Down in Pass Christian, Miss., the mud is thick. Dig into the ground and you'll see every color in the earth from blues to yellows. Mostly though, it's red clay. Walk around after a good rain and your feet will sport the umber stains to prove it.
The storm surge from Hurricane Katrina in Aug. 2005 brought a flood nearly 40 feet deep to Gulf Coast towns like Waveland and Pass Christian, churning up a muddy tidal wave that swept through the small communities. Unlike in New Orleans, where flood waters sat for days, the surge receded in a matter of hours in Mississippi.
Marilyn Mestayer's house is the only one that survived on her street in Bay St. Louis. From the second floor of their home, she and her son Richard watched the water push its way through cracks and openings downstairs. "It wasn't forceful whitecaps and raging water," says Mestayer. "It came from the woods in the back, slow and steady."
When the flood reached the top of the stairs, the levels outside were several feet higher. Mestayer's son swam down into their house, opening the doors and windows to equalize the pressure. Moments later, they watched out the window as house after house in their neighborhood literally exploded from the force of the receding water collapsing walls out from under their roofs.
After an hour of "horrible sucking noises and constant glass breaking," the Mestayers walked outside to find their yard full of 12 sailboats and neighbors' furniture. The decision to swim downstairs saved their home's structure, but the rest of their street was reduced to a roof over a pile of rubble, generously caked in compressed dirt and mud. Over the next several weeks, the bodies of dozens of their friends and neighbors were found in the debris.
Two hundred and thirty Mississippians perished in Hurricane Katrina. Over 65,000 homes in the state were totally destroyed, and another 55,000 were severely damaged. Many residential streets are now rows of concrete slabs covered in rubble, with the occasional swimming pool filled to the brim with the ubiquitous red clay, a few hardy plants growing in the middle.
Mississippi is no stranger to struggle. Home to some of the country's grandest mansions and estates, the state is more epitomized by one of the lowest median incomes and poorest education systems in the nation. Hurricanes don't discriminate according to wealth, and Katrina leveled everything, forcing both the rich and poor to start anew. A year and a half later, miles of oceanfront property are up for sale by those unwilling or unable to rebuild, while over 27,000 Mississippi families live in cramped, 300-square-foot FEMA trailers.
Professor Karen Shuler teaches problem solving and organizational management classes at The Citadel, courses that incorporate team-building community service into their curriculum. Local outings find cadets at Healing Farms in Awendaw to work with the disabled, carrying out beach clean-ups on Capers Island, or spreading mulch in Hampton Park.
After Hurricane Hugo, Shuler returned home to find four feet of water in her McClellanville home. She understands what it's like to lose possessions and have to rebuild and saw her class as an opportunity to help others suffering after storms. Four years ago, she took her first group of students to North Carolina after two storms hit in succession. During the Thanksgiving break after Katrina, she took a group to Waveland, Miss., and her work hasn't slowed down since, including two trips to help rebuild the Mestayers' home.
Last week, 17 cadets, one graduate, two professors, and this City Paper reporter traveled to Pass Christian, the ninth such hurricane relief trip Shuler has organized, and the fifth to the Gulf Coast. The group collaborated with Cottage Living magazine and Lowe's to construct a 1,200-square-foot permanent home for the Swanier family, a mom, dad, and two children who have lived in a FEMA trailer for over a year.
Chris Swanier works at the nearby naval station repairing and servicing vending machines, and he and his wife Tina are well-respected citizens in Pass Christian. When Katrina came, they had recently paid off their home. The family fled to an inland hotel in Hattiesburg during the storm and returned the next day, parking on the edge of town and walking down the train tracks toward their neighborhood. They found their house in the middle of the street. Daughter Alicia, 7 years old at the time, broke down immediately — they'd left their dog behind. Mom assured her that the pup swam to safety and was somewhere else with a new happy family, and the Swaniers moved in with Tina's mother in Gulfport. After eight months, they received a FEMA trailer, where they will live until their new home is completed in August.
The Swaniers were chosen for the new house through an extensive application process that also requires financial counseling and the payment of a small mortgage. Mississippi nonprofit Mercy Housing purchased a small plot of land and chose the family; Lowe's supplied the construction materials and tools, and Cottage Living is picking up the remaining tab for the foundation, A/C, and other expenses. The Mennonite Disaster Service and The Citadel have been providing the labor.
Although Cottage Living has featured FEMA's "Katrina Cottages" in the past as a permanent alternative to the trailer, and Lowe's has sold the supplies and architectural plans, this project is their first charity home. "People need to get into houses," says Cottage Living online editor Rex Perry. "We don't need another show house. We're hoping this becomes a catalyst for an entire neighborhood."
In Pass Christian, 62 percent of the homes were totally destroyed by wind and receding water, including both historic beachfront mansions and rickety "barge board" homes built from the barges that traveled down the Mississippi River before the days of engines that allowed them to return. The once busy coastal town of 6,500 has rebounded from a post-storm population of around 500 to somewhere around 2,000.
"The majority of people in New Orleans didn't lose their homes," says The Citadel's Shuler. "If you still have your foundation and basic structure, you're light years ahead of having to totally rebuild."
Unmarked streets of rubble are more common than inhabited ones in Pass Christian. Brick staircases to nowhere dot vacant fields, relics of the houses they once served as entrances for. A concrete vault stands near the beach, but the rest of the bank around it has disappeared. There's a hardware store and a new bank based out of a trailer, but the restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies, Wal-Mart, and local businesses have yet to return.
"There's like no traffic here. It's kind of weird," says one cadet as our van pulls into town.
"There's no nothing," responds another.
"Every other time I've come down here, it's been mostly demo(lition) work," says Citadel grad Newman Lawrence, who returned for a third time (full disclosure: Newman is the author's brother). "You don't see your own progress as fast when you're rebuilding."
Shuler claims that in past trips, her volunteers have cleared as many as 500 square feet of rubble and molded drywall from homes per person, per day. Most of the salvageable houses have now been stripped, and this trip's focus was building.
Cottage Living laid a concrete foundation and pilings in February, before a professional crew of Amish volunteers from Pennsylvania arrived to build the structure. In the town's "B-zone," where the Swaniers' new home stands, all houses must be constructed 17 feet above sea level. Even at that height, Katrina's waters would have reached the attic of the new house.
Volunteer contractor Jim Schmidt, whose wife chairs the board of Mercy Housing, utilized expensive hurricane clips to attach the home to the raised trusses, insuring that the house will at least stand a chance in another hurricane. Schmidt acknowledges that rebuilding along the coast may be futile in the long run, but points out that families have been here for generations and that nobody's buying them lots somewhere else to relocate to.
"We can handle another hurricane, but we can't handle losing our community," says Schmidt. "There are predators around who would build wall-to-wall beach condos and make this another Panama City (Fla.) or Orange Beach (Ala.). Getting people into houses is half the equation to rebuilding our community."
"Forces of all sorts at work, good and bad"
Sister Mary Milner, a nun with the Sisters of Mercy, founded the nonprofit Mercy Housing in 1997 to help Mississippi's poorest families become homeowners, combatting a backward system that often denied loans to African-Americans. Since Katrina, the organization has become a major player in both constructing new homes and lobbying against bureaucracy that makes rebuilding tedious. As is the case throughout the South, many families inherited their land centuries ago and don't hold a clear title. Ownership may be spread throughout a generation of siblings and cousins who live scattered across the country, and without proof of ownership, the person still in Mississippi can't get a permit to build on their land.
Even when a person gets permission to rebuild, storm victims rarely have the money to do so. Federal and state grants are available, but many Gulf Coast residents don't have internet access or transportation to fill out the forms. FEMA trailer parks are guarded and off-limits to nonresidents, preventing the Sisters of Mercy from spreading information door-to-door about available funds. Sister Milner believes that bigger, touristy towns like Gulfport are deliberately trying to prevent the construction of affordable housing, seizing the opportunity to "move people out of the area that they never wanted here anyway."
"If it weren't for volunteers like The Citadel, the Mennonites, and church groups, nothing would get done," says Sister Milner.
Post-disaster situations are typically filled with catch-22s. Milner speaks about a 93-year-old man who had a house built for him, but the mandated 17 feet off the ground prevents him from being able to enter it. Mercy Housing is currently applying for grants to build lifts for people like him, who literally have a house they can't get into. He still lives in a FEMA trailer in the yard.
Both Milner and Schmidt also cite numerous occasions when a victim gave their insurance money to a construction company, only for the builder to split town. There's also countless tales of families who received only minimal amounts from their insurance company. Milner tells the story of an 85-year-old woman who got only $2,000 after her home was destroyed and now lives in a FEMA trailer with no other options.
Families receiving a house from Mercy Housing must attend financial counseling, helping them to avoid "predatory lenders and predatory construction," says Milner. "Decisions are made in desperation, and for many families, their income can't handle the expenses they incur with a new house," she says. "We don't want people being subject to foreclosure two years down the road because they can't pay their mortgage, loan payments, and insurance."
Despite a town still dead from a storm long passed, an overwhelming sense of optimism prevails among both the volunteers and remaining residents of Pass Christian. "I don't know if it's a cultural thing around water communities, but people here aren't waiting around for help," says The Citadel's Shuler. "If you sprain your ankle hiking, you don't just sit there hoping a helicopter comes. People here are prepared for everyday disasters, but no one can anticipate your entire region going down."
On her trips to the Gulf Coast, Shuler has seen residents moved from the "depths of despair to the heights of joy" as they form relationships with the volunteers. She feels that The Citadel's purpose goes beyond the physical work, and she makes a point of doing small jobs for others while down there and visiting with people they've helped on previous trips. She's even collected plants in Charleston to ship to victims, helping them replant their destroyed yards and gardens.
"There is a psychological burden, because these people have always tried to figure out how to do things themselves, and this is so overwhelming," she says.
On one morning last week, a group of cadets with shovels and wheelbarrows moved a massive pile of dirt for a man whose garden had been destroyed by mud in the floodwaters. That evening, they helped a disabled man, Reuben Boudreaux, bring down a dead oak tree that was threatening to fall on the trailer he's lived in since the storm. On the final evening, the group gathered in neighboring Bay St. Louis at the home of Butch and Jackie Baughman, a house that a Citadel group both demolished and helped rebuild over the last year. Butch laughed and grinned throughout the evening, telling stories and showing off the progress and work he's put into the house.
Sandwiched between two travel days aboard an National Gaurd C-130 cargo plane, the cadets spent three full days installing electrical and phone lines, plumbing, siding, windows, insulation, and dry wall at the Swaniers' new home. The cadets let loose in the evenings, drinking beers and laughing around a campfire, but the days were dedicated to hard work. "I'd seen all the damage on the news, and figured it'd be a good thing to volunteer my time," says senior Richard Lewis. "I enjoy work, and I hadn't done anything like this in awhile."
With the trip falling one week before exams, many of the cadets had to take tests and write papers early, then play catch-up upon returning. Senior Sam Lynes received credit for the trip in Shuler's class, but was motivated more by a desire to help.
"It's God's work to help people," says Lynes. "This work is very exhausting, but when you see a street of houses washed away, it's nice to do a good thing for those people."
An estimated 1,836 people lost their lives in Hurricane Katrina, making it the most devastating natural disaster in modern U.S. history. In Pass Christian, plants are rebounding faster than people and the ground is again green, growing over the plots that once hosted family households. The 27,000 Mississippians still living in FEMA trailers are currently facing a deadline of Aug. 31 this year to vacate.
"FEMA has a way of setting a date and then giving an extension at the last minute, but that doesn't keep people from being nervous," says Sister Milner.
Cottage Living hopes that their story will prompt reader donations, and Mercy Housing is committed to building a neighborhood on the street of the Swaniers' new home, but even simple Katrina cottages can't be built fast enough to meet the demand or deadlines.
"We won't get back to normal here in my lifetime," says Milner.
Fortunately, businesses like Cottage Living and Lowe's are collaborating and beginning to make an impact. It will take time and a continuing flow of volunteers to get towns like Pass Christian back on their feet, and Shuler's Citadel crew will continue to be there several times a year. The job is never-ending, but the profound impact volunteers have on individual families is perpetual as well.
"God has blessed us with this," said Chris Swanier, tears flowing as he hugged The Citadel cadets goodbye. "This is something I'll never forget in my life."