Katrina was Downgraded Too Soon

February 3, 2006

By: Kelly de la Rocha For The Sunday Gazette

The darkness is kind in Biloxi, Mississippi. As I stand on the beach in the pre-dawn blackness, I see only shells and seaweed on the circle of white sand illuminated by my headlamp. But as the pink light of the approaching sunrise begins to reflect off the Mississippi Sound, another vision comes into view: twisted aluminum siding, misplaced tree limbs and a listing lawn chair, half-submerged in the water. At my feet is a child's booster seat, and further on, the face of a dresser drawer, a coffee cup, a high heeled shoe half buried in the sand.

Inland, the view is no less disturbing. The road that hugs the beach is flanked with houses that are teetering, tilted, collapsed. Tombstones are upended in the cemetery; the roof of a church balances on spindly steel girders; plastic bags sway like ghosts in the trees. Only the ancient live oaks, standing sentry everywhere, seem unfazed by Katrina, a storm that devastated 70 miles of Mississippi coastline five months ago.

I came to Biloxi on a mission trip, prepared to help people put their lives back together but insufficiently steeled for the blow of how much yet needs to be done. Snug in my upstate New York home, I simply assumed the cleanup and rebuilding was in full swing. It is not. It has barely begun. The only things in Biloxi that appear to be cleaned up and put back together are three shiny casinos that cling to the shore not far from the crumpled Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge. "Good Times Roll" tour busses rumble up out front, disgorging tourists eager to try their luck and quick to turn their backs to what looks like a war zone on the other side of the street.

While the casinos flourish, the town itself flounders. Most schools still aren't operational. Many neighborhoods still have no power. People are living in tents and trailers with the possessions they've salvaged gathered close around them. A sign, spray-painted on one ruined home announces, "Don't bulldoze! We're still alive and kicking!" But there's no sign of life there. Streets wander through lots littered with rubble and tattooed with bulldozer tracks: the only remnants of once thriving neighborhoods located blocks from the shore.

The statistics regarding the devastation are staggering: in southern Mississippi alone, over 65,000 homes were destroyed. The storm surge that decimated the coast generated an estimated 44 million cubic yards of debris. But those numbers mean nothing until you drive for mile after mile after mind-numbing mile through nearly deserted communities that have been crushed, upended, ripped apart at the seams. And that view itself means little until you meet the people whose lives have been forever changed by Katrina.

I journeyed to Biloxi with 22 others, most of them members of St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania. We arrived with a pick-up full of tools and supplies, and grand visions of making a difference. Under the guidance of Biloxi's Back Bay Mission, we tackled three homes: two in need of electrical work, insulation, windows and wallboard and a third infested with mold that needed to be removed.

I found myself installing wallboard in a modest clapboard bungalow belonging to 51-year-old Ella Glavan. Her house sits on Hoxie Street, about three blocks from the Sound, surrounded by other homes in varying states of destruction. Glavan rode out Katrina clinging to the frame of her front door, her terrier, Taylor, stowed inside her shirt, as seven feet of water invaded her home.

When the water subsided, she fashioned a tent out of tarps and camped on the front porch for over a month while she shoveled mud, ripped out wallboard, bleached joists and installed a new roof. She currently lives in her driveway, in a tiny camper-trailer on loan from FEMA, and survives on donations. A professional gardener, she has been unable to generate income since Katrina destroyed every one of her client'„… yards, but she hasn't had a moment's rest since the hurricane re-landscaped her life. She sanded and drilled alongside me and my group, stopping only to bring us turnovers or serve us coffee from the two mugs she managed to take back from the storm.

Right after Katrina roared through, Glavan's survival story and many others like it made national headlines. But once the water subsided and the death toll was tallied, the spotlight shifted elsewhere. The story, however, goes on. Thousands of people still have no homes to live in, no jobs, no schools for their children, no safe place for them to play. "If you put us on a percentage scale, our life is probably 30% back. Seventy percent is still a void," Glavan told me. "That's five months. That's a whole lot of life to be missing."

Now and then, as I worked on Glavan's home, I saw a neighbor quietly wheeling a pile of debris to the side of the road, but the air was not full of the ringing of hammers, as I had imagined it would be. Many people have not returned since the storm. Those in residence who are attempting to reclaim their homes are finding progress hindered by lack of funds, lack of tools, lack of contractors, lack of supplies, lack of building permits, lack of so many things. Insurance checks are slow to come and often inadequate. Some of those who did get checks have pushed their luck and gambled away their compensation in the casinos, in hopes of doubling their money.

My little group of Samaritans barely scratched the surface of the rebuilding of Biloxi, the reclaiming of normalcy lost, but we brought hope to a place where it's in short supply. And now that I've returned to the neatly manicured Northeast, to neighborhoods full of homes with windows and roofs, to stores and restaurants with blazing "Open" signs, to friends and family, I've brought back a message from the South: The story of Hurricane Katrina is just beginning. The survivors are fighters, but they need our help now more than ever. They need money, they need hands to help them rebuild and they need to know we haven't forgotten them.

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