Homeowners rebuild, worry about next storm
Editor’s note: Aspen Times photographer Paul Conrad and reporter Scott Condon returned for a third time to Pearlington, Miss., this week. In the coming days, they will chronicle the ongoing recovery of this Gulf Coast community, which the Roaring Fork Valley “adopted” after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. Their trip coincides with a relief effort by students from Aspen High School.
PEARLINGTON, Miss. ” Hurricane season doesn’t officially start until June, but it’s never far from the minds of Gulf Coast residents regardless of the month.
“As soon as one season ends we start thinking about the next one,” said Herb Ritchie, co-director of the Pearlington Recovery Center, a clearing house for supplies, volunteers and other aid.
Wilson Burton, on a fishing excursion to Pearlington from nearby Bay St. Louis, said a recent storm made him jumpy even though it’s only April. It will get worse as the storm season worsens.
“Every time it thunders you panic,” he said.
The Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University released a report in December forecasting seven hurricanes in the Atlantic basin this year, three of them “intense.” It foresaw a 40 percent chance of a Category 3 or 4 hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast somewhere between the Florida panhandle and Brownsville at the southern tip of Texas.
Some Pearlington residents say they will leave town for good if another big storm strikes. Others said it’s not worth worrying about.
Sam Danese, a retiree who has lived in town since 1972, tried to ride out Hurricane Katrina in his home but had to take a boat to a higher house. He vowed he would stay for another major storm.
“I don’t care where you go, there’s something that’s going to get you,” Danese said.
He would have to go farther north than he is willing to go to escape a hurricane and accompanying storms on land, he said.
But Pearlington native John Carver, 59, said he will leave his property and move to Tennessee if a hurricane destroys his home again. His family is building a six-bedroom, three-bathroom house with the help of volunteers, including Aspen High School students visiting the community this week.
John Flock, 60, a retired chemical engineer, said he believes Hurricane Katrina was a fluke that won’t be duplicated. Hurricane Camille in 1969, the previous standard-bearer for nasty storms, swamped the house on their property, before they owned it, with 4 feet of water. It was more like 16 feet with Katrina.
Flock is confident enough that Katrina won’t be duplicated that he and his wife, Ginny, are refurbishing their vacation home on a canal.
Lots of people are willing to risk rebuilding because it’s the only home they have. Larry Randall, the other director of the Pearlington Recovery Center, said more than 400 building permits have been issued for houses in Pearlington by Hancock County. The community is unincorporated so its boundaries are somewhat hard to define. He estimated there were more than 2,000 homes in the community before the storm, including modest vacation homes called camps.
Before the hurricane, new homes in the area had to be built with their first floor 9 feet above sea level, which is the average elevation of property in the community, Randall said.
After the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency wanted to require new homes to be built 25 feet above sea level. That was unrealistic, Randall said, so the agency settled on 13 feet.
Property owners who acquired building permits within six months of Katrina got in under the old regulations. Later applicants face the higher standard. Therefore, some of the new homes are built on dirt heaps to meet the old standard or on thick wood or concrete pilings to meet the new standard.
Clyde and Sharon LaSieur built one of the first new homes in Pearlington. The hurricane destroyed their ground-level, ranch-style house. Their new home is on sturdy wood beams embedded in concrete. Clyde believes it will remain above water and survive the wind of a Katrina-strength hurricane. Sharon wasn’t so sure.
Danese labeled the new regulations “foolish” and said they are nothing but bureaucratic hurdles that prevent people from getting back on their feet.
“If you had another Hurricane Katrina it would just be all gone,” Danese said.