Pearlington: One piece of larger, devastated puzzle | AspenTimes.com

Pearlington: One piece of larger, devastated puzzle

Christian Life volunteer Frank Barber surveys the damage to U.S. 90 as it crosses St. Louis Bay from Bay St. Louis. Im absolutely amazed at the energy it would take to destroy this bridge," he said. Work to repair a mile-long section of the span is under way. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

PEARLINGTON, MISS. – The Roaring Fork Valley made a well-warranted choice when it decided to focus its hurricane relief efforts on this small, working-class town.But it could have taken its pick among the coastal towns in the same region of South Mississippi. Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Diamondhead, Pass Christian and Long Beach were all decimated by Hurricane Katrina more than four weeks ago.All are small towns strung along the coast, much like Aspen, Snowmass Village, Carbondale, Basalt and Glenwood Springs are strung along the Roaring Fork Valley.

The Aspen Times concentrated its coverage on Pearlington because Carbondale selected the town as sort of a sister city in need. Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt and Pitkin County soon joined the effort.While hanging out a couple of days in Pearlington, we kept hearing various relief officials say, “Yeah, Pearlington is bad, but you ought to see Pass Christian or Bay St. Louis.”So we checked them out; both towns added a different perspective to devastation.

Pearlington is spread out. It is an unincorporated town with no real core or downtown business district. It is thick with huge Cyprus, oak and pine trees. Many homes are surrounded by an acre or two of land.In the core of Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis, the buildings are at close quarters. Their main drags parallel the beach along the Mississippi Sound. The devastation there is guaranteed to drop your jaw.”People call it a war zone, total devastation and things like that,” said Paul White, whose house was about a quarter of a mile off the water. “I don’t know what to call it.”

In Pearlington, it’s easy to see that buildings were damaged by wind and water. The houses have siding and roofing torn away. Trees with thick trunks are snapped off. But water did much of that damage. The current swept houses off foundations, mixed contents on the insides like a blender, soaked everything in murky water and left a coat of mud.Often buildings in Pearlington collapsed on themselves or were partially blown away. Still, the rubble remains in large chunks.In Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian homes were simply blown apart, board by board, brick by brick, and sheet by sheet of metal. The rubble isn’t intact. It’s shattered.

In both towns, many buildings were swept off their foundations and obliterated. Locals call it “slabbed” because only the slabs remain. The aftermath looks the same as that of a tornado. Plastic, clothing and other pieces of jagged debris are snagged in the trees. The entire area looks wind-blown.An estimated 103,000 of 200,000 homes in South Mississippi are uninhabitable, according to the Sun Herald of Biloxi/Gulfport. In Hancock County, where Bay St. Louis and Pearlington are located, about 60 percent of the 49,000 residents are homeless, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.In the middle of the rubble in Bay St. Louis, maybe a half-mile off the coast, 71-year-old Paul White sifted through the boards and debris where his house once stood. As far as is visible in each direction, the rubble looked the same. Only a homeowner can discern the property lines.

White dug through the rubble looking for files from his accounting business. When he evacuated for Katrina, he took his hard drives but left the files behind. Miraculously he found them, and although they were at one time soaked in water, they were salvageable. He had loaded four garbage bags full in his pickup Saturday morning and was making his way through the rubble with four more bags.White had no doubt that he would rebuild and that his neighborhood would be somewhat the same again. “People are in a state of shock now,” he said. “Once they start functioning, we’ll be back up.”White credited government agencies and relief organizations for their assistance. He scoffed at criticism he said is coming from impatient people waiting in lines to talk to FEMA officials or for some type of service.

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“I don’t care what the news media says. I don’t care what the citizens in lines say. FEMA, the Red Cross, the National Guard and the other forces in line here are doing a fabulous job,” he said.Despite the destruction in Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, the cleanup is well under way. Municipal crews are clearing debris. Power has been restored to traffic signals at critical junctions. Roofing crews work well into the evening. Interstate 10 is clogged with tractor-trailers hauling in heavy equipment.A bridge building company from Alabama started restoration of a mile-long span from Bay St. Louis to Pass Christian. The bridge pilings still remain but the deck was stripped off, rebar and all. Railroad tracks leading to the bridge are twisted like a rollercoaster.

A handful of businesses further back from the coast are advertising that they are now open for business. Many, many more are still dark and several are wind-damaged beyond repair.Some of the homes further off the coast also fared better. Homeowners were spotted Saturday power-spraying their sidewalks, raking the leaves and branches out of yards and a crew was even mowing a baseball diamond infield.But even off the coast, many homes were water-logged and are now abandoned. Belongings are lined up outside to dry or piled up for garbage collection that’s bound to come some day.

Cleanup is also under way in Pearlington, but crews are fewer and farther between. All civic services are provided by Hancock County rather than a municipal government, much like El Jebel relies on Eagle County. And like El Jebel, Pearlington isn’t always highest on its county’s priority list. Some Pearlington homeowners have done what they can on their land, but many haven’t yet started to clean the tree limbs and construction debris. Many properties appear abandoned, creating an uncertainty over who will undertake the monumental cleanup.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com