From The Eye Of The Hurricane To Near Oblivion: Katrina's Forgotten Town Tiny Pearlington, Miss., was obliterated 10 years ago. In a town of 1,700, only two houses stood relatively unscathed. Volunteers did most rebuilding, for better or worse, and recovery has been slow.
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From The Eye Of The Hurricane To Near Oblivion: Katrina's Forgotten Town

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From The Eye Of The Hurricane To Near Oblivion: Katrina's Forgotten Town

From The Eye Of The Hurricane To Near Oblivion: Katrina's Forgotten Town

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,800 people. It left behind more than $100 billion worth of damage, one of the deadliest and costliest disasters in U.S. history. This month marks 10 years since Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The eye of the hurricane made landfall at the mouth of the Pearl River on the Louisiana border with Mississippi. It devastated the small town of Pearlington, Miss.

BLOCK: As we look at the impact of Katrina a decade later, NPR's David Schaper returned to Pearlington to examine the uneven and slow pace of recovery there.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: To say that Katrina nearly wiped Pearlington off the map isn't entirely true. The fact is tiny Pearlington wasn't even on many maps, so it took a couple of days for search-and-rescue teams to find Pearlington. And it was 10 days before relief organizations arrived with critical supplies after the storm pushed a 30-foot-high wall of water up the Pearl River and through the bayou, nearly obliterating the small town. When 64-year-old Howard Dawsey returned home, he found...

HOWARD DAWSEY: Nothing. Nothing - I lost my home I had here.

SCHAPER: Just two homes in this town of 1,700 survived Katrina relatively unscathed. Most of the rest were just piles of rubble or stood flooded out, caked in a thick, foul-smelling mud. Howard's wife, Donna Dawsey...

DONNA DAWSEY: I drove up and saw all the damage, and I just broke down and cry after seeing it. I didn't realize it did all that damage.

H. DAWSEY: And I had the best insurance you could buy. The insurance wouldn't give me a penny.

SCHAPER: Like many homeowners after Katrina, the Dawseys battled their insurance company but lost. And Howard says he didn't qualify for grants and other government aid to rebuild.

H. DAWSEY: I was more fortunate than most people. I had a good job. I could afford to go get a home where a lot of people couldn't, you know?

SCHAPER: As they sit on the front porch of their new double-wide trailer more than four feet up off the ground to meet the new federal elevation standards, the Dawseys look over the lots of neighbors who didn't come back. Four-hundred fewer people now live in Pearlington than when the storm hit, and many who did return struggled to do so. Arthur Clementin is a retired school principal who grew up in Pearlington and now lives in nearby Bay St. Louis.

ARTHUR CLEMENTIN: I would say if it wasn't for the volunteers, there wouldn't be a Pearlington. Pearlington was like a forgotten place.

SCHAPER: With New Orleans getting most of the media coverage and resources initially going to more densely populated coastal areas, it took some time for Pearlington to get any attention. But after word got out, Clementin says church groups and other nonprofit organizations raced to the town, first to clean up and then to rebuild.

CLEMENTIN: To see people coming in from places you'd not heard of before - little towns in Wisconsin, California, North Carolina, all over this nation.

SCHAPER: In a town where more than a quarter of the residents live below the poverty level, such charitable support was essential to Pearlington's recovery. The volunteer effort continued for years, and a couple of groups still return every spring break to lend a hand. Volunteers even built this new Pearlington community center where 85-year-old Lillian Rogers could not be more grateful for her new home.

LILLIAN ROGERS: On my little trailer I had, I didn't have no insurance. I wasn't able to build back. So if these men hadn't come to my rescue, where would I be?

IVORY PULSTACHE: Everybody think Katrina was a disaster, but in some sense, it was a blessing.

SCHAPER: 54-year-old Ivory Pulstache says the volunteers changed Pearlington for the better.

PULSTACHE: Some people got free houses, and there was people who had houses that didn't have houses before. People got money that didn't have money before. You know what I'm saying?

SCHAPER: Many in Pearlington say those who had little before the storm did better after thanks to the charities and federal grants. But those who were better off and had insurance got very little aid. And at the Turtle Landing Bar and Grill in Pearlington, customers such as Jacki Blackwell delicately raise concerns about the volunteers' skills.

JACKI BLACKWELL: We're just thankful for the, you know, the volunteers. But they didn't have the experience, and they didn't have the resources to do.

SCHAPER: Bartender Connie Crapeau was among those in Pearlington who continue to repair the repairs to her home. She says the first volunteers who renovated and tiled her bathroom failed to replace a rotted floorboard underneath.

CONNIE CRAPEAU: That floor was replaced six times, and I had buckets and buckets and buckets of perfectly good tile that had to be pulled up 'cause they either run out of material or it wasn't properly installed.

SCHAPER: The problem, says Crapeau and others, isn't the volunteers but the fact that Pearlington and other Mississippi communities, such as Ansley, Lakeshore and Clermont Harbor, had to rely so heavily upon them. Jacki Blackwell says it's the area that is forgotten.

BLACKWELL: We all joke and cut up that Mississippi don't want us, and Louisiana won't claim us.

SCHAPER: So 10 years after Katrina, Pearlington is smaller, and many still struggle here. And Connie Crapeau says some, after a decade of trying to build their lives back, are now giving up and moving away.

CRAPEAU: So have we totally recovered from Katrina? No. It's going to be a long time before we recover from Katrina, and we're not even close.

SCHAPER: In fact, many here say Pearlington, Miss., won't ever be the same. David Schaper, NPR News.

BLOCK: So many people's lives were upended by Hurricane Katrina all along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans. We'll be hearing their stories all month.

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