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Mississippi Heartache

Katrina's legacy across the South is silence where sounds of life once echoed.

By Jay Grelen

This article was published December 18, 2005 at 4:19 p.m.

MISSISSIPPI COAST - The silence here is primitive, the silence of a thousand years ago, the civilized silence before civilization intruded.

No dogs wandering, no cats. Three months after Hurricane Katrina, even the gulls and the pelicans haven't returned to the west end.

Animal life is limited to the occasional yellowwinged butterfly, an occasional dragonfly.

The human population along the shoreline has been reduced to the occasional survivor living in a tent or a trailer, the occasional sightseer.

But the destruction isn't limited to the coast. The federal government declared all 87 of Mississippi's counties disaster areas, with 47 suffering "significant" damage to homes, businesses and to public infrastructure such as roads, power lines and water supplies.

"This is the vast untold story about Mississippi," says Buddy Bynum, Gov. Haley Barbour's spokesman. "It's hard to explain to people who haven't seen it."

And even for those who have: 231 people dead, with five bodies still unidentified; 67 people missing; more than 65,000 homes destroyed; 80 miles of coast development flattened. The silence bespeaks the devastation in places such as Bay St. Louis, where the gentle Gulf breeze tickles the branches of what's left of the live oaks and the pines, the swish of the wind slightly more perceptible because of the ubiquitous shredded plastic that Katrina hung in trees in place of the Spanish moss it tore away.

With a 30-foot storm surge and 15-foot waves on top of that, Katrina knocked hundreds of houses off their piers. Now thousands of empty piers stand in tight clusters like ancient ruins, some in rectangular clusters, some in circular, Greek columns on the Gulf of Mexico. Majestic curved brick staircases that led into antebellum homes now are steps to nowhere, dropping off into piles of bricks.

In the weeks after the storm, the governor created the Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal to help sift through the ruins, a clearinghouse for ideas, a forum on the future.

For those hit hardest, like those in Hancock County, rebuilding is a back-burner dream as they concentrate simply on survival and recovery.

"There is very little rebuilding yet," Bynum says. "The renewal part is physical and psychological."

One significant change since Katrina comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has raised the flood elevation by four feet, increasing the number of people who would need flood insurance.

But, as Bynum notes, even that wouldn't have been high enough for Katrina.

As they recover, homeowners are learning about things like the Right of Entry, which each must sign before FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers can move onto private property and clean up the mess.

On the coast, they measure progress in small ways: The Cracker Barrel restaurant in Gulfport is using real plates and silverware again after serving on paper for two months when the managers couldn't find anyone to wash dishes.

The degree of destruction increases east to west. Ocean Springs looks bad until you see Biloxi, which looks awful until you follow U.S. 90 into Long Beach. And the scenes of destruction are redundant and incomprehensible.

Incomprehensible and seemingly overwhelming until you narrow your view, see the coast one slab at a time, talk to one family at a time, one woman, one man, and out of the silence, voices muffled in the howl rise in optimism.

Voices like that of David Harris, who lost his Ocean Springs house and a dry-dock business and whose son's house burned three days later: You lay back your ears like a mule pulling a plow, he says, and pitch in. "I'm always confident things will work out," says Harris, 66. "Maybe I'm ignorantly optimistic."

Down on the eastern shore at Ocean Springs, where he has an unobstructed view of Deer Island in the Mississippi Sound, Tim Scarborough's diesel-powered track excavator disrupts the silence with its act of destruction.

Its six-toed bucket reaches up 22 feet, and it claws at the roof and walls of what was a $2 million peach-colored stucco house. Pine timbers crack like a rifle salute. Glass shatters.

From a distance, the 98-yearold Shadowlawn appears to have weathered the hurricane unscathed.

But the house, resting on what passes for a hill, had its problems before Hurricane Katrina. Now it is beyond repair.

"You're raised up to not tear things down," Scarborough says. "It's breaking my heart."

Heartbroken is the condition of many down here, like the daughters of Walter Anderson, the painter who, legend has it, tied himself to a tree to experience Hurricane Betsy.

The truth, as his daughters tell it, is less exotic though no less captivating. The storm trapped him on Horn Island, and he rode out Betsy in his rowboat, which, Mary Anderson Pickard says, he had tied to a tree.

The Anderson family generally, and Walter Anderson specifically, gave this town an identity, and this town is the family's identity. Now much of that identity has been altered, if not obliterated.

"This wasn't a good place to be," Leif Anderson says of the days after the storm. "No milk. No vegetables.

"Horrible, horrible black flies. Fruit flies. They were in my refrigerator. Drain flies."

"None of us has been normal," Mary says. "You have short tempers. Everything you've known is destroyed. My home from childhood is gone. It's like the end of the world."

"We don't talk about numbers," Leif says. "We've lost a lot."

The state has decided: The new U.S. 90 bridge between Ocean Springs and Biloxi will be six lanes. Katrina knocked down the old one as if it were cork.

Talk of rebuilding the coast generally follows two distinct sets of mind: the idealists who want the coast to be all pink azaleas and pedestrian trails, and the pragmatists whose primary goal is quick evacuation on roads built for ease of movement not for Southern Living photographers.

The first beneficiary of future-think was the state's gambling industry, which before the storm was allowed to build only floating casinos. The Legislature changed the law to allow them to build on land.

The President Casino was among the most-photographed casualties of the hurricane, floating as it did a quarter-mile west of its moorings and flattening the lobby of a two-story motel.

The week after Thanksgiving, a crew of robotics scientists from the University of South Florida was flying a remote-controlled helicopter over and around the wreck, taking pictures for engineers who build such buildings.

"This is a lot of major structural damage," says team leader Robin Murphy. "You want to know how these buildings hold up."

On the back side of the President, the motel courtyard is like a square dirty sink with all manner of unexpected debris, the pool at the center like the drain. The water in the pool is black.

Here a chorus of chirps interrupts the silence - smoke detectors in empty motel rooms chirping for fresh batteries. The plate glass windows are broken out of most rooms, where mattresses and sofas floated and landed in odd places and positions.

John LaBrack, who lived in Long Beach, was between jobs on Aug. 29. Now he works for Samaritan's Purse, a nondenominational Christian relief organization.

"What you are seeing," he says, swatting at a swarm of biting no-see-um gnats, "looks great to us."

When he and his wife returned after Katrina, they couldn't find the street where they have lived for a decade.

"We have a slab down there," he says. "We taped our windows up before we left."

Nanette Carter, a real estate agent, is young enough to start over in Pass Christian. She sold her first million-dollar home the week after Thanksgiving.

"It survived," she says. "The water came right up to the door."

Real estate is Carter's second career. Until Aug. 29, she and her husband ran a nursery specializing in aquatic plants.

But Katrina wiped out their downtown business as well as their house next door, which, Nanette says, gives them the chance to start a new business - a coinoperated laundry with a coffee shop/Internet cafe attached. She hopes to be the first to launch in a reviving, if shrunken, Pass Christian.

Before Katrina, Mayor Billy McDonald says, Pass Christian's population was 7,000; the roll has shrunk to about 1,200. More than 20 people died, and half a dozen haven't been found.

"It makes me sick," says Billy Mac, as the locals call him. "I've lived here all my life."

The town lost 75 percent to 80 percent of its tax base. Katrina wiped out the Wal-Mart, alone worth a million annually in taxes. Last week, the mayor says, a Wal-Mart official promised the store would reopen.

Of the 3,100 homes in town, only 800 remain. Of the 70 to 80 antebellum homes for which Pass Christian was famous, only 15 are left. City Hall is a new double-wide trailer, as is the public library, just down from First Baptist Church which the congregation will demolish because the waves beat holes in the walls.

Nanette is among those hoping that CSX Corp. will move its rail tracks - which haven't seen a train since Katrina - north of I-10. Then, she hopes, Mississippi will obtain the right of way for a trolley system that runs from Ocean Springs to Bay St. Louis to New Orleans.

That's a billion-dollar dream, says Bynum, the governor's spokesman, but a possibility.

Three months after the flood, coils of barbed wire still line the tracks, evidence of efforts to keep looters out of town, where the water lifted houses and jammed them into other houses, which is what happened to two homes that 70-year-old Lottie Mae Romain owns. "Romain," she says by way of introduction, "like the lettuce that you eat."

After three months in a Gulfport shelter, which she calls "dope alley," she had just returned to Pass Christian to live in one of the approximately 70 military-style tents in the tent city the locals have dubbed "The Village."

Here kindness, as often as devastation, evokes emotion in survivors.

"The other day, I got a call from a florist. She had a poinsettia from a church in South Carolina that just wanted to remember our church at Christmas," says Carolyn Smith, whose husband Bill is pastor of First Baptist in the Pass. "We have been overwhelmed with donations, love. We have not asked for one donation. The media may have forgotten Mississippi, but God hasn't."

Stand Judi Brooks up to the waterline in her first-floor sewing room and you see that she would have been up to her eyebrows in seawater.

By her own testimony, Judi Brooks, who now lives in a FEMA trailer beside her house, was stupid.

But Hurricane Camille, the storm by which all storms were measured before Katrina, had stopped short of her family's property in 1969.

So at her insistence, she and her family stayed in their 5-yearold house with its fine view of the beach a half-mile down Coleman Avenue.

She leads a tour of her house, pointing out the sky through a hole in the ceiling of the master bedroom. Much of the wallboard in the house has been torn out, and an electrician has finished the rewiring.

When the water receded five hours after it filled the Brookses' home, the mud inside was 8 inches deep.

Three months later, the dirt is still evident, a fact for which Brooks apologizes repeatedly, as she does for the general wreckage inside her house, where she points out the ruined grand piano and, in another room, her 16-year-old's bedroom set delivered four days before the storm and never used.

Their damage is about $260,000. Insurance isn't paying. "If I'd've had a fire," she says, "I'd be overinsured."

Like many on the coast, the Brookses didn't carry flood insurance because the maps showed, and the insurance company and FEMA concurred, that they weren't in a flood zone.

Now, like many, they are trapped between definitions. The insurance company says the water rose inside their house and therefore it was a flood. The Brookses say the water was driven by wind and thus was not a flood.

Inside their house, the adjuster pointed to the waterline and said: "You had water. I don't pay for anything below this."

Dickie Scruggs, a Mississippi lawyer who made his name in lawsuits against tobacco companies, is suing insurance companies that refuse to pay water-damage claims to "homeowners who didn't have separate, federally backed flood insurance," according to The Sun Herald of Biloxi.

Meanwhile, reports the local newspaper: "Mississippi's congressional delegation - including Scruggs' brother-in-law, Sen. Trent Lott - and Gov. Barbour are pushing for a federal bailout, saying homeowners didn't have federal flood insurance because the government told them they didn't need it."

The governor, Bynum says, thinks those people have a legitimate complaint.

"As the governor says it, a lot of people relied to their detriment on the federal government to define the flood elevations and feel like it's the government's job to make them whole."

The Brookses aren't waiting for the government or their insurance company to help. They are working to reopen their barbecue restaurant because, until then, they have no income.

But Brooks knows they are not alone.

"The ones who had a lot have nothing," she says. "The ones who had nothing have nothing. It took me 30 full days to really break down and cry. Thirty-six years married. Six, eight hours, it's all gone."

But not all.

"We started out with 11 people," she says. "We ended up with 11."

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