Reporter’s blog: On the scene in Pearlington | AspenTimes.com

Reporter’s blog: On the scene in Pearlington

The Stars and Stripes are draped outside the rubble of a home in Pearlington, a small Mississippi town that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

Thursday, Sept. 29 ” Aspen Times photographer Paul Conrad and I took a red-eye flight to the Gulf Coast Wednesday to learn what we could about Pearlington, Miss., the town the Roaring Fork Valley is focusing on for hurricane relief.

The first day was an eye-opener. Following are snippets of our first day on the scene.

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Pearlington is located between Biloxi and New Orleans, two cities in the national spotlight because of the damage they received in Hurricane Katrina. Pearlington and the rest of Hancock County were almost totally devastated yet the sparsely-populated, rural area doesn’t attract a lot of publicity.

The people we encountered in Pearlington were extremely friendly and willing to share their stories. They weren’t looking for pity, but were glad for a chances to spread the word about the devastation of their area.

About 60 percent of the county’s 45,000 residents are homeless, according to Steve Sautter, a public information officer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The flood waters from the storm surge reached 20 to 30 feet, depending on the part of the county.

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“Most of the houses are on stilts. The water was up to the eaves,” Sautter said.

FEMA is bringing in small travel trailers for property owners who can restore power, sewer and water to their land, but no temporary structures have reached Pearlington yet.

There were 49 fatalities in the county and 17 people are still missing. People feel lucky. “It’s amazing considering the damage,” said Sautter.

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The damage slowly became apparent in our drive from Pensacola, Fla. to Hancock County. The drama built like a well-crafted story.

In Biloxi, we noticed the huge pine trees lining Interstate 10 were stripped of some limbs and bark. As we approached Gulf Port farther to the west, there was an increasing amount of debris along the road. Large pieces of metal were wrapped around trees and fence posts. Trees were snapped off like toothpicks.

Highway billboards were often stripped of their messages. The framing was twisted skyward like solar panels or completely mangled like a wind mill that’s been in the wind too long.

Around Gulf Port, you notice homes have blue tarps stretched over part of their roofs. Farther west, the structural damage becomes apparent. Debris is everywhere. In places where the infrastructure is intact, the cleanup is progressing. Debris is piled on the side of the road, ready for removal.

Then you hit Hancock County. The destruction if so widespread that cleanup is just starting to make a dent in the debris after one month. Homes are leveled or, if still standing, damaged beyond use. Owners have often sprayed painted their names and telephone numbers on the side in hopes that FEMA representatives and insurance adjusters will call.

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St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Pearlington was swept off its foundation and smashed to pieces. The front steps lead to nowhere. Pilings designed to keep the church dry in case of three feet or so of flood water mark where the church stood. The problem is the area received 30 or so feet of water from the storm surge of Hurricane Katrina.

The rectory looks like a cyclone struck ” inside.

Water reached the top of the ceiling, caking everything in a dusty film. Half of the roof collapsed. Next door, the Father Dominic Center, where parish meetings were held, is also a shambles.

But the congregation hasn’t lost hope. On a table, written in waterproof marker it says, “If you want mass here Sunday 10 a.m. call me. Father Jim.” He left his cell number.

Masses have apparently been held. Chairs from the center were scattered throughout the property, but someone retrieved and cleaned 17 of them. They were arranged around a makeshift altar used for services. Rosary beads littered the ground.

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Across from the church is a house made uninhabitable by the storm. It’s the hangout of a different kind of homeless victim. A dog has taken up residence beneath it even though the human occupants are long gone.

A local who wondered by, on his way out of town for what he said might be the last time, took a look at the mutt and didn’t recognize it as the one that used to live there.

Nevertheless, the dog is protective of his new digs. When Paul and I tried to check out the smashed church belfry in the house’s yard, the dog freaked. His barking made us unsure how exactly he would react if we approached. When people are struggling just to get by, it’s hard to imagine how strays are getting food and water.

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You would imagine that time would drag on for people who lost their homes and struggle just to make it through the day. Not so for Pearlington residents and friends Susan Smith and DuJuan Bosarge. They said it doesn’t seem like a month has gone by since Hurricane Katrina.

Susan and her family cleaned out one corner of their water-logged home. She sleeps there with her husband and two kids. They have stretched a tarp between trees to hang out in the shape. They also erected a tent for when they need to escape the mosquitos. They are among the few people still toughing it out in Pearlington.

Bosarge’s family is also staying in town. She showed us where a huge oak tree smashed into the roof of the small house where she operated a beauty shop. It basically split the structure in half.

Smith was looking forward to a big bash to celebrate her 40th birthday this fall. Now she’s uncertain how much of a party it will be. Bosarge is turning 38 this fall. Both woman are Pearlington natives and intend to rebuild in town, if possible.

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I had an Alfred Hitchcock moment last night. I left my tent at about 2 a.m. when nature called. When I laid back down, I had a mosquito or two buzzing around. I turned on my headlamp to find the inside of the tent covered with about 50 skeeters. It was like the old “Off” commercials and I was the human victim.

I spent the next 20 minutes swatting the invaders with my sock. The tent was streaked with blood, my blood, from the successes.

Mosquitos aren’t so bad during the day but something the locals call “love bugs” cover everything. You quickly notice there are two of them always stuck together, then it dawns on you why they are called love bugs.

The heat and humidity also add to the misery in the aftermath of Katrina. The locals are used to air conditioning but now go with out. Power is still out in places like Pearlington. Even if it was available, virtually no structures remain to use it in.

It was about 80 degrees yesterday with 80 percent humidity. It keeps your clothes wet and clinging to you.

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The Roaring Fork Valley isn’t alone with its direct help to Pearlington and other parts of Hancock County. Three men from a Baptist congregation in Illinois loaded up a truck with rakes, shovels, buckets and construction cleaning supplies and drove to the area.

The head of their team said they had made an earlier trip to New Orleans. In contrast to the utter confusion they found there, they said they encountered the opposite problem in Hancock County, with too much bureaucratic organization.

They learned to work directly with some victims or pick their distribution centers carefully. In some cases, they have driven around and given equipment directly to people they encounter.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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