Katrina recovery coverage looks at Pearlington five years later

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Aspen Times file

CARBONDALE – A Gulf Coast town in Mississippi that the Roaring Fork Valley rallied to help after Hurricane Katrina five years ago will be one of the areas potentially featured in a CNN documentary Thursday, according to Tom Dalessandri, a Carbondale resident who helped coordinate the aid effort.

Dalessandri said he toured Pearlington, Miss., with CNN news anchor Soledad O’Brien last Thursday as part of the network’s coverage of the recovery from Katrina.

“While we were walking down [one of the main roads], I was thinking to myself, ‘Things look pretty well, really,'” Dalessandri said. He noted he also had the perspective of seeing the town right after it was destroyed.

Most of the debris has been removed and a good share of homes have been rebuilt, he said. Only a handful of demolished residences have remained untouched since the storm kicked up a surge of water that deluged the unincorporated town. About 2,500 people lived in the Pearlington area, about 40 miles east of New Orleans, pre-Katrina. Dalessandri said the population is estimated at about half of that now.

Some of the homes were built or fixed thanks to the Roaring Fork Valley. The Carbondale fire department organized a direct relief effort rather than channeling money through an established organization. Officials targeted Pearlington for aid because the small, unincorporated area seemed to be getting overlooked, according to Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach. Governments and nonprofit service organizations from throughout the valley soon joined the fire department.

The effort resulted in the creation of Mountains to Mississippi, The Pearlington Project. Dalessandri, director of the project, became well known in Pearlington in the months and years following Katrina for the aid efforts. (Dalessandri is a former Garfield County sheriff who is running again for the office this year.)

Carbondale firefighters cleared debris off 65 lots to make way for temporary housing immediately after the storm, Dalessandri said. Over the years, aid from the Roaring Fork Valley helped build or fix homes for about 250 families.

In some cases, Mountains to Mississippi coordinated volunteer placement and use of supplies from other organizations because it had established expertise in the area.

Dalessandri said a CNN crew did a story soon after Katrina struck on a single mom and her four kids who were forced to live in a shed because their house was destroyed. An organization built a home for the family, but the specs weren’t right, Dalessandri said, and the floor was buckling because too few pilings were used. Mountains to Mississippi organized an effort about a year ago to place 20 more pilings under the house to stabilize it. CNN is revisiting that family and brought Mountains to Mississippi into the story.

“I don’t know how much ended up on the cutting room floor,” Dalessandri said. “I think it’s a good insight into what Pearlington looks like five years later.”

He noted he hasn’t witnessed or heard of oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster affecting the Pearlington area, which is shielded from the coast by barrier islands.

An assistant at CNN informed him the segment on Pearlington will air on “Anderson Cooper 360” at 8 p.m. Thursday. As plans stood Wednesday afternoon, coverage of Pearlington and comments from Dalessandri were still part of the piece, a CNN representative said.