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The Gulf Coast: Still so much to do

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times
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After driving around South Mississippi for a few days, two things became apparent. First, a hell of a lot of progress has been made in clearing some of the immense amounts of rubble since photographer Paul Conrad and I visited in early October. And, second, there’s still a hell of a lot to do where Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast.

One can see there was method to the recovery madness. The first steps were to clear the streets and restore the utilities. Now begins the long slow process of clearing the residential and business areas.

Every town we drove through resembles pictures of Berlin right after World War II. Pearlington still has a long way to go; Waveland was a disaster; Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian have lost blocks and blocks of beach-front businesses and majestic ante-bellum homes.

There are scattered neighborhoods in all of the towns that look pretty decent. But to say that one-quarter of the area has been cleared of debris would be generous. An estimate is difficult because the devastation is so widespread.

Oddly, just enough has been cleaned up to make one realize just how severe the damage is, and how long it will take to recover.

– – – –

When we last visited Pearlington in October, the destruction along the main drag, Highway 604, was so bad that we never even made it into the subdivisions of Oak Harbor and Bell Isle. These are relatively large subdivisions, similar to, say, Sopris Village and Summit Vista in the Roaring Fork Valley’s El Jebel area, except the lots were more heavily wooded.

Imagine if an unprecedented flood ripped through the Roaring Fork Valley and either collapsed or swamped Sopris Village’s 130 homes and made 95 percent of them unsalvageable. Imagine lumber, shingles decks strewn about along with everything from couches to washing machines and cloths. That’s what we found at Bell Isle Saturday.

Homeowner Debra Sonnier, one of the fortunate few with a house that can be salvaged, said her lot used to be so thickly wooded that she could only see a couple of her neighbors’ homes. The storm and clean-up crews cleared out so many trees that you can see throughout her neighborhood.

– – – –

One of the most heart-breaking aspects of the storm was the destruction of old churches. There are countless sad stories, but we came across one near the burg of Lakeshore that was just downright depressing. As we rounded a corner on a lonely stretch of road in the sparsely populated area, there was a long, skinny church resting on the shoulder, ditch and ground. The floor and one side was bowed, with a major warp, but not busted. The other long side of the church was blown out.

Water had swept it off its foundation on the opposite side of the highway. It appeared to be just another wrecked building until we saw what was spray-painted on the side: “Do Not Destroy. Historic building. Built 1868 by C. LeFontaine.”

It survived who knows how many calamities until Katrina. That put the monster storm of Aug. 29, 2005, into perspective for us.

– – – –

St. Clare Catholic Church in Waveland was destroyed; the congregation now holds services in a tent. The parish remains defiant. A sign out front reads, “KATRINA was big but GOD is BIGGER.”

– – – –

Realtors and land speculators didn’t take long to get into gear after the historic storm. For sale signs have popped up, more often then not alongside houses that are completely decimated or gutted. That’s life. A little more disturbing are signs that read, “We buy houses and land. Get quick cash.” You better believe there are people desperate enough to accept even a bad deal.

– – – –

Think railroads aren’t important in 21st century America? Think again.

When we visited in October, five weeks after the storm, work had just started on a mangled railroad bridge stretching across the bay between Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian. The Herculean task of rebuilding that bridge was completed earlier this year, well before schedule.

Off in the distance, in the same bay stretch, are the remains of the concrete piers for the Highway 90 bridge. Work hasn’t started on that bridge yet. Two lanes are scheduled to be done in May 2007; it will be expanded to four lanes by November 2007. Commuters have Interstate 10 as an alternative ” longer, but still an alternative.

The order of the work goes to prove the old adage, “America’s business is business.”

– – – –

A theme of our coverage of Pearlington has been the immense volunteer rush to render assistance. It was reinforced by what we saw Saturday throughout the western portion of South Mississippi. Huge, well-organized volunteer camps that handle workers as well as materials, exist in every town.

Residents are thankful for the aid, but George and Margaret Ladner of Pearlington pointed out something interesting about locals’ actions after Katrina.

“Everybody is warmer,” said Margaret, a lifelong resident of the area.

It comes from the experience of surviving the disaster together, according to George. “We’re all in the same boat,” he said.

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


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