By Jason Sickles, Yahoo
PEARLINGTON, MISS. — The running joke among residents of this state line community has long been “Mississippi don’t want us, and Louisiana won’t claim us.”
That feeling of being snubbed only got worse when Hurricane Katrina hit 10 years ago Saturday.
“Every time you seen it on the news, it was ‘New Orleans, New Orleans, New Orleans,” said O.J. Mitchell, a Pearlington native. “They never mention the Gulf Shore.”
While the narrative for New Orleans after a decade has become one of rebirth and renewal, the same cannot be said for this small border town that saw just as much devastation. Many here acknowledge that Pearlington may physically never be the same. But just as Katrina broke their buildings, townspeople say one unexpected positive note is that the unity required for the recovery also broke a longstanding racial divide.
The Gulf Coast hamlet 40 east of New Orleans was Katrina’s ground zero. The eye of the storm pushed a 30-foot-wall of water up the Pearl River, nearly wiping out the town, which pre-Katrina had a population of about 1,700. Almost every home was reduced to rubble or deluged by water and mud.
“We lost the school, we lost the post office,” said Mitchell’s wife, Lucy. “We collected stuff out of the trees in the woods for a longtime.”
With attention and resources going to more densely populated areas, it took search-and-rescue teams and relief organizations several days to reach Pearlington. Some residents slept in tents for six months before being issued FEMA trailers.
“New Orleans had levees fail, but we were the one that took the punch in the mouth,” said Joseph Keys, president of Pearlington Impact, a non-profit advocacy group born out of the rebuilding effort.
Ten years later, Pearlington’s population is barely 40 percent of what it was before the storm. A closet-sized post office is now located in the corner of a boat repair shop. The school, which served 100 Kindergartners through fifth-graders, was torn down, but residents did win a battle to salvage the building’s library and gym.
“We needed something to give us a sense of community,” said Lucy Mitchell, a former teacher at the school.
Many homeowners accepted government buyouts not to rebuild so close to the Gulf Coast. Those who stayed have spent years fighting through red tape trying to secure federal loans and haggling with insurance companies.
“Property values are down, but taxes have gone up and insurance is sky high,” said O.J. Mitchell, age 62.
Before Katrina, the Mitchells paid three times less for home insurance and were 10 payments away from owning their home.
“Now I’ll probably be dead before we get it paid off,” he said.
Unlike New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities, there were no parades or politicians in Pearlington on Saturday to mark the storm’s 10-year anniversary. But some 100 residents did gather for a commemoration ceremony at the gym, where they honored several charities that played a big role in assisting the seemingly forgotten town.
“If it weren’t for the volunteer groups, we probably wouldn’t have gotten anything,” resident Vicki Jones said.
Pastor Gregory Trumbach opened the ceremony by asking, “How do you get through a storm like Katrina?”
“Prayer!” people in the stands shouted.
“It took away our homes and our earthly possessions, but it couldn’t take away our faith,” said Margaret Furey, age 43.
The fight to survive also removed a racial seperation once prevalent in the town of retirees and working-class families.
“There’s no segregation,” Furey said. “We celebrate together now. We’re a lot closer. Nothing is going to get us down, we’re here to stay.”
David Yarborough, who represents Pearlington on the Hancock County Board of Supervisors, was asked to give his reflections at the ceremony. At the podium, he immediately asked for a moment of silence to remember the 56 county residents who died during the storm, including six in Pearlington.
Since the hurricane, locals say 130 Pearlington residents have passed away — at a far greater rate than before the storm. Many blame post-Katrina stress and environmental conditions.
“We don’t know what was in the water, the mud, the soil,” said Furey, who didn’t know of any environmental testing. “But something has changed.”
After the moment of silence, Yarborough leaned into the microphone to begin his remarks.
“The death toll was 56 but that’s not all…” said Yarborough before stopping mid-sentence and breaking down in tears.
“Forgive me,” he said as he walked away and out the front doors.
Outside, Yarborough pulled a white handkerchief from his Levi’s to dry his eyes.
“I didn’t think I would lose it that quick,” he said. “What I was trying to say was that it killed a lot of people that didn’t die in the storm. It was just such a toll on many of us.”
Yarborough, 55, was still fighting back tears when Pearlington resident Cookie Bello came outside to give him a hug.
“It’s going to take us all awhile,” Bello told him.
Jason Sickles is a national reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).
Source: Yahoo News
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