Help Flows to Flood-Ravaged Mississippi Town Pearlington, Miss., was barely on the map before Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped it away. Now a town that was engulfed by floodwaters is equally overwhelmed at support flooding in from around the nation.
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Help Flows to Flood-Ravaged Mississippi Town

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Help Flows to Flood-Ravaged Mississippi Town

Help Flows to Flood-Ravaged Mississippi Town

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Almost every building in Pearlington, Mississippi, was damaged or destroyed by the floods brought on by Hurricane Katrina. Three people drowned. Pearlington is a small, isolated town near the Louisiana border. NPR's Howard Berkes visited just after the storm, and he's just been back. He found that relief supplies were easy to come by, but a real recovery is still a while off.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Some people in rural places like to say they're last and least when disaster strikes, last to get the least help. It seemed like that in Pearlington, Mississippi, right after Katrina hit. Even rescuers seemed surprised to find people there, according to Hezekiah Thompson(ph), a Pearlington native.

Mr. HEZEKIAH THOMPSON (Hurricane Survivor): Pearlington was a town that wasn't even on the map when they were going out doing all the search and rescue. A guy told me that they just happened to have been trawling the coast looking for people that might have got swept away, and the guy was down in the water. And they were in the helicopter saying, `Where is this at? Where is this at?' They finally lifted him up, put him in the helicopter and asked him to point on the map where he was at. It wasn't even on the map.

(Soundbite of wind chimes)

BERKES: But there is a town where Mississippi stretches as far south as it can, 2,200 people and 900 homes, some still with wind chimes on battered porches. Here, amid forest and swamps, seven miles inland from the Gulf, only three homes escaped floodwater.

Mr. ROCKY PULLMAN (County Supervisor): It was the perfect storm to inundate our county with water.

BERKES: Rocky Pullman is a tugboat captain and county supervisor, whose family goes back three generations in Pearlington. He stands in his ruined home, mold on the walls, rubble at his feet, the high-water mark above his head.

Mr. PULLMAN: I know people that, two blocks from here in the eye of the storm, started out their house walking in ankle-deep water, walking to a neighbor's house to check them, and in a 350-foot distance they were swimming and they weren't going downhill. They were on the same level plain as they started out. That's how fast the water came in.

BERKES: Survivors huddled in attics, on rooftops or in trees until the water receded five hours later. Roads were blocked by buildings, furniture, tree trunks and power poles. Help was hard to come by, says Deborah Hill, who manages the town's library.

Ms. DEBORAH HILL (Library Manager): We was forgotten at first and then somebody--some news reporter came down and put Pearlington on national news, and then we started getting a lot of help then. A lot of help started pouring in from everywhere. If it wouldn't have been for them, I don't know what we'd have done.

BERKES: And the help continues at a phenomenal pace. Outside Pearlington's middle school, relief workers and townspeople unload two trailers packed with supplies. Supervising the work is volunteer Greg Ventura(ph), a retired software engineer from Nebraska.

Mr. GREG VENTURA (Volunteer): We have volunteers that have--are delivering a whole bunch of very needed stuff. We're getting hoses here, chain saws, food, bleach, cleaning materials. I just got about $500 worth of brand-new underwear for people around here, which, you know, we sort of take for granted, but it's in very short supply around here.

BERKES: This continues every day, even now, seven weeks after the storm. Shawn Clark of Durango, Colorado, is managing the relief center for the Red Cross and other groups.

Mr. SHAWN CLARK (Red Cross): Currently we've got probably, I would say, about 80 tons of supplies inside the distribution center. Twenty tons a day are hitting the ground.

BERKES: Most of the goods are stacked on custom-built shelves here in the middle school gymnasium. It's been dubbed Pearlmart(ph), and it looks a bit like a discount store with a grocery aisle, clothing section, toy department and more. There's also ice and water at a drive-up tent in the parking lot, a medical clinic and a dining tent serving hundreds of people a day. And it's all free to hurricane victims. Townspeople are grateful, but they wonder about coping long term.

Mr. PULLMAN: The community is getting what it takes to sustain life. It's taken a while to get what it takes to make life better.

BERKES: Even the simplest tasks are tough, says County Supervisor Rocky Pullman.

Mr. PULLMAN: Well, we don't have a gas station, we don't have a convenience store. Our closest store, which--is, you know, anywheres from 12 to 20 miles, just depending on which one you go to. So if you leave here, you're looking at least a 12-mile journey to get where you can get some supplies, gas, stuff like that.

BERKES: Then there's something as basic as a place to call home, especially with winter coming. Most people still live in tents. Some sleep in a shelter. Hundreds wait for travel trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but less than 80 have arrived so far. There are also problems in connecting trailers to home water wells contaminated in the storm.

Mr. PULLMAN: What happened during the storm was most of the pump houses broke loose from its foundation, broke the well pipe, and then the contaminants went down into the well pipe: saltwater to start with, E. coli bacteria, dead fish, anything.

BERKES: Wells are getting tested, but that process is also slow. Power and septic connections require new lines and pipes and electricians and plumbers to do the work; they're also in short supply. There are questions about salvaging homes. Many have mold. Some were built with non-galvanized nails; they might corrode and weaken due to exposure to saltwater. Rebuilding is also in doubt for some without significant financial help. Despite the uncertainty, there's a commitment to stay, says Rocky Pullman.

Mr. PULLMAN: We're just like these trees out here. The trees have been battered by the wind and the water, but they continue now to sprout out new life. I think we have deep roots in this community. I think our roots are spread deep in the soils here, and we're not going to leave just because we got devastated by this hurricane. And I really believe that it'll take many years to overcome the devastation that we've encountered.

(Soundbite of wind chimes)

BERKES: Pullman adds that he knew this was coming when he saw the hurricane forecast seven weeks ago, so he instructed his children to get out their cameras and take photographs of everything they could: the wind chimes on the porch, the trees in the yard, every nook and cranny of the house. After the storm, he told them, nothing in Pearlington, Mississippi, will ever look the same. And nothing does.

(Soundbite of wind chimes)

BERKES: Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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