Five Years After Katrina, A Return To Bay St. Louis

Former Bay St. Louis Mayor Edward Favre i i

Former Bay St. Louis Mayor Edward Favre's family home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. All that remains now is a scarred cement slab, growing a beard of grass and vines. Peter Breslow/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Breslow/NPR
Former Bay St. Louis Mayor Edward Favre

Former Bay St. Louis Mayor Edward Favre's family home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. All that remains now is a scarred cement slab, growing a beard of grass and vines.

Peter Breslow/NPR

New Orleans was famously, treacherously flooded when Hurricane Katrina struck five years ago this weekend. But the eye of the storm didn't hit New Orleans. It struck Bay St. Louis, Miss., a small, proudly roguish old riverboat and resort town along the Gulf Coast, killing 12 people.

Five years ago, when the town opened up after Katrina, producer Peter Breslow and I went to Bay St. Louis. The city's five-term mayor, Edward Favre, cousin to quarterback Brett Favre, was living on the floor of the fire station and drove us down Beach Boulevard.

"This used to be the car bridge, and on the other side of that is the train bridge," Favre said at the time. "And as you can see, it took everything down off the train bridge except the pilings, in most cases."

Favre says that half of the homes in his city were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. We drove past tumbles of wood and clothes hanging off of trees, and cisterns of broken toilets. Favre knew many of the people who lived in those houses and recounted their names as we drove past.

Returning To Bay St. Louis

Five years later, we're driving along the beach road with now former Mayor Favre, who says a lot of the town has been rebuilt.

"Are we where we would have hoped to have been? No. We still have a long way to go," he says.

He says other than the fact debris has been removed, it doesn't look a whole lot different that it did five years ago.

There are a handful of handsome new homes along Beach Boulevard that look a bit like praying mantis. They are set on 20-foot-tall cement stilts to comply with new building codes meant to place beach homes above storm surges.

Favre and his family used to live along this boulevard, but they never received an insurance settlement and between new building codes and escalating insurance costs, they couldn't afford to rebuild here and moved into the center of town. What was his family's home is now a scarred cement slab, growing a beard of grass and vines. He stops by a couple of times a week to gaze at the Gulf with his grandchildren.

"[I] kind of just sit out front and enjoy the view, and let them munch on their little snowballs they get in the afternoons," he says.

'We Behaved Admirably'

There is some lingering sensitivity in Bay St. Louis that New Orleans received so much international attention compared to the Mississippi coast.

Bay St. Louis has its own distinct character: a small beachfront town with a casino, three yoga schools, old hippies, summer tourists, displaced Vietnamese fishermen and former New Orleanians, including Ellis Anderson.

Anderson moved here in 1996 and has written a book about her town and the storm called Under Surge, Under Siege.

She lives in a century-old former schoolhouse on a higher elevation in town; floodwaters threatened her home, but fell back. As a chorus of cicadas buzzed in the trees above her back porch this week, she remembers how her house became a safe harbor for scores of friends and neighbors who lost not only their homes, but also the shirts off their backs.

"Overall, everything that I saw was people helping each other," she says. "People who were totally wounded and shattered and had lost everything themselves — reaching out to make other people feel good or watching out for their comfort and well-being.

"It changed my view of humanity in those 10 days. We were tested and we came through and we behaved admirably under really bad circumstances, and it makes you look at your neighbors in a really different light."

Why They Stay

About a third of the town's residents haven't returned to Bay St. Louis. Some have made new lives elsewhere. Some can't afford to rebuild, and some who survived Katrina just no longer want to live in a place where they have hurricanes.

"Anyone you talk to in Bay St. Louis, you ask them what the No. 1 hindrance to things are now, [and they say] insurance," Anderson says. "It's astronomically high now. It's created lots of anger and animosity."

In Bay St. Louis you don't hear complaints about the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the federal government so much as insurance companies. Many people had to wait a long time to receive just modest settlements. Many have anecdotes about clever arguments they say insurers used to limit payments, like insisting that it wasn't the 125 mph winds but the 30-foot-tall waves that smashed their houses to smithereens. Who can tell in a hurricane?

And everyone complains about the higher rates they have to pay now, not just for wind and flood protection, but fire, theft and liability.

"Last year was $28,000 for insurance and that's roughly 17,000 cups of coffee," says Alecin Chambers.

She opened the Mockingbird Cafe in Bay St. Louis about a year after Katrina. It thrived for a time, as it thronged with relief workers from around the country who paid $1.50 for a stout cup of strong coffee.

But now that so much of the town has been repaired, relief crews are gone. And this year's Gulf oil spill scared off tourists, even though Bay St. Louis' beaches were clean. Chambers has a yoga studio upstairs, bar drinks at night and live entertainment on weekends to draw customers. But, she says, she hasn't broken even for months.

"The struggle some days is just too much. If it weren't for all the love I'm shown daily, I'm sure I would have figured out a way to get out of it," she says. "Some days it's just too much.

"But we need people — need people coming back, coming home. That's what is going to do it. That's what's going to pull us through. But — just like my parents — what's preventing them from coming home is insurance.

"I'm sure people around the country think, 'Why do those people live there? They've got oil spills. They've got hurricanes.' But you just look over that water and there's something that grounds you here. It's beautiful and the people here are beautiful, and that's why we stay."

Targeting Insurance Companies

Mississippi State Sen. David Baria of Bay St. Louis has introduced insurance reform bills in the Legislature for the past three years; he can't get them through committee.

Insurance companies say the vast majority of claims have been settled without dispute and point out that they have paid tens of billions of dollars in claims caused by the losses of Hurricane Katrina. Baria wants insurers to lower their rates, so more people might move back.

"There are those who would say the free-market system is designed to work that way and that what we should do is make the entire Gulf of Mexico region a large national park and no one should live there," Baria says. "However for centuries people have raised their families and made their livings out of the Gulf of Mexico and its surrounding environs. And I don't think you can write off an area by simply saying they have a lot of hurricanes down there so people shouldn't live there.

"We're willing to pay the cost to live here. We are tough and resilient people," he says. "We just want folks to be reasonable. And if insurance companies will come in here and fairly underwrite policy that will actually pay a claim when we have a claim, then we can make it work."

Miracle At A Terrible Time

Ellis Anderson i i

Ellis Anderson stands next to a boat that she now uses as a planter on her front yard. The boat belonged to her former neighbor's deceased son and was a lifesaver during Hurricane Katrina. Anderson says the story of the boat "serves as a reminder of some of the miracles that happened in that terrible time." Peter Breslow/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Breslow/NPR
Ellis Anderson

Ellis Anderson stands next to a boat that she now uses as a planter on her front yard. The boat belonged to her former neighbor's deceased son and was a lifesaver during Hurricane Katrina. Anderson says the story of the boat "serves as a reminder of some of the miracles that happened in that terrible time."

Peter Breslow/NPR

Cicadas chirp through the final rays of sunlight on Ellis Anderson's porch. She says this fifth anniversary since Hurricane Katrina has been hard to bear because now she knows that while Bay St. Louis has begun to recover and rebuild, many people might never move back.

"But I'll probably be saying a prayer of gratitude for every Aug. 29 for the rest of my life because I have a lot to be grateful for. I was so fortunate," she says.

She has a smashed boat on her front lawn that tells one more story. The boat belonged to an elderly neighbor named Augusta Akkers and used to belong to her son, Lionel. One day, more than 20 years ago, Lionel and his 3-year-old-daughter were killed in a car crash while pulling the boat toward the beach. A grieving Akkers kept the crumpled boat in their driveway.

So it was there years later when Katrina stormed ashore, and Akkers and her three adult children had to swim for their lives in the middle of their street.

"There was doubt if they would make it, and then Augusta saw the boat just float out of their driveway and make a turn and come directly to them in these raging waters, and they were able to hold onto the sides until they made it here to the house," Anderson says. "And Augusta thinks that Lionel took care of them.

"Afterward I wanted to make a planter out of it and she told me I would be welcome to do that. And so I've put a sign outside that says 'Lionel's Boat Saved Four Lives, 8-29-2005.' I think it serves as a reminder of some of the miracles that happened in that terrible time."

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