of 200,000 South Mississippi homes were destroyed or damaged.No specific estimates are available for Pearlington, but a drive around town shows that few homes or other structures survived. Those that remained upright were pummeled with swirling floodwater that caused structural damage and mold.So the residents sleep in tents or under tarps. They endure bugs, high temperatures and humidity that keeps everything moist. Sanitary conditions are poor, at best. Utilities are a luxury few possess.Day-to-day living is now the struggle. The storm was just the beginning.”What comes next is unbelievable, and I sometimes think it’s worse than the storm,” said Jeanne Brooks, the head teacher and librarian at Pearlington’s Charles Murphy Elementary School.
While some people have scattered throughout the South to homes of friends and relatives, others like Smith and his family stubbornly hold on to what they have left.They would rather scratch out an existence on their property than go to the shelter that’s been established at the elementary school. Only about 30 people were staying there one month after the storm struck. Fleeing to hotels in Mobile, Ala., or Pensacola, Fla., the closest unscathed cities, wasn’t practical because of the cost.So families like the Smiths, the Lichtensteins and the Ladners, all with deep roots in Pearlington, stay at their property. They clear the mountains of debris that covers every inch of the town. (Smith found several dead fish in his yard, a mile or so from the nearest permanent body of water.) They wait for answers from their insurance companies. In some cases, they wait for FEMA to deliver a trailer where they can live for a while.Smith said all this uncertainty makes it hard to sleep at night. “It’s a nightmare that you don’t wake up from,” he said.His insurance will pay for a new roof because of the wind damage. But water filled his entire one-story ranch house, ruining all his belongings, those of his wife Susan and their two kids. And like many Pearlington residents, the Smiths didn’t have flood insurance. The town is five miles off the Mississippi Sound, and hurricanes had never sent water shooting up that far.In an e-mail this week, friends of the Smiths in Louisiana said Tim and Susan finally received their FEMA trailer. But that couldn’t be verified with the Smiths due to poor cellular service.
Pearlington is a working-class town on the border of Louisiana. It’s unincorporated so it doesn’t have a municipal government. It relied on Hancock County for services. Even before the storm, residents were self-reliant because they had to be.”Pearlington is a small town and it’s the last on the list for anything,” said Liz Warren, who moved there in 1998. “People mostly help each other.”Daryl Arnold ran the parts department at a car dealership in Slidell, La., before the hurricane. He doesn’t know if he has a job any longer. Arnold, who is used to taking ski vacations to Colorado, found himself collecting food stamps last week.”I’m pretty much a middle-class person who never had to do this before,” he said while picking up food, a chain saw and cleaning supplies at the emergency distribution center. “I never was a person that wanted something for free.”Andrea Coote left her hometown for Tennessee when Katrina struck. Her house was destroyed when she returned. The storm also ravaged the homes of her brother and her parents, both next to her house.She’s contemplating a permanent move to Tennessee. “You might go another 100 years and this might not happen again,” she said. Then again, it could happen again later this hurricane season.She’s most concerned about her parents. George Ladner, 74, and Margaret, 73, always worked hard and helped others. They never needed help, Coote said. Now they find themselves in utterly unfamiliar territory.Margaret was overwhelmed by the fact that various church groups, the Salvation Army and towns like those in the Roaring Fork Valley have rushed to the aid of her devastated hometown.”It’s not so much what they give as the fact that they are here to give,” she explained.Her other daughter, Susan Indest, of Pearl River, La., said Pearlington residents have a long way to go before they recover. They are still emerging from the shock of a devastating natural disaster. And they’re feeling deep emotional grief and mental strain.
Sharon LeSieur is a tough woman. She’s powerfully built, talks coarsely and sucks down Bud Light while cleaning up her flood-ravaged property in Pearlington. She rode out the storm with her husband. They sought refuge in a neighbor’s two-story house on a small rise after their ranch-style home filled with water. “I wasn’t afraid,” she declared.She notes with bravado that she refused to evacuate Pearlington when other hurricanes struck, like Betsy in 1965 and Camille in 1969.”I’ve rode them out from B to K,” she said with a hearty laugh. “I think that’s my last rodeo.”While leading a tour of her waterlogged house she acknowledged it is heartbreaking to stumble across mementos; the majority were ruined but some, like her children’s baby pictures, were spared.”I have cried,” she admitted. “I just didn’t want anyone to see me doing it.”LeSieur left Pearlington for her daughter’s home in Florida immediately after Katrina but she couldn’t handle being cooped up in an apartment. She couldn’t wait for FEMA to deliver a trailer so she used insurance payments on her three wrecked vehicles and a camper to buy a new pickup and new camper.She and her husband live on their property once again. Sharon also purchased a new washing machine, hooked it to their old house’s waterline and set the washer on the concrete foundation, in the open. Life goes on.
It appears that everybody remaining in Pearlington has someone to lean on. Family and friends always seemed to be helping at the Smith property. LeSieur’s two best friends, whose families also lost their homes, hang out, share a smoke, wash clothes and hang them on the line to dry.The Lichtensteins had five homes among the 16 people in their extended family. They crowded into one house and eventually had to flee to a rooftop to escape the rising water. They crammed into a boat for six-or-so hours before the water receded.One of their five homes was relatively unscathed. Another has been made habitable, so the family has a couple of places to share. But they face a major undertaking to restore conditions to what they were.The matriarch of the family, Camille Lichtenstein, not only has her family to care for, she’s also the secretary of St. Joseph’s Catholic parish. She hopes the parish of 65 families will continue to have a church of their own. St. Joseph’s was swept off its foundation and obliterated. So many Catholic churches were wiped out in the area that it seems unlikely all can be rebuilt.Camille’s 13-year-old granddaughter, Amber, knows her best friend is back in town, but she wonders if she will ever see some of her old friends again when her eighth-grade year resumes. Some people left town to enroll their kids elsewhere.”I wish everything was the same,” said Amber.Family ties and faith have also sustained Charles “Joe” Burton and his extended family of 37 people living in nine homes. All were destroyed or made uninhabitable by floodwater. “We lost everything,” said Burton.But the 60-year-old Pearlington native swears his family will emerge stronger.”I have no regrets about what happened,” he said. “God is good.”Burton and most of his family fled to Atlanta before the hurricane hit. They stayed away until last week. His brother-in-law, Don Lee, stayed during the storm. He and his fiancee cheated death by climbing into a boat, then proceeded to save six other people stranded by rising waters. Lee said he also had the unfortunate task of retrieving the body of a drowning victim.The families are now roughing it and relying on the distribution center for food and supplies.”We ain’t ever had to live like this before,” Burton said. A lot of people in Pearlington will require spiritual counseling to survive this catastrophe, he said.
Along with its churches, a big part of Pearlington’s identity is its 115-student elementary school. Students go elsewhere as they grow older, to consolidated middle and high schools in surrounding towns.Having its own elementary school was cause for civic pride in Pearlington. Adults would volunteer for activities even after their kids moved on, Brooks said.Blacks and whites live in separate sections of the community but they have always gotten along, in the community and in school, according to Brooks. Though Pearlington was 80 percent white by U.S. Census estimates, there was an attitude more of “you’re either from Pearlington or you’re not” than any differences over skin color, she explained.But one tie that binds them could be lost. School officials will huddle with state and federal authorities next week to figure out how to resume classes.The school’s gymnasium is now the warehouse and distribution center for goods that relief organizations donated to Pearlington. Other sections were tapped for the shelter and housing for relief workers.The school received too much damage to resume operations this year. For up to three years, students will likely attend classes in FEMA modular trailers, when they arrive and are placed at an unknown location.In the long run, Brooks fears school district officials will close the damaged elementary school, and Pearlington will lose another chunk of identity.Brooks said it’s important to get the children back into classes and restore some sort of structure in their disrupted lives. The girls tell her they want to start school; the boys say they like running around.”Deep down they’re all ready for some sense of a normal life,” Brooks said.Looking over her shattered community, she acknowledged it’s hard to imagine Pearlington ever returning to the way it was.”It’s going to take a year just to get the garbage picked up,” Brooks lamented.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org