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Rebuilding lives in Pearlington

Hilary Fletcher Smith
Hilary Smith photo
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Pearlington, Miss., is a small, unincorporated community just inland from the Gulf of Mexico. It took the brunt of Hurricane Katrina, including a 20-foot surge of water from the Pearl River. Pearlington, adopted by the Roaring Fork Valley, is clearly struggling to recover from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. I recently accompanied more than 40 senior students from the Colorado Rocky Mountain School who went to Pearlington for a week of service work. Here are just a few of the stories.We arrived in Pearlington late at night, and I could see only the lights of campfires and lanterns as we drove through the town. When I awoke in the morning, there was a humid haze all around us. As we explored the area, we were stunned to see the level of destruction. It was as if Katrina had just come the day before. How could it be six months later?

The ditches along the roadways were filled with debris and trash; abandoned cars were littered everywhere. Mangled homes with walls ripped away by the river surge were all that we saw. We photographed a three-story tugboat resting on what had once been a home. Driving on in silence, we attempted to absorb and comprehend the sights before us. We returned to our base camp, anxious to begin our work. It seemed overwhelming, yet we were clear about what needed to be done. As we separated into work groups, we did not know what we would find. Some of us mucked mud out of homes that had not yet been touched since the storm; some built sheds to be used for shelter or storage. Others cleaned up debris from yards, while others sheetrocked homes that were being rebuilt. It was wearisome work, but we were motivated to see the debris cleaned up from the streets and trees. We quickly realized that such work would come later, once the townspeople had shelter over their heads and energy to refocus on the community. Our priorities became clear, and we set to the task at hand with a vengeance. Throughout the week, we listened to people’s stories, where they were when Katrina hit. The storytelling told us much about these people, their values and their desires. It was a way for them not to be forgotten. They told us it was the work of volunteers that was rebuilding their lives. Their gratitude was immense, and we gladly received it. It deepened our commitment to tell their stories and share the experiences with all those we know. Have we lost our sense of community? Have we gutted our country in the sense of compassion and aid? How can the richest country in the world allow such human suffering among its very own? These thoughts linger with us as we tell the stories.

The gypsum sheets were heavy, 4-feet by 12-feet, and cumbersome. We set to the task with commitment, aiming to sheet rock the whole house in the time we had. Fortunately, Ben and Sue had left Pearlington for safer ground rather than suffer the torment of Katrina’s landfall. Ben said they were ready for the wind, they just didn’t expect the water. The Pearl River had surged into Pearlington with a vengeance, sweeping away dignity and bringing untold human suffering and death. Bodies are still being found. Ben and Sue returned and pitched a tent on their property. Ben had to leave the area for work as a locomotive repairman. He came home when he could but had to keep working to provide for his family. Sue and their daughters moved into a small trailer on the property and began to pick up the pieces of their lives.Compounding their challenges were a series of health issues for Sue and a near fatal car accident with one of their daughters a few months ago. Still they push on, focusing on getting back into their home, which was gutted by the water. We, too, focused on getting them home. We felt the sweat roll down our chests, we inhaled the sheet rock dust and we couldn’t drink enough water to quench our thirst. As the days progressed, we felt a rhythm in our work and an alignment in our purpose. The power of that sense pushed us harder. Every sheet of rock that was secured to a wall got us one step closer to our goal. We had our frustrations and challenges, but they seemed inconsequential as we watched Ben and Sue cook their dinner outside over a small cook stove. We forged ahead with the simple thought of restoring dignity to their lives. What a powerful gift to give to another. As our final day came to a close, we gathered our tools and swept out the sheetrock dust. While we didn’t finish our work, we knew that the next volunteer group would realize our goal. Ben and Sue struggled to express the depth of their gratitude, but words were not necessary. They had given us a gift – one about living life with honesty and integrity – something that cannot be taken away even in the worst of times.

We got up before dawn to drive down to Bay St. Louis. We sat on what was once a beach wall, swatting away the bugs and taking in the silence. The city was on the gulf and had taken the brunt of Katrina. The storm steamrolled into town with a brute force and took no prisoners. The sheer force had ripped the railroad tracks apart and cut buildings open like a can opener peeling back a lid. We walked through the debris, looking for things to give us a sense of what had been. The walls of the brick buildings that were intact were pockmarked as if they had survived a bombing. Piles of bricks lay strewn about as if the buildings had exploded. Their contents were strewn about, giving a sense of desperate chaos. As we drove down the shore road, we realized that what we were seeing were the foundations of home after home. We were told that this street had been lined with Southern mansions. All we could find were the concrete staircases that had once led to grand front doors. The trees that surrounded these places had either snapped in half or were filled with debris as far as could be seen. The sides of the streets were filled with piles of trash as the residents set about the weary task of moving their destroyed belongings to the street for removal. Yard signs appeared, announcing to Hancock County their intention to return and rebuild. It is a statement of their deeply rooted commitment to this place. It was here that my attention was drawn to the massive live oak trees. While their root system is shallow, it is pervasive and complex. It was the pine trees that snapped under the brunt of Katrina. The oaks stood their ground, determined to stay rooted. Their branches gathered the mementos of a life that had been, as possessions were tossed about by Katrina’s powerful winds. There is much work to be done to bring this community back. The railroad tracks will soon be operational, and businesses are slowly beginning to reopen. Someone said this rebirth gives a whole new meaning to the words “grand reopening.” Like the live oak trees, one can see the strength and underlying commitment of the residents to return and rebuild. This battered town is deeply rooted in their families, often for generations. I now understand that deeply rooted sense of place, the love of the land and the sacrifices they have made to call this place home. Who are we to define that for them?

It was as if someone took a hunting knife and gutted an animal’s intestine – everything came spilling out. Their lives were scattered about; the most intimate of things lay strewn about in piles of debris, discarded without any thought or feeling. I felt like an interloper, looking and photographing the most personal aspects of their lives. Childhood photos had been tossed by Katrina’s wind into the mud, along with family letters, record albums, wedding pictures, stuffed animals and clothing. I felt their pain and humility as their lives were laid open for the world to see. Yet I continued on, walking, looking, photographing so as to absorb what I saw, so as to tell their stories. I felt the silence of the neighborhood, the absence of those who had lived their lives here and had raised their children here – as if the soul had departed. Where have they gone? Will they come back? To lose your sense of place is to lose your sense of self. Who are we to decide whether they return? Who are we to judge their sense of place?

As I walked into the square, I could hear the wail of the saxophone. It echoed through the air and lingered in my head. He was playing with a few bandmates, eager to bring smiles to our faces. He did that and so much more.In a matter of time, he showed me his love of this city and the life it brought to him. He tapped his feet, and he sang with soul. He embraced life. The streets were quiet with folks strolling through the bars and shops. The rawness of life was evident on Bourbon Street with the strung-out addicts walking in the alleys, with the strip clubs. Still, the music filled the quiet and I danced to it. The sound of the saxophone took me through the streets and connected me to this city. I saw the symbols of that connection on the sides of buildings; the murals told stories of a rich history. I smelled the Cajun and Creole cooking; I felt the heat and humidity, the stickiness on my skin. With the sound of the sax filling my ears, I felt connected to this place. It is these things that connect those who call the Big Easy home, like the huge braided rope that holds the riverboat to the pier. It lets go only when unraveled. Katrina did not unravel this rope, she only stretched it.

We drove through the neighborhood as dusk settled. The streets were empty. Houses were boarded up, debris everywhere, cars wrecked and abandoned. It looked like a war zone. We came up to what had once been a two-story strip mall. The first floor was gutted and surrounded by mesh fencing. The second floor was intact and functional. I looked up to see a huge neon sign lit up. It was a bowling pin surrounded by musical notes.Somehow I knew we were in for a special evening. The bowling alley/jazz club has been operating since 1941. I laughed out loud about the thought of having to remember how to keep score – technology has been kept out of this place. We ate crawfish pasta, Cajun chicken, red beans and rice, spiced in a way to make you feel alive. Our conversations were muted by the rhythm of bowling balls crashing into the pins then followed by the exuberant cheers of the bowlers. Laughter and conversation filled the air. As the crowd grew, people connected with friends and settled in. We watched as locals gathered to participate in a swing lesson. They were diverse, and at a glance seemed to have no connection to one another; but once the music began, the connection became evident. Did they come for the dance or did they come for the music? Maybe they came for the community and it was the deep connection to the music that gave them that sense of place. I watched in humbled silence. As the dance lesson ended, the jazz band took their places. The room burst with life as the music played. The singer was full of passion and connected all of us to one another. We danced the night away and felt a sense of normalcy despite what we knew was just outside the door. It was this gathering place that allowed them to set aside their worries and fears and celebrate their survival. As the music ended in the early hours of the morning, we had again experienced the rhythm of this city, a sense of this place. We headed back to Pearlington, searching for a quick bite to eat. Once again, we were reminded that things were still awakening from Katrina’s destruction. We traveled on through the night; an eerie darkness hung over us as we slipped past darkened neighborhoods. After many attempts, we found a fast-food place in Slidell, happy to fill our hungry stomachs. We rejoiced in the evening as if receiving a gift. It was a happy, soulful time as we celebrated those who had survived the turbulence that had so abruptly entered their lives.


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