Katrina isn’t over (Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, May 13, 2007)

by Jim Lynn

Page: D1100_3459



JIM LYNN, Special to the Ledger-Enquirer

Ben Welman and his wife Jonnie never dreamed they’d see the inside of a shelter. Theirs was a comfortable life in suburban New Orleans, children in private school and a home in River Ridge. They never thought they’d lose a race with a hurricane, be forced to spend the night in their car in a parking garage in a town they didn’t know while an unimaginable wind hurled sheets of rain and debris past them all night. Five hours to drive 18 miles. Eight days in a Red Cross shelter. And they never thought they’d call Columbus home.

Joel never imagined a storm would force him out of his modest two-bedroom house, where he cared for his 92-year-old grandmother on a postage-stamp lot in tiny, impoverished Pearlington, Miss. He never thought he’d be living out of his van, then a FEMA trailer. Or that people he didn’t know from a church in Columbus — a town he’d barely heard of — would be helping him get his life back together, nearly 20 months later. But the Welmans and others like them, Joel and others like him, the tiny towns of Pearlington and Waveland and others like them, all are tied to Columbus now. Katrina and its seemingly unending aftermath have forged lifelong bonds through happenstance, acts of kindness, the missions work of local churches and the generosity of Columbus residents.

For a time, Katrina’s havoc and the third world drama of New Orleans wrenched our guts. It ripped the tight-knit fabric of what we thought was America.

But that’s history now. It’s been 20 months since Katrina, and we’ve moved on.

The perpetual storm

America has moved on. But Katrina isn’t over. It’s not over for the Welmans. And not for roughly 100-150 other families who now call the Columbus region home. Not for the communities of the Gulf Coast. And not for the dozens of Columbus-area volunteers who trek back to the region to help rebuild homes, and neighborhoods, and lives.

Last month, a group from St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Columbus spent four days helping build a home in Long Beach, Miss. Groups from First Presbyterian have been to Gautier, Miss., just west of Pascagoula, five times since the disaster. First Baptist has sent groups to Pearlington and New Orleans over the last two years, building homes for people like Joel and like Vicky, a mother of two left homeless when her house was hurled into nearby woods, and left widowed when her husband killed himself.

Methodist, Episcopal, Catholic, Baptist. Most major Columbus churches have sent teams to the mammoth “mission field” stretching nearly 100 linear miles along the Gulf Coast. The mission teams are overwhelmed by what they find.

The larger communities of Biloxi and Gulfport are finally moving forward toward recovery. A major casino, rebuilding so fast and so desperate to hire workers, recently rented a dozen pricey billboards along Interstate 10 to spell out post-Katrina opportunities for those willing to make the coast home again. “A butcher,” read one. “A baker,” read the next. “A candlestick maker.” “A porter.” “A server.” “An events manager.” And so on.

But despite high-powered marketing, even in Biloxi and Gulfport, streetlights are just now being replaced in some areas. Redevelopment is slowed by local controversy over how much “affordable housing” to require. And damaged ports are still to be repaired.

And in smaller communities, with less of a tax base and little interest from major developers, clever advertising seems a world away. These places stagger still under the weight of a ravaged landscape and an utter failure of government agencies to manage a recovery in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods.

“If it weren’t for the church volunteers from places like Columbus, there would be no Pearlington today,” Rocky Pullman said flatly in a recent interview.

Pullman is a tugboat operator who also is an elected Hancock County, Miss., supervisor, rather like our county commissioners. He says no federal funds have made it to Pearlington residents, two years after the storm. Not a cent. Some in other Hancock towns have fared a little better, but not much.

The scene and the stories in Pearlington are as if contrived by Hollywood for a post-apocalyptic drama. It’s a sad soup of poverty and its attendant social dysfunction, Katrina’s unprecedented destruction, an overwhelmed local public sector and tragic failure at state and federal levels.

A year later

Last year, a year after the storm, twisted wreckage and abandoned, overturned cars littered roadways between Slidell, La., and Bay St. Louis, Miss., as if the disaster had happened hours earlier, not months. Few restaurants had reopened. Even the local Wal-Mart was only half reopened, plastered with plywood inside and out. (In the weeks just after the storm, Wal-Mart reopened in a large tent.) Bottled, or canned, water donated by

Anheuser-Busch was still the only reliable drinking water. Pallets of six-packs of it were stacked high at relief centers.

Debris was everywhere, literally. Boats and boat houses were still lodged in trees, blocks from the twisting Pearl River. Homes stood open, abandoned, disconcertingly silent. Walls and belongings — from tricycles to photo albums and cans of green beans still sitting on countertops — were taken over by mold.

Like a science fiction screenplay that has everyone suddenly gone, everything left behind. Entire subdivisions wrecked. Homes still standing, barely, with water marks halfway up second-floor walls. You cover your mouth and nose. Relief coordinators warn volunteers about the water settled in ditches and even about the contaminants in the dust on your shoes.

“There weren’t many people around because there was no place to stay,” remarked Kitty Fouche, who coordinated Katrina mission trips for First Presbyterian. “The volunteers were sleeping in tents beside the church and it was hot. Our team gutted a house, and it was the nastiest work I have ever done.”

All around the volunteers, tens of thousands of bright white FEMA trailers would very obviously be home for the long term, with nothing but debris and the shell of houses or bare foundations surrounding them. Residents acknowledged in conversations that they had no clue where to begin, laughing off deadlines set by FEMA for retrieving the trailers. White PVC above-ground sewage pipes emptied into holes in the ground where the locals weren’t even pretending that septic systems still functioned.

Nearly two years later

This summer, as we approach Katrina’s second anniversary, life is somewhat better for Hancock County. But for many, not enough to matter much. Life is creeping back. The abandoned cars are mostly gone and more stores have reopened. At 2 p.m. on Thursday, dignitaries will cut the ribbon on a two-mile bridge joining Bay St. Louis and Waveland, the new span replacing one destroyed by Katrina. Later this month, there’s a “final” deadline for removing debris.

There is less debris today, a bit more normalcy. But what were mounds of crumbled homes are now slabs. Walkways and steps leading nowhere. And hundreds of families are still without permanent shelter. Still in FEMA trailers.

Out of an estimated 7,500 homes destroyed throughout Hancock County, fewer than 2,000 have been rebuilt, Pullman said.

The recovery effort is surreal, almost indescribable, in its slowness.

Low-to-moderate income Gulf families seem stuck in a post-Katrina quagmire. While official Washington talks about the hundreds of millions appropriated for Katrina rebuilding, very little of it has hit the ground on the Mississippi coast.

Residents wait for federal grants, or as if in some slow-moving nightmare, they engage in internecine battle with insurance companies over what was water damage and what was wind. They can’t do much, because they don’t have the financial resources to do it on their own. They spend what little they have on building materials but then have nothing left to pay for the work to be done. They get on waiting lists for the visiting volunteer crews in church vans. One group comes and works hard but only gets so far in the time they’ve got. And then the wait begins again for the next crew to help finish the work. Twenty months later, many homes stand half-repaired, with help hard to come by and money short and volunteers eager but sometimes poorly organized or underequipped.

The list of problems and gaps between need and help seems as long and varied as the coastline itself. Middle-income subdivisions still stand half-abandoned today, with some residents trying to cobble together repairs and others giving up altogether, making peace with life in FEMA trailers in this other-worldly wasteland. Many seem caught in a game of who’s going to go first. Why rebuild in a subdivision where no one else is rebuilding? Stay? Move? Rebuild? Raze?

The maligned FEMA trailer, so symbolic of Katrina recovery efforts, remains ubiquitous. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says there are 86,000 families still living in trailers, including 26,000 on the Mississippi coast in and around Pearlington. The number of FEMA trailers is staggering, particularly when you consider that’s still equal to nearly half the estimated 200,000 housing units destroyed to begin with. Millions of dollars are being spent simply maintaining unused trailers. Residents can buy the trailers now for $500 or less.

And while church-sponsored relief efforts continue, it’s apparent the flow of volunteers has slowed as the months drag on.

Charles Holmes left the Gulf Coast last month, after 18 months calling it home. Holmes was the unofficial mayor of Pearlington for the estimated 1,400 volunteers who streamed through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship relief center since the storm. The sprawling complex he ran held cots for dozens of volunteers at a time, portable showers, tents, portable toilets and stacks of “beer water.”

The complex was a former middle school, buried under an incredible 15 feet of water and later condemned. The former football field, where grass will no longer grow, became a dusty staging area. The library became a bunk room. The gym, with high water marks still visible on basketball backboards, was dubbed “Pearl Mart,” stocked with supplies for storm victims.

“The volunteers are just amazing,” Holmes said. “They have a lot of energy and they are very giving. But there are still a lot of homes to be built.”

Pearlington and the “Pearlington Recovery Center” Holmes ran was a favorite subject of visiting journalists covering the immediate aftermath of the storm. Relief organizers in the first days overlooked the 1,800-person town because it wasn’t on their maps, and hence the town quickly became a compelling read. By two weeks after the storm, Pearlington and its dogged collective will to survive was a national story. Volunteers poured in.

But despite all efforts from Baptist groups, Episcopal groups, Catholic groups, Presbyterian groups, Mennonite groups and others, you can look around Hancock County today and tell the work has just begun. Holmes and Pullman each said they believe it will take at least a decade to get the Mississippi Gulf Coast back in shape. And Pullman is convinced it won’t happen without more volunteers, from churches in Columbus and elsewhere. In Hancock County, there aren’t many people who can just call up a contractor and have a new house built.

Problems and challenges are becoming more complex as people — residents and volunteer groups — deal with the long term. For volunteer groups, the lines start to become blurry between true Katrina reconstruction and just plain old poverty relief. The challenge of screening serious need from fraud gets worse.

Among emerging problems, the most acute, besides the simple need for more housing, is how to deal with hundreds of volunteer-built homes that are so much an improvement over the pre-Katrina houses that the mostly poor residents can’t afford their new property taxes. Pullman said this week that poor residents on the coast now feel they’ve been hit with another storm, facing the fear of being unable to live in their rebuilt homes.

While the shockingly slow federal response gets much of the criticism, the Mississippi and Louisiana state and local governments have often failed to recognize creative solutions, or they struggle with obvious tradeoffs. “The only problem right now is that the governmental agencies are not making it easy,” Holmes said. “I spent 13 days trying to get one home inspected.”

Relax taxes for low income homeowners? Relax requirements for state-licensed inspectors to speed up reconstruction? Relax zoning ordinances to permit smaller, less expensive “Katrina cottages”? Require affordable housing or simply let the market rule and risk outpricing former residents? Build municipal water and sewage systems to replace Katrina-contaminated wells and inoperable septic systems? Who will pay for that when the tax base has been eviscerated? Grants? When?

Regardless of government failures, the need for volunteers is as acute as ever, 20 months after Katrina. And it’s clear that Columbus connections to the Gulf are permanently stronger than they were before the storm.

Not even stray dogs

For Patricia Weeks and husband John Gonzalez, leaving New Orleans was traumatic, but admittedly less stressful than it was for most, thanks in part to their own resources and to the fast thinking of Columbus friends — Allan Kamensky and his family — who helped them get out of New Orleans quickly. They waited out the storm in a Houston hotel and spent their days ice skating at the Galleria. They later set up temporary shop in Columbus, sent their daughters to Brookstone, and set about rebuilding their successful environmental law practice.

The family has since moved back to New Orleans, but the bonds to Columbus are now unbreakable. They spent last weekend, in fact, in the Florida panhandle with Columbus friends.

“The fact is, my kids are on the Internet chatting with Columbus kids constantly,” Weeks said last week.

Ben Welman is staying in Columbus. Well, at least for now. He’s teaching school at Spencer High. But with both a law degree and an MBA, he wonders if it’s the right choice. He and Jonnie struggle with whether to move back or just make his Phenix City residence permanent. In some ways, he’d rather be back in New Orleans. But then again, “there’s so little to move back to.” His two daughters, after being in Columbus for a while, have moved back into their suburban New Orleans home to attend area universities.

In conversations over the months since the storm, they’ve admitted to some vacillation as they struggle with where to plant new roots. Last week, Jonnie remarked that her daughters Maggie and Lila now talk about seeking careers in the Columbus area, or Atlanta.

“We wonder sometimes what there is to go back to,” Jonnie said. “New Orleans is home, but it’s just not the same.”

It certainly isn’t, Weeks remarked. “It’s a very different place. It’s much harder to live here now, but the people who are here want to be here.” Entire sections of town remain completely abandoned. “There’s nothing, no one, not even stray dogs,” she said.

In New Orleans, as elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, life is creeping back, but slowly. National Guard troops still patrol city streets. The Times-Picayune’s front pages are still dominated by Katrina-related news. And the need for volunteers is as great in New Orleans as it is elsewhere.

New Orleans is growing “organically,” from the ground up, Weeks commented. There’s little coordination and little leadership from the city’s laid-back mayor, Ray Nagin. People — residents and volunteers — are making it happen, parcel by parcel.

Whether the Welmans return to New Orleans or stay in Phenix City, they’ll never fully recover. Neither will Weeks, or Joel, or Vicky, or the hundreds of thousands like them. And neither will the volunteers, who nearly always come back deeply moved by what they’ve experienced.

For all who went through it, Katrina has affected lives forever. “We’re still reeling from it to this day,” Ben Welman said. “It was like nothing we could have ever imagined.”