Hope in the rubble | AspenTimes.com

Hope in the rubble

A woman prays to a headless statue of the Virgin Mary amid the rubble of what was once St. Josephs Catholic Church in Pearlington, Miss. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

Editor’s note: In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, valley residents and governments decided 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 in Pearlington to find out what’s left, and to report on how residents are coping and what needs to be done to help them rebuild their community.PEARLINGTON, Miss. – From the rubble comes hope.That cliché couldn’t have been more fitting than Sunday morning, when 24 parishioners of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church attended Mass outdoors, beside the ruins of their church and religious center. They pulled chairs to the front of Father Jim O’Bryan’s makeshift altar, a small table pulled from the rubble.”If you’re not willing to do something about this place, it’s going to look like this five years from now,” O’Bryan said during his sermon. “People will come by to look at the ruins.”Destruction dominated the view in every direction from the hastily arranged “church.” The toppled church steeple still sits where it fell in the front yard of a house across the street. Floodwaters swept the church itself off its foundation and deposited it in the middle of Route 607, the main drag through town. Parishioners said heavy equipment plowed right through the structure when roads were cleared after Hurricane Katrina.

A block or so away, the little church of a United Methodist congregation founded in 1813 was in shambles.

As O’Bryan led prayers, the steady beep-beep-beep of construction equipment backing up was audible in the distance. A helicopter flew low to check the damage to the community.The priest told his flock of two dozen, a mix of old and young, that experiencing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was a test of their wills. He urged them not to mourn the loss of their material goods, and not to lose their faith in God.”This is going to help you be the person God wants you to be,” O’Bryan said.He and the members of the parish hope to rebuild, but the Catholic dioceses face tough decisions. The hurricane destroyed several Catholic churches in southern Mississippi. Not all will be rebuilt. St. Joseph’s in Pearlington was relatively small, with 65 families before the storm. Some won’t return.After Sunday’s service, 13-year-old Amber Lichenstein assessed the condition of her community.”It’s a mess,” she said. “It’s never going to be the same.”Her school was damaged so badly that she won’t be able to resume eighth grade until Nov. 1. She’s sure some of her classmates will be gone when classes start again. They’ve scattered all over the country, with some attending other schools so they don’t miss any time.But Lichenstein isn’t down in the dumps. She’s quick with a smile. She toughed out the hurricane by scrambling to a rooftop of one of five homes owned by members of her extended family. Sixteen people from her family and several dogs crammed themselves into one boat when the waters rose higher than they ever imagined.For hundreds of residents from Pearlington and thousands from southern Mississippi, recovery seems likely to include tough times with insurance companies.

Ann Seale said a giant tree poked a hole in her garage in Pearlington after it snapped off 30 feet above the ground. The insurance company is sending an engineer to study if floodwater, rather than wind, toppled the tree. Seale and her husband, Jim, didn’t have flood insurance – they had hurricane insurance. If wind felled the tree, the insurance would cover the damage. If it was water – even though the flood was the result of a hurricane – the insurance wouldn’t cover the bill.Ann and several other residents mentioned that insurers are nitpicking to avoid paying for damages.”It hits people when they’re at their lowest,” she said. Despite tough times past – and tough times ahead – many people are determined to stay in Pearlington. Most have been here all their lives, and many are part of families that have been in the town for multiple generations.Camille Lichenstein, Amber’s grandmother, said one of the five houses that belong to family members survived the storm unscathed. Work has made another habitable since Katrina struck Aug. 29. Three others are badly damaged. But the Lichensteins are staying.

“We are,” she said. “We say at times we aren’t, but we are.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.

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