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Home at last in Pearlington

Scott CondonAspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times
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Editor’s note: Aspen Times photographer Paul Conrad and reporter Scott Condon returned for a third time to Pearlington, Miss., this week. In the coming days, they will chronicle the ongoing recovery of this Gulf Coast community, which the Roaring Fork Valley “adopted” after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. Their trip coincides with a relief effort by students from Aspen High School.PEARLINGTON, Miss. – Twenty months after Hurricane Katrina devastated this small community, some residents are finally rejoicing over its recovery rather than lamenting the misery of its destruction.New houses are sprouting up throughout the area on large, rural, tree-lined lots. An incredible number of churches for a town of 1,700 people are open again for worship. The town’s only bar and convenience gas station are back in business.The town is far from “normal,” but at least progress is no longer measured solely by the number of ravaged homes that have been gutted and torn down or the amount of curbside debris that’s been hauled to the dump.Connie Danese, a 35-year resident of Pearlington, said there was a sure sign of progress this spring based on what was missing from her neighborhood.”You feel good when you go down the street and say, ‘Oh, look, another FEMA trailer is gone,'” Danese said.

At one point, the majority of the town’s 1,700 residents who had returned after the hurricane were living in cramped trailers the Federal Emergency Management Agency supplied. Now, many people have progressed far enough with construction or remodeling of homes to get out of the trailers.Danese and her husband, Sam, were outside their own partially reconstructed home Monday going through garbage bags of belongings that they stored in a tent after the hurricane struck Aug. 29, 2005. Just about all the clothes, pictures, dishes and other items accumulated from a lifetime together had to be discarded.Every now and then, some memento is salvageable. It is an emotional roller coaster for the couple to sift through a lifetime of memories.”That’s why we put it off,” Sam said.The Daneses raised their five children in their home in the Oak Harbor subdivision. Fourteen feet of water submerged the first floor and swamped the second story during Katrina. They lived in a “fifth-wheel” travel trailer until last month, when they were able to move back into their house. Despite their hardships, they consider themselves lucky.”Half of the people in Pearlington proper didn’t come back,” Connie said. They estimated the recovery rate was higher in their subdivision, with maybe three-fourths of residents returning.Oak Harbor is typical of all of Pearlington, an unincorporated community with no town government. On one lot sits a new or rebuilt house; next door is an abandoned structure that’s been gutted down to the two-by-four studs.A block away from the Danese home is a gutted, two-story brick house with “Darby” spray painted in white on a window to show ownership. A “for sale” sign advertises the shell for $50,000, or best offer.

One yard in Oak Harbor might have a meticulously landscaped waterfall, while down the street there is stagnant water the color of weak coffee pooled in the ditch.Kim Jones, the fire chief for West Hancock (County) Fire and Rescue, said there are 2,500 homes in his district, which is broader than Pearlington itself. Hancock County has issued 435 building permits for new houses and reconstruction, he said, but he thinks only about two-thirds of those permits have been put to use thus far.While the progress is apparent, there are also problems. Jones said sewage water is going straight from some septic systems to ditches.”It’s not pleasant, but there’s not much people can do about it right now,” Jones said. “It’s going to have to get fixed, but today’s not the right day.”John Flock, a retired engineer, and his wife, Ginny, might represent the future of Pearlington. They have the financial ability to move anywhere, but they will rebuild their house in Pearlington and use it as a vacation home. They stripped their Oak Harbor house down to the studs, power-washed it, treated it for mold and are now starting the slow process of rebuilding. They bought a house in Slidell but didn’t want to leave their idyllic spot on a canal in Pearlington. Their large picture window looks over the bayou, where green pines once stretched to the sky but now struggle for life. Waterfowl constantly swoop by; fish pop to the surface.

They are convinced that Pearlington will return better than ever: “It will be a new town,” John said.

He estimated that only 20 to 25 percent of the houses in the area are now lived in. No official count is available. But even at that level, he thinks the progress is commendable.”It’s pretty good, considering,” he said, then paused, ” I don’t think the government is helping.”George and Margaret Ladner are among the lucky few who have moved into a new home. The storm surge destroyed the house where they had lived since the 1950s. They poured a new foundation in June, then volunteers took over. Shortly before Christmas they moved into a meticulous one-story home that would meet solid middle-class standards anywhere in the country.A year ago, the Ladners were uncertain if they would be able to stay in the area where they were both raised. “If it wasn’t for [the volunteers], we wouldn’t be here today,” George said.

Their neighborhood has bounced back well, with a half-dozen new homes constructed. But George said he hasn’t really checked out the town to gauge its progress overall. He rarely ventures off Highway 90, which bisects the community.”I just don’t have the heart to really go,” he said.On a tour of the town Monday, the most striking difference from one year ago is the absence of debris. In March 2006, volunteers and contractors had leveled homes throughout the community, and property owners had piled trash on the curb for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to haul to the dump. The trash mounds, for the most part, have been cleared. Only a handful of houses sit as the hurricane left them. But between one-third and one-half of the houses sit gutted with no ongoing work.Plastic bags and refuge of all imaginable type also used to be snagged in Pearlington’s trees, and the trees themselves looked like a snarled mess of witch’s hair. The vegetation has bounced back in its second spring since the storm. Deadfall in town has been reduced, thanks to the efforts of chain saw crews, including some from the Carbondale fire department.But Mother Nature remains out of balance, according to Jones, who described himself as a big fan of reptiles. The storm killed the snakes and washed away ant colonies. While that might thrill some homeowners, it is bad for nature’s balance, Jones said.


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