There Used To Be a Township Here
How can a Mississippi town hammered by Hurricane Katrina lose its physical assets — it’s homes, schools, shops, parks and buildings — but not lose its sense of community and its cultural identity?
In fact, how can it have any hope at all?
“Sure, we’re being tested, but we’re resilient… very resilient. We like to say that Katrina was big, but God is bigger,” says Joe Williams, director of the Hancock County volunteer relief effort in West Bay St. Louis — arguably the most difficult job in America today.
Think I’m stretching the truth? You wouldn’t if you spent three days with Williams and his crew, along with a bevy of high-powered, highly-connected Bucks County business and community leaders down along the ravaged Mississippi Gulf coast this spring, trying to bring a seaside community laid to waste by Hurricane Katrina back to life. “This our home and we’re not leaving,” Williams says. “We’ve been hit hard, no doubt about that. And we do need help. But we’ll make it. Failure is not an option here.”
Holding the Community Together
Our week in Bay St. Louis begins with a flight into New Orleans on a misty, hot and sticky Monday morning in late April. My assignment is to record the efforts that week of the BucksMont Katrina Project, a group of more than 100 Bucks County volunteers whose mission is, in general, to assist the victims of Katrina along the Mississippi coast, and specifically, to raise money to build a brand new day care center and little league baseball field in Bay St. Louis. It’s a community full of weary, hardened locals who live in tents and FEMA trailers, and who queue up daily at the Emergency Operations Center for meals, medical attention, and administrative help in getting the government and private insurance companies to pony up the money and resources needed to rebuild their homes and their lives.
There I’ll find the true definition of “surreal” — it’s sitting down at the EOC dining hall table with a single mom and her three-year-old daughter on one side of me and a Mississippi state prison inmate out on work detail on the other side, all of us eating gumbo, macaroni and cheese and corn bread, and discussing the prospects of Kellie Pickler being voted off American Idol that week (she was).
It’s a scene that’s hard to shake, but an all-too-real sign of the “new normal” along the Mississippi Coast after Katrina. Somehow, Williams, along with Ron Artigues, the Hancock County solicitor and director of the area’s Katrina relief effort and a host of battle-hardened volunteers, have held this community together in the nine months after the worst hurricane in U.S. history battered the Gulf Coast.
“The day after Katrina hit I walked down the street and cried,” says Williams. “I lost my house under five feet of water. But that was all the grieving we allowed ourselves. The community got together right away and began digging through the rubble.”
The Brunt of the Storm
The drive from New Orleans International Airport into Bay St. Louis reveals just how devastating the storm was for the Mississippi Gulf community. West Bay St. Louis, about an hour’s drive east of New Orleans, is the first of several seaside burghs along Mississippi Sound, which includes Waveland, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, and Biloxi. “We took the brunt of the storm,” says Artigues, “but nobody was spared down here.”
Highway 10 is the only way in, looping northward over Lake Pontchartrain out of New Orleans, then eastward along the Mississippi coastline. There was another, more direct way in — Route 90, which cuts through Lake Borgne, then directly through Buccaneer State park in Bay St. Louis. But Katrina knocked large sections of the highway out, and cutting of direct access into the area.
The drive into the town itself is reminiscent of the road Tom Cruise rode out of from New York City in War of the Worlds. Nothing can prepare you for the absolute shock of seeing homes with gaping, open holes in walls and ceilings; entire roofs blown off houses and buildings, and lying face up, like turtles who fell back on their shells and can’t re-right themselves. I pass a Pizza Hut near Route 90 with its windows blown out and a Blockbuster Video where a side wall collapsed, leaving the building strangely exposed to the winds whipping in off of the gulf coast.
I meet up with Williams, along with Bucks County attorney Tom Mellon, my direct contact for the Bucks County Katrina team at the barracks-like Emergency Operations Center, located off the main drag in Bay St. Louis in a converted Church auxiliary center. Mellon, a high-priced, high-profile Bucks County lawyer who usually dresses with the aplomb of a British nobleman, is clad in dirt-caked blue jeans, with a grime-stained tee-shirt and muddy work boots. Taking in the surreal devastation around us, you almost have to laugh. Mellon looks like a day laborer up from Juarez for the week to pick lettuce for $6 an hour.
But within 15 minutes of talking to Mellon, the day laborer image dissipates into the warm Mississippi Gulf winds. In its place is a steely, missionary-like resolve to use his time in Bay St. Louis to rebuild the town all by himself, if he has to. “You look at Bucks County and then you look at Hancock County after Katrina and you realize that doing nothing isn’t an option,” he says. “This place is hanging in the balance and needs all the help it can get.”
Progress down in Bay St. Louis is measured in small increments, Mellon says. A CVS opening here — a seafood restaurant opening there. Today, Mellon is thrilled about the progress the Bucks County crew made on the little league field that afternoon. “These kids have nothing,” he says, wiping the ever-present late-afternoon dampness off his brow. “I understand that social funs for the kids is not a priority down here, but there are 750 kids down here with no place to play.”
After we clean up, I hitch a ride with Mellon, along with Doylestown attorneys’ John Hart and Nancy Taylor, to the day care center groundbreaking — the centerpiece of the trip — from the EOC. It’s a five-mile drive back toward the waterfront that reveals even more devastation from Katrina. Along the way Mellon lays out the Bucks Country Katrina Relief project battle plan. “I think that the community was starting to feel some Katrina “fatigue,” he says. “It’s been about nine months since the hurricane and the people here aren’t getting all the help they needed. So we wanted to help.”
Mellon says that in autumn, 2005, a band of Bucks County business leaders began meeting to discuss ways they could help the Bay St. Louis people get back on their feet. There were a great many people involved, Mellon explains: Bob Byers, of Buyers Choice, the Bucks County handmade Christmas figurine manufacturer, Bill Eastburn, whose Doylestown law firm of Eastburn & Gray, which dates back to 1877 and whose early partners served as models for some of the characters of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist James Gould Cozzens; Mike Scobie, publisher of the Doylestown Intelligencer, and dozens more community leaders got involved.
By March, 2006, the group had managed to raise $1.2 million for Katrina relief for the Waveland/Bay St. Louis area. Soon the Katrina relief project was shipping food down to food pantry’s in Hancock County and followed up with more in-kind donations from Bucks County businesses.
“We were making progress, but felt we needed a physical presence down there, to show our support for the people in Waveland and Bay St. Louis,” explains Mellon. “So the group got together and decided to plan a trip down there to get our boots on the ground and help where we could.”
Boots on the ground were good, but the Katrina Relief group didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. “We were careful not to go down there and tell community leaders in Hancock County what we were going to do for them,” says Grover Friend, the executive director of the Bucks-Mont Katrina Project. “Instead, we asked them what we needed.”
Turns out the community needed a lot. That’s why, about two months later, roughly 20 or so Bucks County business leaders, many of them lawyers linked to the Bucks County Bar Association, found themselves gathered in Bay St. Louis at the day care center groundbreaking ceremony on a hot late-Monday afternoon. Eastburn and Friend presided, along with a group of local teachers and parents, along with a host of happy kids frolicking with yellow, plastic play hardhats on their heads, cavorting among the bulldozers and dirt clay that had already been cleared amid preparations for the day care center construction effort.
It was difficult to say who was happier, the kids throwing dirt on one another or the Bucks County lawyers comparing, amidst myriad barbs and retorts, which was the dirtiest among one another.
“This is really great,” says Nancy Taylor, founder and owner of the Doylestown law firm Nancy Larkin Taylor. “These people have suffered so much and it’s heartwarming to see them with smiles on their faces. Everyone is telling us what a great little town this was, and how it can be again. It’s nice to be a part of their comeback.”
Later that evening, Mellon, Taylor, and Hart act as tour guides for the ravaged Beach Road section of Bay St. Louis, technically Rte. 90. It runs parallel to Mississippi Sound in a half-moon oval shape. Normally, the beach would be l oaded with sunbathers. Fishermen, and boaters. Not today. An eerie silence envelops this part of the Mississippi coastline, like a seen right out of a Steven King novel. Everything looks normal at first glance, but it’s not. We soon discover why. To our left creeping down the road at 25-mph in Mellon’s rented Suburban, is the calm waters of the sound lapping up against a beautiful beachfront. To our right is the ugly reminder of Katrina as row after row of “steps to nowhere” dot the beachfront landscape.
“The steps all led up to the porches or front doors of houses that aren’t hear anymore,” explains Mellon. “It’s like they vanished.”
Indeed, the lots surrounding the concrete steps are barren, almost clean along the beach-front causeway. Not a tricycle or patio set to be found,
But a drive up the road vertically back toward downtown Bay St. Louis reveals that the houses and their fixtures didn’t disappear — the 100-mph winds of Katrina blew the homes back inland a quarter- to half-mile back. We have a map, which proves useless as most of the street signs have blown away, too, but we head up one of the roads and see home after home, dilapidated and or crushed by the fury of Katrina. Mellon points out that red paint on the houses in a vertical slash pattern that shows “4/2” (for example) means that four people resided in the home and that two are now dead or missing.
Altogether 231 people were known to have perished along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the brunt in Waveland and Bay St. Louis. Joe Williams later tells me that one Waveland family was lost in its entirety, the Banes family; Edgar, 48, Christina, 45, Edgar Jr., 15, and Carl, 13, all were lost when their Rue De La Salle home was washed away.
Sadness permeates the thick, Gulf air, but it seems to affect visitors more than it does the locals, who are unfailingly polite and optimistic. We stop for a chat with George Israel, a thin, wiry octanegerian in a plaid checkered shirt who’s raking debris up from his beachfront home which, in its present condition, didn’t look too much different than a villa in Sarajevo in 1999 or a Shofuso garden home in Tokyo circa 1945.
“Bay St. Louis is a wonderful community,” he says in a syrupy Southern drawl, stopping to use a handkerchief to mop the sweat off his brow. “You wouldn’t have believed how nice it was.”
He looks past our group, out toward the Gulf only 150 yards away. “It’s all gone now, but we’re rebuilding and we’ll be back. It won’t be the same, but we’ll be back.”
We retreat back to Trapiani’s, a newly-opened seafood restaurant that opened on the main drag in Bay St. Louis. There, a post-groundbreaking shindig is in full swing, with Bucks County’s finest mingling easily with locals, and vice-versa. Everyone digs into Po’ Boy sandwiches and chicken gumbo and the wine flows freely.
I sidle up to Ron, a 20-something, easy-going Bay St. Louis native and a chef at Trapiani’s and ask him about Katrina. “I lost my house, too… when I went back after the storm it was basically under six-feet of water,” he says matter-of-factly, slicing off hunks of London Broil and dipping them into a succulent mushroom sauce and passing them around to diners lined up at his buffet table. “It’s like it was a bad dream, but every day you woke up it’s real, and you have to deal with it. It’s all right there in front of you.”
He falls silent, slicing more meat for his guests. “But we’ll rebuild… make no mistake about that.”
“No way I’m leaving. This is my home.”
Brian O’Connell is a Bucks County, PA based freelance writer. A former Wall Street bond trader, O’Connell is the author of 15 books, including two bestsellers. His work has also appeared in publications like The Wall Street Journal, Men’s Health, USA Today, Cigar Magazine, CBS News Marketwatch, Newsweek, and many others.