‘Still at one on a scale of one to 10’ | AspenTimes.com

‘Still at one on a scale of one to 10’

Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

PEARLINGTON, Miss. – A street behind the fire house runs parallel to the chocolate-colored East Pearl River, so homeowners were accustomed to seeing large tug boats and shrimpers.They just weren’t used to the vessels sitting in their front yards, stranded like beached whales.On the south end of Levee Street, a massive boat was lifted out of the East Pearl River by flood waters from Hurricane Katrina and eventually deposited and stranded. The barrel-shaped work boat is maybe 100 feet long by 30 feet wide and four stories high. It came to rest squarely atop an unfortunate house and squished it flat.A few blocks away on Route 604, Pearlington’s main drag, the neighborhood of George and Margaret Ladner and Tim and Susan Smith went through a miraculous transformation last month.

Their demolished homes – lashed by Katrina’s winds and swamped by 20-or-so feet of surging flood water – were torn down by volunteer crews and hauled away by a contractor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The rest of their lots were also cleared of the mounds of clothes, bathtubs, furniture, tree limbs and other unidentifiable debris.A block in either direction from the Ladners, there are half-collapsed houses where it appears no one has bothered to search for anything salvageable or even attempt a clean-up yet.It’s a checkerboard pattern in Pearlington, a South Mississippi town about one hour east of New Orleans. In one block, the recovery chugs along; in the next, it looks like Armageddon.Larry Randall, a local resident and volunteer coordinator of the Pearlington Recovery Center, where free nonperishable food and supplies are available, said he recently met with emergency response officials to assess Pearlington’s status.”We’re still at ‘one’ on a scale of one to 10,” he said.

Five months ago, the debris and refuse were so thick that it was hard to navigate around town. “Streets” had essentially been bulldozed clear, and everything else was covered in rubble.By March 1, six months after Hurricane Katrina struck, pockets of progress were evident, but Pearlington was still a devastated town far from full clean-up, let alone recovery.”Probably 10 years from now it will look close to normal,” said Tim Smith. FEMA gave his family of four the same 30-by-8 foot trailer that individuals typically receive. The standard-issue trailers have become a staple of Gulf Coast life, but they don’t provide ample space for a family with two children. So Smith and some friends acquired a shed that serves as a studio apartment for him and his wife. He’s seeking bids from contractors to build a new home.Up the street, George and Margaret Ladner spend a lot of time on the small deck outside their FEMA trailer. The retired Ladners are uncertain how they will rebuild. They had no flood insurance on the house they built 40 years ago. FEMA pays up to only $26,200 to uninsured homeowners who lost their property. They don’t know how much, if anything, they will get.George sees slow but steady improvement in Pearlington’s appearance and seeks a visitor’s honest assessment. Margaret says spring has lifted her spirits.

“Each day you see something green and it makes you feel better,” she said.Father James O’Bryan commented during his March 5 sermon at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Pearlington that even nature took a big hit from Katrina. While some green vegetation is emerging, the oaks and other deciduous trees lost most of their leaves. The numerous pines look as though a giant pinched them between colossal fingers and stripped their branches. Grass is only growing where it was planted this winter; other lots remain covered in the dust left over from the thick mud that coated the town during the storm.O’Bryan said the environmental conditions reflect the psychological issues facing residents of Pearlington who were walloped by the hurricane. Some people in his parish are handling the stress well but others, particularly the elderly, face huge uncertainty.”Their whole lives are shattered,” O’Bryan said.People cannot stay cooped up in their small trailers without it taking a psychological toll, he added. And for many of them, it could take several more months or even years before they have permanent housing. When they are outdoors, it’s a grim reminder of the hurricane’s toll.

“I like being outdoors, but this is depressing,” said O’Bryan.The elderly priest tried to offset the gloom during the resurrection of the only parish building to survive the hurricane. The church itself was destroyed – swept off its foundation and collapsed into a rubble pile across the street from its foundation. The rectory, where O’Bryan lived, was partially collapsed and couldn’t be salvaged.A cinder-block parish center was completely gutted after it was swamped with flood water. When volunteer groups repainted it, O’Bryan had them use shades of yellow and light green, in the hope of boosting parishioners’ spirits.For some people, it will take time rather than bright colors or even natural greenery to heal. Camille Lichtenstein said local officials recently estimated that about 600 people have returned to Pearlington, but she puts the figure at closer to 900. That compares to about 1,700 or 2,000 residents before the storm.Some patiently clear their lots and gradually clean up the debris of their homes while renting elsewhere in the state.

No bank or convenience store exists any more in Pearlington, so residents need to drive about 20 miles for groceries, a little less to the nearest ATM. The town’s post office was demolished. Although a few postal boxes were erected in town, anyone who used a post office box before must drive to Bay St. Louis to pick up his mail.Many grocery stores and Wal-Marts in the region were destroyed. Long check-out lines with 40-minute waits are a given at the remaining ones.”When you’re in it, you get used to it,” said Lichtenstein regarding the inconveniences that are now status quo.She and her husband, Bubby, got tired of living in their FEMA trailer after four months so they bought a spacious, new mobile home for what was obviously a fantastic five-acre lot before the storm.Tim Smith estimated that 25 percent of the homes in the community were salvageable, often by stripping them down to stud walls and just using the frame. He stressed that was a pure guess.

To a visitor, at least that many homes appeared to be lying in ruins, untouched for the last six months.Many of the remaining homes are doomed. In many cases, property owners gutted the houses but found they weren’t structurally solid or, in the case of brick houses, had been overwhelmed by mold. The official verdict is evident on exteriors where the word “demolition” is spray painted.Nearby on Highway 90, every home in a row of about 30 along Riverside Drive, also on the East Pearl River, was destroyed. Only two FEMA trailers rested on lots, giving it an eerie, ghost-town feel. Larry Nicosia, the only person around, was stabilizing pilings for his new house.Bubby Lichtenstein said some Pearlington residents cannot face returning to the devastation right now. He has friends that came by, saw what was left of Pearlington and broke down crying. “And these are grown men,” he said.Randall, who sees a lot of community residents pass through the Pearl-Mart, where non-perishable food and other supplies are available for free, sensed that spirits were buoyed at Christmas, but added “now I’m seeing people a little depressed again.”

If current conditions aren’t challenging enough, there is another thought on the back of everyone’s mind.”We’re only two months away from hurricane season,” said Randall. “A lot of people are thinking about that.”That frays the nerves of even strong-willed people like the Lichtensteins, who have called Pearlington home for 34 years and didn’t consider relocating.”Every time the wind blows you think twice,” admitted Bubby.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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