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.
Jim Pollard, public information officer for neighboring Harrison County, says he remembers a chilling moment during Katrina when officials at Hancock County’s Emergency Operation Center — believed to be on safe ground — called him on the phone and told him the building was rapidly filling with water. “They all wrote numbers on their arms with indelible ink, then listed their names and numbers on a sheet of paper, put it in a Ziploc bag, and tacked it to the roof,” Pollard says. “We were taping final messages from them to their families.”
Only a few lonely cars were heading west Sunday morning beneath a canopy of gnarled oaks along Scenic Highway 90 in coastal Mississippi. To their right, stark reminders of Hurricane Katrina — bare slabs where homes once stood, damaged streets which once led to vibrant downtowns, trees still festooned with insulation and tarpoleons meant to protect buildings that no longer exist. To their left, a steady snarl of traffic snaked its way eastward as residents from Louisiana and Mississippi fled the wrath of Hurricane Gustav, expected to make landfall as a Category 3 hurricane Monday morning southeast of Louisiana in Plaquemines Parish.
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.
White pauses for a moment as he passes the spot where the library still stands. With a distant look in his eyes, he softly admits that he hasn’t had a raise or vacation in three years. But, for him, it isn’t about the money. He says it’s about the little things, like making a child smile or giving a ride to an elderly resident to spare her the grueling walk down streets still laden with debris. There are moments like last week, when a frantic mother called from her job to say her 8-year-old son had found a gun in the woods.