New condominiums are flanked by vacant lots festooned with faded “For Sale” signs. On some properties, a chimney or staircase tells the story of what was once there, while others hold no clues beyond the concrete slab Katrina left behind. And even these are beginning to disappear as the earth reclaims itself, burying the past beneath impenetrable layers of mud and tangled weeds.
It has become the benchmark by which all storms are measured. It has become the stark demarcation between life before and after, with Hurricane Katrina sitting squarely in the middle of coastal residents’ collective memory — as vivid today as the muddy water lines and red spray-paint which can still be seen on homes uninhabitable, abandoned.
There are jobs, but there aren’t enough. There is housing, but there is not enough. Yet there is growing optimism as well. There is progress, albeit slow, and there is a brighter future on the horizon, albeit distant. And there are volunteers here — people of all faiths, people from all walks of life — bonded by a common determination to bring this battered city, along with the entire Gulf Coast, back to life.
The live oaks that sprawl across the Southern landscape are like no other tree. Their trunks are massive, the limbs long and twisting, drooping to the ground, stretching to the sky, spreading to touch other trees. Most are hundreds of years old. Some thousands. They’ve seen floods, droughts, fires, hurricanes. And still they survive, the wood growing harder, stronger, more resilient, through every trial they endure. In Pearlington, Miss., they’re everywhere, a fitting symbol for a town that refuses to die and 800 residents who bend, but will not break.
Hurricane Katrina drew the curtains on the theater, as well as on Bay St. Louis, two and a half years ago. But the arts community refused to let the lights dim, and today they’re helping revive a town in one of the rare success stories of post-Katrina life on the Gulf Coast.
It’s the middle of nowhere and the hour is nothing, a sliver of time dutifully noted by the alarm clock’s efficient blue glow. It’s surprisingly cold here in Pearlington, and the volunteers burrow more deeply into their bunks, grateful for the woolen blankets that stave off the chill. In the darkness, shadows rise and fall, punctuated by soft groans as worn bedsprings do what they can to help tired shoulders. This isn’t the Four Seasons, but as far as volunteer camps go, this wooden bunkhouse is luxury accommodations, a home away from home. The scrape of clay-caked Timberlands on the bunkhouse floor announces the latest arrivals – a father-son team from Dansville, N.Y., here to spend a week building houses with Locklin’s group. Next week, fresh volunteers will arrive, some armed with little more than goodwill.