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What’s the next step?

Burners without Borders volunteer Richard Scott, of Lake Tahoe, Calif., clears a Pearlington yard of debris Thursday morning. (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. – George and Margaret Ladner watched a big part of their lives get pulverized and swept into the ditch last month when their home of 40 years was demolished. It was one more painful step in recovery from Hurricane Katrina.”It’s something you saved for all your life. I wish we could have repaired it, but it had to come down,” George said. “It’s another step in healing.” For about six months, their devastated house had been an inescapable reminder of the horrors of the hurricane. The Ladners received a small trailer house from the Federal Emergency Management Agency last fall. They had a roof over their heads, but their heavily damaged house was there to haunt them whenever they walked out the door.To make matters worse, the adjacent homes of their daughter and son were also damaged beyond repair. All three had to come down.Like most Pearlington residents, the Ladners waited for months for contractors with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to swing by to demolish the houses. They never came. Finally, one night a couple of weeks ago, a volunteer from California talked to George about taking his house down for free.Burners Without Borders, a spinoff group from the organization that coordinates the Burning Man Festival, took down five homes in the neighborhood and has so far demolished 13 in Pearlington.As painful as it was for the Ladners to watch their house crumble, the uncertainties facing them might be more frightening. Like most residents of the area, they didn’t have flood insurance. They got along fine without it for 50 years.

They received a humble payout for the damage determined to be from wind. Now they’re waiting to see if FEMA will give them any funds through a program for uninsured homeowners hit by Katrina’s floodwaters. FEMA can award up to $26,500, based on need.The Ladners, a couple in their mid-70s, said those funds are vital for reconstruction. They put on a brave face over their uncertain situation and, in fact, projected a sense of calm while sitting on their porch and visiting. They said they can make do with the small FEMA trailer for as long as necessary.Technically, those trailers are only available for 18 months. The trailers were distributed five months ago, so the clock is ticking.No numbers are available on how many Pearlington people are living in FEMA trailers. In fact, no reliable numbers are available for how many of the roughly 1,700 residents have returned to the community. Estimates range from 600 to 800.One resident estimated that one-quarter of the homes in the town are salvageable. A greater number appear abandoned, with no effort to clean them up. That leaves maybe 40 percent in limbo, with the owners trying to figure out what to do.Longtime community residents Camille and Bubby Lichtenstein said they know some people who are living elsewhere and can’t bear the thought of moving back because of the severe damage to Pearlington.The Lichtensteins couldn’t bear the thought of moving away from the community where their six grown children and their families live. Their mobile home on their five-acre property was destroyed. They attempted to live in a FEMA trailer but found the quarters too cramped.They dipped into savings and bought a new mobile home. They might have the nicest place in Pearlington right now. Cleaning up their acreage is a slow process and a daily grind – one they know will never restore the old way of life for the retired couple.”We went from one life to another. We’re never going back,” Camille said.

The 18-month time on the FEMA trailers adds immeasurably to the stress for Tim Smith. He, his wife and their two kids lost their home and have been shoehorned into a FEMA trailer for five months. It was too small, so he built what’s essentially a studio apartment where he and his wife sleep. The trailer is the kitchen, as well as the kids’ bedrooms.”If I ever get out of this sucker, I don’t ever want to set foot in another one,” he said.Despite the disdain for the trailer, the Smiths realize it’s better than nothing. Their home was demolished about the same time as the Ladners’. The temporary shelter is a necessary evil.Smith, 45, had no flood insurance, and he said there was no negotiating with his insurance company over damage from water or flooding. “There was hardly no arguing – you know, they just said, ‘A flood did it.'”He used the settlement to pay off the few years of remaining mortgage on his devastated house. Smith received $12,000 from FEMA. He’s getting a low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration to build a house.When construction will occur, exactly, is uncertain. He is seeking bids from contractors for a home that will be built on pilings that should elevate it enough to prevent flooding from a Katrina-sized storm.

Sharon and Clyde LeSieur have got a jump on reconstruction. Six months ago, when the hurricane struck, they watched helplessly from a neighboring house as the storm surge brought at least 14 feet of water that lifted their home off its foundation, swept it several yards away and waterlogged it. They have no complaints about their FEMA trailer but were anxious to move on. “I’m sorry, I can’t live under FEMA’s roof that long. I need a home,” Sharon said.They secured a Small Business Administration loan at a 2.7 percent rate and have already poured a concrete foundation with large beams embedded for pilings that will elevate the floor to 19 feet above sea level.”I can do without electricity and water for a while, but you want something to come back to,” Clyde said. “We lost everything.”The LeSieurs cleared their property within a month of the storm, thanks to some help from Carbondale firefighters who cleared downed trees. Carbondale officials have also selected them as one of the first four Pearlington families that will receive aid during reconstruction.For now, the gutted shell of the LeSieurs’ home remains where the floodwaters deposited it. They built the house in 1989 and raised their kids there. Seeing it every day is a painful reminder of the history they lost.”It’s been tough. I wish the Corps of Engineers would come and demolish the house,” Sharon said. “I walk through it and just want to break down and cry.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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