Pearlington: Then and now
To show how some people of Pearlington are coping, six months after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, The Aspen Times checked back with some of the same families interviewed during a trip last September. Here are several glimpses of Pearlington people and places, then and now.
Then …George and Margaret Ladner, both in their mid-70s, have lived in or around Pearlington all their lives. They built their house 40 years ago along Route 604, the main drag through the unincorporated community. They didn’t have flood insurance because water was never an issue before Katrina.When the hurricane approached, they evacuated to Margaret’s brother’s house in nearby Bay St. Louis and sought shelter on the second floor to escape rising floodwater. The water stopped its climb 3 feet above the floor of the second level. Margaret’s sister, also a resident of Bay St. Louis, drowned in her home.Wind ripped siding and roofing from the Ladners’ home in Pearlington and water gutted the interior. They lost a car, a pickup and virtually all of their possessions. The adjacent homes of their son and daughter were also destroyed.The Ladners were staying with their daughter in nearby Slidell, La., after the storm and were uncertain if they would be able to rebuild in Pearlington.
Now …The Ladners’ situation remains uncertain but they are optimistic.They live in a standard-issue trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It’s about 30 feet long and 8 feet wide, but it is a home. They’ve installed a washer and dryer in a storage shed that was blown apart in the storm but reassembled by George.Their trailer and deck, where they spend most of their time, sit a few feet from their former homesite. For 5 1/2 months the wreckage was the first thing they saw each morning – a grim, inescapable reminder of the storm. Their house was on a waiting list to be demolished by contractors working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but the wait dragged on.Last month a volunteer came by and found George on his deck. He offered to take the house down, free of charge. A crew from Burners Without Borders used heavy equipment to demolish the house, and those of their daughter and son, and move the debris to the roadside, where a government contractor hauled it away.”I wish we could have repaired them but they had to come down,” said George. “It’s another step in the healing.”The Ladners received a modest check from their insurance company because most of their damage was from flooding. They are waiting to see if they will get any funds from FEMA, which provides up to $26,000 for families affected by Katrina.They are uncertain if they can rebuild without that settlement. FEMA’s 18-month deadline to get out of the trailer also weighs on them. Residents are supposed to have their living situations sorted out within 18 months of getting a trailer. The Ladners, like many residents, question if they will be ready, and how the federal agency will respond.
Then …Tim Smith lost his home in the storm and nearly lost his life. He sent his wife and two kids to a nearby evacuation center during the hurricane but stayed at the home. When the water rose and threatened his place he struggled to get to a nearby home on higher ground. Water eventually forced him and his elderly neighbor out of that house. Smith wore a life jacket, had the man hold onto him and Smith held onto a pine tree for nearly four hours until the water receded.One month after the hurricane, Smith and his family were living in a tent and using a small corner of the house that he had cleared out. Although the brick structure appeared solid, water had demolished the interior and mold made it unsalvageable.Now …Tim is back to work in a New Orleans area Lockheed-Martin plant. His family received the standard-issue FEMA trailer in October, but found it too small for a family of four. Tim and friends built a shed that works as a small studio apartment for him and his wife Susan. The kids sleep in the trailer.Like the Ladners, the Smiths waited for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractor to demolish their house. The same volunteer group got to the job first.”Thank God for volunteers. There ain’t been no government,” said Tim.The Smiths didn’t have flood insurance, so their modest payout was used to pay off the last few remaining years of mortgage on their old house. They also received $12,000 from FEMA. They initially considered moving out of Pearlington, but ultimately decided to stay in the town where they were raised. Their only option for rebuilding is a low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration, said Tim, 45.The Smiths are soliciting bids from contractors. The floor of the new house will exceed the floor-level height of their old house, but Smith acted quickly to acquire a building permit before Hancock County potentially enacts new, stricter building codes. The recommendation is for a floor level at 25 feet above sea level, which will drive up the price of construction.
Then …Camille and Bubby Lichtenstein huddled with 14 of their kids and grandchildren to stay out of harm’s way on Aug. 29. When it became clear that climbing to a second story wouldn’t save them from the rising water, they climbed to a roof, crowded into a boat and floated to a higher home of another family member to wait.While on the roof of their son’s house, Camille and Bubby watched their five cows and two calves float by.Bubby and Camille lost their trailer house on a beautiful five-acre lot where the 34-year Pearlington residents had lived for 11 years. They had just put finishing touches on the landscaping. A carport was attached to the trailer and Bubby had a workshop/barn filled with every imaginable piece of equipment.The flood swamped and battered the trailer. Bubby’s workshop and carport survived with little structural damage, but much of the equipment was ruined. Only one in five homes in their family wasn’t destroyed or heavily damaged. In September, the extended family of 21 was making do in two of the houses.The cows came home after two days, but with no reliable fresh water source the Lichtensteins had to sell them to someone farther north.Now …Last fall, the Lichtensteins borrowed a small trailer, which they occupied until their standard-issue FEMA trailer arrived. Life there got too claustrophobic after 4 1/2 months so the Lichtensteins purchased a new, very nice mobile home. They are willing to gamble that there won’t be another catastrophic hurricane during their lifetime, so they are going without flood insurance.Bubby and his sons cleared out the old, ruined trailer themselves. They have also cleared much of the debris from the five-acre lot, but Camille said there is still more cleaning to do – enough that she won’t plant a vegetable garden this year.”You can get depressed,” Bubby admitted. “There’s so much work to do.”Camille, the secretary of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, and a few other members of the battered parish have kept it alive through sheer willpower.
Then …The future looked grim for St. Joseph’s Catholic Parish after the storm. The church was in shambles, swept off its foundation and lying in a rubble pile across Route 604. The rectory was partially collapsed. All that remained was a cinder-block center used for religion classes and parish gatherings, but that was unusable, having been filled to the ceiling with water.The storm damaged or destroyed so many Catholic churches in the area that it was evident the bishop would have to make tough decisions on where to rebuild and which churches to consolidate.
Now …St. Joseph’s is holding on, by a thread. Several waves of volunteers have rolled through town and helped get the center shipshape. The entire interior – from the electrical wiring to the sheetrock ceiling and the paint on the walls – has been redone.Services have been held there for a month or so. Last Sunday, more than 50 people attended, and numbers are growing as people return to Pearlington or get their lives in order.It would have been impossible to restore the center this quickly without outside volunteers, simply because the parishioners face so much in their own lives.”Somehow people found us,” Camille Lichtenstein said. “People brought us everything we needed.”But the bishop has decided not to rebuild St. Joseph’s Church. It has been folded into one parish with two other churches. The bishop will allow Father James O’Bryan to conduct Mass at the center, but there are no guarantees about continuing services after O’Bryan’s retirement.Pearlington had an astounding number of churches for a community of 1,700. All but one appeared to be in shambles. Like the Catholics, a Baptist congregation was making progress with its brick building.
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