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

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

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

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

New Orleans was famously, treacherously flooded when Hurricane Katrina struck five years ago this weekend. But the eye of the storm passed over Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, a small, proudly roguish old riverboat and resort town along the Gulf Coast. Twelve people died there.

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 - and, yes, he's cousin to Brett, the quarterback - was living on the floor of the fire station and drove us down Beach Boulevard.

Mayor EDWARD FAVRE (Bay St. Louis, Mississippi): Looking straight ahead, this used to be the car bridge, and on the other side of that is the train bridge. And as you can see, it took everything down off the train bridge except the pilings, in most cases. And on the right side was Big Daddy's Bar and Grill. Next to it was Dan B's, with just...

SIMON: Edward Favre says that half of the homes in his city have been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

We're going past just tumbles of wood, clothes hanging off of trees and the cisterns of broken toilets. Are all of those items and all of these houses, all this litter, belong to people you know by name?

Mayor FAVRE: Quite a few of them I know. You know, right up here's Colleen Shepatoine(ph). Right next to her is...

SIMON: Five years later, we're driving along the beach road with now former Mayor Eddie Favre.

Mr. Mayor, thanks very much for having us back.

Mr. FAVRE: My pleasure.

SIMON: You pointedly wore shorts all the time until you said the town was rebuilt. You're still wearing shorts. Has the town been rebuilt?

Mr. FAVRE: There's a lot of it that has been rebuilt. Are we where we would have hoped to have been? No.�We still have a long way to go.

SIMON: So what do you notice as we drive around here?

Mr. FAVRE: Other than the debris that has been removed, you'll still - I mean, it doesn't look a whole lot different than what it did five years ago.

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

Eddie Favre and his family used to live along this boulevard. But they've never received an insurance settlement, and between new building codes and escalating insurance costs they couldnt afford to rebuild here and moved into the center of town. What was the familys home is now a scarred cement slab, growing a beard of grass and vines. He stops by a couple times a week, to gaze at the Gulf with his grandchildren

Mr. FAVRE: Sure do.

SIMON: What do you do here?

Mr. FAVRE: Kind of just sit out front and enjoy the view, and let them munch on their little snowballs and all that we get in the afternoons.

SIMON: The shaved ice, right?

Mr. FAVRE: Shaved ice, right.

SIMON: Well, you still own some beach front property, Ed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAVRE: 'Tis true. 'Tis true. Always the bright side.

SIMON: There's 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. She 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 remembered how her house became safe harbor for scores of friends and neighbors who lost not only their homes, but the shirts off their backs.

Ms. ELLIS ANDERSON (Author, "Under Surge, Under Siege"): Overall, everything that I saw was people helping each other, 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.

And 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 when youve see the little old man across the street from you who hobbles around and sometimes his shirt's a little dirty and torn and tattered and he forgets to comb his hair. But you know that guy's a hero. Like a real hero. So you look at him a little differently.

SIMON: About a third of the town's residents havent returned to Bay St. Louis. Some have made new lives elsewhere, some cant afford to rebuild, and some who survived Katrina just no longer want to live in a place where they have hurricanes. Ellis Anderson adds...

Ms. ANDERSON: You will hear this - anybody you talk to in Bay St. Louis, you ask them what the number one hindrance to things are now, is insurance. And it's astronomically high now. And it creates a lot of anger and animosity.

SIMON: In Bay St. Louis you dont hear complaints about FEMA 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 wasnt the 125 mile an hour winds but the 30 foot tall waves that smashed their house 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.�

Ms. ALECIN CHAMBERS (Mockingbird Cafe): Last year was $28,000 for insurance, and that's roughly 17,000 cups of coffee.

SIMON: Alecin Chambers opened the Mockingbird Cafe on 2nd Street 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 years Gulf oil spill scared off tourists, even though Bay St. Louis's beaches were clean. Alecin has a yoga studio upstairs, bar drinks at night, and live entertainment on weekends to draw customers. But...

Ms. CHAMBERS: We havent made our break even for months and months. And the struggle some days is just too much.�If it weren't for all of the love that we're shown daily, Im sure I would have figured out a way to get out of it. But it's, you know, some days it's just too much.�

But we need people, need people coming back, coming home. Thats what's going to do it. That's what's going to pull us through. But just like my parents, whats�preventing them from coming home is insurance. And 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. And its beautiful. And the people here are beautiful. Thats why we stay.

SIMON: Mississippi State Senator David Baria of Bay St. Louis has introduced insurance reform bills in the legislature for the past three years. He cant get them through committee.�

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

Let me ask you this question. If the market system, unfettered in the insurance industry, is acting to discourage more people from settling or resettling here, to some people wouldnt that be the beauty of the market? To some people, theyre saying, look, this is a zone thats going to be hit by hurricane. We have no business putting too many people there.�

State Senator DAVID BARIA (Democrat, Mississippi): I think you are correct that there are those who would say the free market system is designed to work that way and that what we should do is we should make the entire Gulf of Mexico region a large national park and no one should live there.

However, for centuries people have raised their families and made their livings out of the Gulf of Mexico and its surrounding environs, and I dont think you can write off an area and simply say, you know what? They have a lot of hurricanes down there and so people shouldnt live there.

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

(Soundbite of cicadas)

SIMON: 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.

Ms. ANDERSON: But I'll be probably saying a prayer of gratitude for every August 29th the rest of my life because I have a lot to be grateful for. I was very fortunate.

SIMON: And she has a smashed boat on her front lawn that tells one more story. She says 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 three-year-old-daughter were killed in a car accident while pulling the boat toward the beach. A grieving Mrs. Akkers kept the crumpled boat in their driveway.

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

Ms. ANDERSON: There was doubt if they would make it, and then Augusta saw the boat just float out of their driveway and then 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. And Augusta thinks that Lionel took care of them.

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

SIMON: Ellis Anderson, State Senator Baria, Alecin Chambers and former Mayor Eddie Favre, who welcomed us back this week to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

Our story was produced by Peter Breslow. You can find more coverage on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on our website, npr.org/Katrina.

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