Reflecting on Pearlington, 10 years later

Will Grandbois
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
After not seeing each other for some time, Pearlington, Miss., residents Brad Hill, right, and Debbie Jackson, second from left, greet their neighbors with a hug Friday afternoon September 30, 2005.The relief center at the elementary school became the focal point for social activities after Hurricane Katrina roared through leaving the town decimated.
Paul Conrad / The Aspen Times |

On Aug. 29, 2005, the eye of Hurricane Katrina passed right over Pearlington, Mississippi.

When Ben Taylor returned to the small town just across the Pearl River from Louisiana and a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Mexico three weeks later, he found volunteers from the Roaring Fork Valley already at work.

“Nobody up there knew anyone from here, but we were looking for help,” Taylor said. “No formality, no bureaucracy; just boots on the ground getting it done.”

That’s exactly what folks at the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District had in mind.

“It was nonstop on the news. People wanted to do something. You could feel it,” Fire Chief Ron Leach said.

A few days after the storm, one of the firefighters put in a call to the Times-Picayune to find out where they could be useful, and discovered that no one had heard from the Pearlington area since the storm.

“It wasn’t on anybody’s radar,” Leach said. “These little towns, of which Pearlington was just one, were getting bypassed by aid.”

So, Mountains to Mississippi was born. Operating on limited information from the few survivors and aid workers who managed to get calls out, the first trailer of supplies and volunteers cut their way past downed trees and wrecked houses and arrived in Pearlington about two weeks after the storm.

The scene that greeted them was apocalyptic. The few homes and trees still standing were caked in mud, turning the landscape a desolate gray. Coffins, floated up from the cemetery in 14 feet of floodwater, dotted the streets.

Survivors who had ridden out the storm on rooftops or in trees chose the flood-damaged but intact school as their rallying point while looters scoured the countryside. All fire and ambulance vehicles were out of commission, and aside from a few National Guardsmen, no state or federal aid was in evidence.

“It was like the Wild West,” Leach said. “There was no order. They needed everything.”

In the ensuing months, individuals and organizations from around the Roaring Fork Valley would step up to make a donation or lend a hand.

“It wasn’t just firefighters,” Leach said. “The Fire Department was kind of the grease that made it work, but it was truly a community effort by the whole valley. People just took to the idea because it was a way to reach out directly and help.”

Carbondale Fire contributed an ambulance that still serves the region. Valley View Hospital donated medical supplies, while others gathered camping gear, food and other essentials.

Mountains to Mississippi became an official nonprofit under the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation, complete with a logo crafted by Roaring Fork High School students. Pitkin County Manager Hilary Fletcher, a firefighter herself, and former Garfield County Sheriff Tom Dalessandri, who had emergency experience from the Storm King and Coal Seam fires, helped coordinate the effort.

“It was probably the biggest multi-county project that this valley had ever seen,” Dalessandri said.

Crews set up a supply center in the damaged school gymnasium, which became known as PearlMart. By the time the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross, AmeriCorp and their ilk arrived in town, Mountains to Mississippi was already putting people to work.

“Our organization just grew because people who wanted to go on the ground and do something ended up gravitating to us,” Dalessandri said. “Ultimately, we ended up having well over 200 volunteers from all over the country.”

“When you have something like this, there’s no place for politics,” he added. “It’s where you roll up your sleeves and everyone gets dirty and walks away proud.”

Individuals and small groups trickled into Pearlington looking to help. Sometimes, they’d help for a while then be back a few weeks later with friends or more supplies.

It quickly became clear that the relief effort would be a marathon effort, not a sprint.

“We were only going to be there a few weeks. It turned into years,” Dalessandri said. “We went straight from rescue and recovery to helping people get back on their feet and rebuilding homes.”

A local donated a whole elk for Thanksgiving dinner, and the town threw a Christmas Party complete with donated gifts. Volunteers returned in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav in 2008 and again for Hurricane Isaac in 2012, long after the last house was rebuilt.

“If we had an incident today, I venture to say I could have 100 people on their way in a couple hours,” Dalessandri said.

During hurricane season, which runs June through November with some of the worst storms in the autumn, residents keep a wary eye on the horizon.

“When something comes into the gulf, we’re watching,” Taylor said. “I lost everything just like everybody in town did. Once you’ve been in something like that, you’re never the same. It’s a reality check. Everything that was your life up to that point is gone.”

Even now, the impacts of Katrina are still keenly felt in Pearlington.

“It’s coming back, but it’s real slow,” Leach said. “The place will never be the same.”

Of roughly 2,500 residents in 2005, only about 1,400 remain. A handful died in the storm itself. More succumbed to illness from infections, mold and contamination in the aftermath, and a rash of suicides swept the area. Some who evacuated never came back. Some who stayed sold out for what they could — although values plummeted and insurance companies weren’t much help.

“I paid 25 years into that insurance, and I got back a quarter on the dollar,” Taylor said. “I was livid.”

In his opinion, the government wasn’t much better.

“Today, people on the Gulf Coast have a bad taste in their mouth as far as federal and state bureaucracy,” he said.

In fact, he blames improved levees around New Orleans for flooding during more recent hurricanes.

“Everybody knew if they built that levy it was going to push water into Pearlington,” he said. “We never got water out of Category 1 storms before.”

Early on, Dalessandri remembers people asking why they stayed.

“You’ve gotta go down there to see why,” he said. “Most people, that’s their identity. That’s their life. It’s their home, and they’re willing to fight for it.”

Fletcher, who made her first trip down about four months after the storm, had a similar outlook.

“The survivors were just amazing,” she said. “Their ability and their commitment to return and start over again — that resiliency was very powerful. It’s going to be interesting what the generational story about Katrina will be. I think it will be about self sufficiency. The values are going to shift.

“Most folks never have that kind of life-or-death experience, and it changes you. It resets your life,” Fletcher added. “I think for those of us who got down there, it reset us. I considered it a privilege and an honor to have participated.”


See more