Monday, October 29, 2007

Katrina's disaster still bad in Mississippi....

From San Mateo Daily News via Tom Paine. com :

Revisiting Hurricane Katrina

San Carlos residents aid vicitms in Pass Christian, Miss.

By Veralyn Davids / Special to the Daily News

Tony Dedeaux, a young black man, rides a bicycle some 20 miles from the FEMA trailer where he now lives to help the restoration effort in Pass Christian, Miss. His teeth need dental attention, but that is the least of his worries these days. He survived the hurricane, but when he returned to "Pass," as the locals call it, only a fence remained on his lot.

He found his house about eight blocks away. His car was gone for good.

"My house had floated right over the railroad track," he said. Dedeaux admitted that after Katrina he abused alcohol and became so depressed that he even tried to kill himself.

"Now I'm just thinking the Lord will help me," he said, "and that this town will come back." As he climbed back on his bike, he added, "But I wish there was at least an AA group in town."

More than two years after Hurricane Katrina hit, Pass Christian, like most of the cities on the 23-mile stretch of the Gulf Coast, is still struggling. The victims are still reliving the fury of the storm and the collective loss. While progress has been made, grim reminders of the disaster are everywhere. Dirty, torn American flags, piles of debris, stairs that lead nowhere and dead trees are still common sights throughout the town. Here and there, the outside walls of abandoned homes have black painted messages such as "Save Foundation If Able" or "Don't Steal What I Have Left."

"Good Morning, America" and other news media have disappeared. But San Carlos has kept its commitment to help Pass Christian recover. Just days after Katrina hit, the San Carlos Chamber of Commerce - at the request of some local pastors - initiated an unofficial sister-city relationship with Pass Christian. More than 14 people from San Carlos, including Mayor Tom Davids, went to Pass Christian this month to help in the continuing rebuilding effort. Besides sending volunteers at least every six months, San Carlos residents and businesses have contributed more than $250,000 in dollars and supplies to Pass Christian, including surplus paint from Kelly-Moore valued at more than $100,000. They have also sent library books, jeans and gift cards.

The first group of volunteers from San Carlos went to Pass Christian in October 2005. Fred Koehler, who has visited Pass four times, said the initial effort involved clearing debris.

"That task was incredibly hard," Koehler recalled. "Trash was piling six, 10 feet high. We had to help toss out people's belongings, their history."

On the second visit to Pass, San Carlos volunteers built a playground. Last spring, a third team worked on reconstructing homes.

"Ten Houses in Ten Days" was the goal of the latest trip, where the San Carlos residents joined hundreds of other volunteers in a blitz of rebuilding labor.

Angela Mallett is a first-time volunteer. "I enjoy this kind of work," she said. "Doing hard work for someone else is good. I've done 'Christmas in April' three or four times."

Town's population cut in half

People describe the "before" Pass Christian as a lovely coastal town where well-to-do Southerners retired or built summer homes. The town stretches about 6 miles along the Gulf Coast and 1 mile inland. Its population of 6,800 dropped by 50 percent after Katrina. Twenty-eight Pass Christian residents died in the hurricane. The town also lost its downtown, its civic buildings, the post office, schools and several churches, as well as a Wal-Mart.

Even two years later, the Katrina survivors describe the storm's impact as if it had happened yesterday, recalling where they were when it hit and what they lost.

Jeannie Burnam, a Pass native who had moved away and then returned, had spent two years remodeling the 200-year-old house where she had grown up. She moved in early August 2005, so she was still unpacking boxes when Katrina ripped through. Heeding the hurricane warning, Burnam boarded up her house and evacuated to Carlton, Texas. Afterward, it took her 2 1/2 weeks to get back into Pass Christian.

"Traffic was awful. It was hot - way over 100 degrees - with flies and mosquitoes," she said. "It was a very frustrating time." But Burnam attended the weekly town meetings and eventually became a volunteer in case management. She evaluates which applicants should receive housing and also writes grants. Burnam finally received a FEMA trailer for herself in December 2005.

"It's better to volunteer than just to sit and brood," she said. But the needs have been so overwhelming that Burnam still has no home of her own. Former San Carlos Mayor Matt Grocott has drawn plans for a house, and the San Carlos volunteers have begun work on her property.

"We have to keep the momentum going," she said. "We don't lose heart when volunteers come."

Katrina affected even those who escaped with minor damage. Marie Peralta lost her roof -- a relatively minor loss compared to most. In Hurricane Camille in 1969, Peralta was a loan officer at a downtown bank, and everything except the vault was destroyed. The bank was rebuilt, but on Aug. 29, 2005, it was destroyed again -- the vault, though, is still standing.

"We had a seafood festival every year here," she recalled as she looked wistfully at an area that once was a city park. "And our Mardi Gras Parade started at this park. More than 100,000 people attended."

Still, some encouraging progress is evident. Trinity Church has a pumpkin patch for Halloween. The birds and butterflies are back, as well as some of the trees. Some new businesses have opened; the Katrina Kafe and Aftermath Automotive Detailing. The Old Cuevas Bistro that San Carlos volunteers Chris and David Thom helped rebuild is thriving.

Martin Hardware, established in 1932, lost everything except a wall. However, the hardware store was rebuilt in about six months and business is booming.

"I feel badly to say this, but we do have job security," said Kellie Zeigler, who works at the store. She says about 60 percent of their sales are to volunteers who come in for building supplies. "They are a godsend; we couldn't make it without them."

The disaster responders

Everyone knows about the chaos and confusion that typically follows a major disaster. The confusion following Katrina was no exception. When the hurricane warning came, the mayor of Pass Christian left town and later resigned. FEMA and the Red Cross, according to some, were slow to respond.

Randy May, a Texan who had a successful business training and shoeing horses, was on the golf course when he first heard about the hurricane.

Watching the early reports on the clubhouse TV, he asked himself, "Why aren't they giving those people something to drink?"

With experience coordinating operations, May was one of the first out-of-towners on the scene. He arrived with a trailer loaded with supplies, and he organized the first distribution center - the place where people came for food and supplies, exchanged information about missing loved ones and received support.

Initially, May helped start rebuilding projects. He set up and opened Randy's Ranger Camp, with huge tents to sleep and feed at least 60 people. He has had to move his camp at least three times. He lives in a trailer on the premises. These days, he spends most of his time racing around to bring materials to volunteers working on various projects and to coordinate their efforts. The American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky are May's sponsors.

Deborah Yawn waited out the storm with her brother in Jackson, Miss. After it subsided, she packed her car with everything she could imagine people might need and drove into Pass Christian. She had no way of knowing how dramatically it would change her life. Her late husband had been a physician, and she led a good life in Jackson. At the distribution center, May put her in charge of the clothing tent.

"I remember most the smothering heat and the awful silence," she said, adding that except for the generators going day and night, there were no birds.

One hot and humid day, a barefooted black woman stumbled into the center carrying a tiny child. The exhausted woman came right up to her for help. Yawn still tears up when she describes the scene.

Yawn and May ended up falling in love, and on Oct. 10, 2005, they were married. They celebrated their second anniversary this fall.

While Randy manages the construction work, Deborah manages the camp city, buying groceries to feed volunteers, maintaining the tent dorms, doing laundry and making sure the volunteers are happy.

Pass Christian relies on volunteers. The largest numbers of volunteers have come from faith-based groups and are mostly involved in rebuilding houses. Mennonites and Amish groups have built several homes, including the Katrina cottages that are more comfortable than the FEMA trailers. Churches all over the country have participated. High school and college students on vacation breaks pour in to help.

The future

Lou Rizzardi, a Pass Christian alderman (similar to a city council member), says that of the 2,600 homes that were destroyed, approximately 800 have been rebuilt. The challenge for Pass, he said, is to rebuild more houses in order to increase the tax base, which has dropped dramatically. If the town fails to secure an annual revenue stream of a $4.5 million tax base, it may be taken over by the county or possibly merged with nearby Long Beach in order to have police and fire protection.

"We don't want that to happen," Rizzardi said. "Another challenge to rebuilding our town is that insurance isn't forthcoming. Also, prices for building materials, such as lumber, have gone way up."

There are also new requirements. Homes being rebuilt must be on wooden or concrete piles, 15 feet or more above ground level. The effect is that most houses look as if they are on stilts. Blocks of stripped properties are for sale.

Town leaders will continue to encourage reconstruction, and volunteers will help those who cannot muster the resources to rebuild on their own. It remains a daunting task.

But from this situation have come some real gems, Rizzardi said. "Friendship is one. And I have new faith in our young people - kids who give up their breaks to come and work here."


For information on how to join a work party to Pass Christian, contact Sheryl Pomerenk, executive director, San Carlos Chamber of Commerce, at 650-593-1068 or e-mail


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