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Slow progress in Pearlington

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times
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Editor’s note: Six months after Hurricane Katrina, Aspen Times reporter Scott Condon and photographer Paul Conrad are visiting Pearlington, Miss., to bring readers up to date on the recovery of this small community that Roaring Fork Valley residents have made the focus of their hurricane-relief efforts. PEARLINGTON, Miss. – This southern Mississippi town no longer has a post office. The elementary school is toast. The branch bank is abandoned.But the bar is back in business.While Pearlington struggles to maintain its identity six months after getting clobbered by Hurricane Katrina, the Turtle Landing bar provides a place for people to gather, share a few laughs, commiserate and discuss their plight.”I got tired of sitting around in a trailer. I figured other people were, too,” bar owner Mark Evans said.He couldn’t reopen immediately where the town’s only bar was located because of extensive damage to the building. So he erected a 75-foot-long, sturdy tent next door and plopped down a drinking bar with a dozen or so stools on one end. He filled it out with tables and a handful of video poker machines. A banner proclaiming “The bar is open” flies outside next to the American flag.Turtle Landing attracted a huge crowd for its opening three months ago. “Everybody wanted to see the tent bar,” Evans said. It’s still a big draw at happy hour each evening and throughout the day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, he said.Carpenter Vince Bradley was swapping stories at the bar with about six other patrons and downing a can of Bud at 4 p.m. Wednesday “We’ve got Cheetos and Lays and new hats,” Bradley said, flashing a gap-toothed grin. “This is uptown. It wasn’t this good before.”Evans figured it will take a couple more months to renovate the old bar building. New, stricter development rules required him to place the bar upstairs, where his home used to be.Meanwhile, Evans and his wife are serving free meals for patrons every night at the tent bar. He plans to continue with the offering for the foreseeable future.”It’s not profitable, but if I didn’t do it, some people wouldn’t be able to eat,” Evans said.

While the bar’s fate seems favorably sealed, the bigger picture in Pearlington is murkier. The town – which Carbondale and the other towns in the Roaring Fork Valley “adopted” for focused aid after Katrina struck – makes slow, steady progress in its recovery.Some of the mountains of debris that covered the unincorporated community of about 1,700 people have been cleared. The roads were nothing more than paths bulldozed through the rubble in early October. Now the town is easily navigable. Much of the debris is heaped in piles – albeit very large heaps in many, many piles.Property owners who were financially or physically capable of clearing their property were told to move the debris to within 20 feet of the nearest road. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hired contractors to haul the trash away from the roadsides, but it is a painfully slow process for many residents.

“We need to move on. This destruction doesn’t look good,” said Camille Lichtenstein. She and her husband, Bubby, cleared their 5-acre lot with the help of their six sons and their families.Government agencies are expected to clear the lots of property owners who walked away or otherwise couldn’t tackle the cleanup, but that’s expected to take months if not years.Several homes and sheds ruined by wind damage, water or both have been demolished, and the precious few that can be salvaged have been cleaned up. Trailer homes the Federal Emergency Management Agency supplied sit in maybe half the yards.

The U.S. Post Office doesn’t intend to rebuild along the main drag in Pearlington, according to residents. It leased its site to an aid organization that set up camp.Public pressure forced the post office to move in rows of mailboxes to a different site that it was forced to lease in town. People who used to get home delivery are the only ones who now get mail delivered each day to the boxes.Clinton Smith, a custodian at the Bay St. Louis post office, 20 miles away, brought the mail over for dozens of residents Wednesday.”I fill up and deliver the mail when no one else wants to,” Smith said.People who, like Lichtenstein, used to get their mail at the Pearlington Post Office must drive 40 miles round-trip any time they want their mail. It’s just another of the irritants so prevalent in post-Katrina life, she said.Another is grocery shopping. Pearlington’s only grocery store burned down several months before Katrina. A new property owner abandoned plans to rebuild it after the hurricane further wracked the building.The EZ Serve convenience store’s limited grocery business boomed when it was the only game in town. Now it lies in ruins with no sign of the owner rebuilding.

There are no classes at the Charles B. Murphy Elementary School, and there is little hope there ever will be. While the once waterlogged classrooms sit empty, the gymnasium serves as “Pearl Mart,” where residents can collect donated food, water, cleaning supplies and tools and seek volunteer assistance for cleanup and repairs.The recovery center was the absolute center of Pearlington’s universe five months ago. It was like the hive for a colony of bees. Residents flocked there for supplies and depended on soup kitchens for their only hot meals. Scores of volunteers from church groups to American Indian firefighting crews used the school grounds as their base.The scene was much more mellow Wednesday afternoon. A handful of residents wandered in and out of Pearl Mart. No tent kitchens were serving meals.Nevertheless, the center plays a vital role, according to Larry Randall, the community’s volunteer coordinator. Food is cooked there and delivered to the elderly at their homes. Sixty or so volunteers sleep there, and volunteer efforts are coordinated there.Randall guessed the community will need the recovery center for another two years. Randall said he and other officials were trying to assess Pearlington’s recovery the other day. “We got talking about it, we’re still at a ‘one’ on a scale of one to 10,” he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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