Katrina anniversary another day in Pearlington’s recovery
August 28, 2006
Editor’s note: The Aspen Times has followed the plight of a handful of families as they recover from Hurricane Katrina in Pearlington, Miss., a town the Roaring Fork Valley has targeted to help. We checked back with some of them Monday to see how they are dealing with the one-year anniversary of the devastating storm.George and Margaret Ladner are racing toward a rebirth of sorts, one year after Hurricane Katrina delivered a devastating blow to the elderly couple.They are six to eight weeks away from moving out of the small white trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and into a house constructed by volunteers. Six months ago such a rapid recovery appeared impossible.At that point, the Ladners, who are in their mid-70s, were fortunate to finally get someone to bulldoze the wind- and water-ravaged ruins of the house they had built 42 years before.Now they are close to having a new house, thanks to volunteer Jennifer Johnson of Huntsville, Ala. Johnson met the Ladners last November and focused on getting them back on their feet. Since June, she has channeled 14 volunteer groups from her church and around the country to the Ladners’ construction site.People from Florida to Canada and from California to the East Coast worked on the Ladners’ house. Ukrainians who resettled in Pennsylvania framed the structure; a 12-year-old Southern girl raised $700 for construction materials.”I can’t even get angry in this house – there’s so much love in it,” Ladner chuckled.When the one-year anniversary of the big storm rolls around today, she said she won’t give a lot of thought to the horrifying events of Aug. 29, 2005 – including the death of a sister in nearby Bay St. Louis and the near-drowning of George and herself in a different house in that town – or the tough year that followed. She’s too busy.”The more you work, the quicker you get in your house,” she said.
A handful of Pearlington residents contacted by The Aspen Times said they were unaware of any official ceremonies in the small unincorporated community that had a pre-storm population of about 1,700. They said they will mark the dubious date in their own, mostly private ways.
“In a lot of places, people are going to be unhappy but thankful to be alive,” said Sharon LeSieur, who was forced out of her home with her husband by Katrina’s rising floodwaters. “We’re just going to sit around, ride it out and be glad it’s not happening again.”Camille Lichtenstein, who lost her home, said the year flew by, despite the hardships her family and community endured. “It seems like it was yesterday. I can remember everything about it.”It’s scary. How’d we do it?” she asked.Part of the answer is the nonstop work. Lichtenstein said it has been hard to reflect on what happened when there is so much work to do. She worked tirelessly to get her Catholic parish, St. Joseph’s, back on its feet. The church and rectory were destroyed. Parishioners scrambled to salvage the water-damaged hall, which survived only because of cinder-block construction. The hall was completed this summer, just in time for their longtime parish priest to be transferred. A priest who splits time between parishes comes on Sundays to celebrate Mass.Camille and her husband, Bubby, bought a new mobile home for their sprawling, wooded property and have bounced back well, she said. So she’s concentrating on helping younger people who didn’t have any savings to fall back on.Lichtenstein, Ladner and LeSieur all believe their community is bouncing back, even if the progress is slow. A convenience store has reopened, so they don’t have to travel 20 miles for just milk and bread. It’s got shiny new gas pumps, although they haven’t started service yet.Late last September Pearlington was essentially a rubble pile that could have passed for a bombed-out village in Europe during WW II. Most people who stayed in town lived in tents; habitable houses were few and far between. Six months later, more residents had returned to town and were living in standard-issue FEMA trailers tucked onto a corner of their property. Cleanup had begun in earnest.
Now some homes have been remodeled and a handful of new ones constructed. The LeSieurs’ home is one of the first to be built from scratch (with the first floor now 10 feet higher than it was at their old house). Although they moved in June 3, they haven’t had a big housewarming party for fear of rubbing it in to less fortunate friends and neighbors.Many people are still living in trailers, uncertain if they can rebuild, LeSieur said. Others are unsure of their plans and want to see what this hurricane season brings, she said.Tom Dalessandri, who is heading the Pearlington Project, an aid effort started by the Carbondale fire department that spread throughout the valley, estimated from Pearlington Monday that only 40 to 45 percent of the uninhabitable houses have been removed. Junked vehicles litter the town. Barges, tugboats and other watercraft still rest high and dry in some neighborhoods.There is an illusion outside the Gulf Coast that one year has made a tremendous difference in the recovery, he said.”There is a noticeable depression in town,” said Dalessandri, who has made nine trips with work groups from Carbondale over the last year. He said he has been told that the suicide rate has soared in south Mississippi.But there are signs of progress. Lichtenstein said people are actually buying some of the gutted houses and intend to rebuild. “I thought it would be like a ghost town, but it’s not,” she said.Debbie Sonnier figured six months ago she would have to abandon her water-damaged house. But it was structurally sound and deemed salvageable. Volunteers have worked on the house for six months, sometimes in a trickle and other times like a flood. She and her daughter finally moved back in Aug. 14.
Sonnier’s Bell Isle neighborhood used to have thick woods separating the lots. Now most of the trees are gone and many of the houses sit empty. Nevertheless, Sonnier considers herself “blessed.””The fact that we survived is the main thing,” she said.Even the woods surrounding the subdivision seems to be recovering. It’s not the bird sanctuary it was, but owls and finches have reappeared, Sonnier said.Recovery for humans will also take years. They depend on FEMA’s 30-by-8 trailer homes as they sort out their lives. “This is trailer city now,” Lichtenstein said.”It’s going to get better,” said LeSieur. “It may look like hell, but it’s getting better.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.