Impressions of Katrina: Five years later

AugustaFreePress.com publisher Crystal Graham visited Long Beach, Miss., in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

This is the first installment in the six-part series published by the AFP beginning on Oct. 31, 2005.

Links to the entire series are below.  
 
 

Impressions of Long Beach: 2005

A boat.

Hundreds of feet from the Gulf Coast.

Cars crumpled and littered along streets like paper along the highway.

In the distance, a lone American flag flapping in the wind.

Palm trees split in half.

South of the tracks, as it’s referred to by residents, a town destroyed.

It is, or was, as many say, Long Beach, Miss.

Situated between Pass Christian and Gulf Port, the home to 20,000, Long Beach is now mostly deserted.

South of the tracks, you must have a pass to cross over.

The only sounds are those of bulldozers leveling homes and carrying away debris – which themselves stand in the place of oceanfront views where houses once stood tall.

Signs of life still litter the streets – Mardi Gras beads, a leaf blower, a digital camera, a soccer ball.

And yet the stench in the air tells another story.
 

Riding out the storm

Some families and structures in Long Beach had withstood the devastating wrath of Hurricane Camille in 1969. It was unthinkable that a storm of that magnitude would strike again.

Residents of the coastal community will tell you that Hurricane Katrina came quickly. Within 24 hours, the storm’s winds had grown from 115 mph to 175 mph.

And some still decided to ride out the storm, putting their valuables above their own lives.

“I don’t know why I stayed,” Pass Christian resident Lynn Kimble told The Augusta Free Press last week as she stood outside the stairwell where she waited out Katrina.

“I was mesmerized by all this. I would rather see it in action than come back and find it the way it was,” Kimble said.

Stella Wolf, a Long Beach resident, chose to ride out the storm for different reasons.

“My husband and I both work in health care, so we had to stay to take care of our patients,” said Wolf.

“It was horrible. When I got out of the house, and when I could walk around, I knew the whole coast was gone,” Wolf said.

Some, like Wolf, are not homeless. They have taken in others from the community. Others, like Kimble, said it would be at least a year before their homes are habitable again. Others have no plans to rebuild or return.
 

Progress coming slowly

While homes are being torn down, and littered empty lots remain, help seems to be coming slowly.
Some families have received insurance checks, but can’t rebuild until new guidelines are set for the floodplain.

Others were issued checks for only a portion of what there homes are worth – commonly for $6,000 or $8,000, hardly enough to start over.

Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers are coming – but not as quickly as some would like.

“The assessments aren’t going to be there,” said Jim Sullenger, a volunteer with The Valley Responds, a Harrisonburg-based relief effort that is linking the Shenandoah Valley to the Gulf Coast region. “And the projected flood costs are too high to rebuild here, so here’s a community making tough decisions.

“It’s heart-wrenching to hear it.”
 

A new sense of normal

In our Valley Responds series, you’ll meet real people who are discovering a new sense of of normal – with your help.

In a newly reopened private school in Long Beach, you’ll meet principal Elizabeth Fortenberry, who took a break from a fall festival to chat with us.

“This is our new normal. This school is the only thing that is normal to these children. Many leave to a trailer in front of a wrecked home – some still live in tents. This is their normal,” she said.
 

Impetus

On Friday, along with a small group of reporters and Valley Responds volunteers, I traveled to Long Beach. I met families in Long Beach that lost everything – and others that are rebuilding their homes and their lives after Hurricane Katrina.

And I learned more about The Valley Responds, a group that essentially adopted Long Beach on behalf of residents of the Shenandoah Valley.

And needs your help – desperately.

Emily Purdy, a volunteer with the relief group, has been to Long Beach twice now – but sees a long road ahead until this mission is completed.

“It’s hard to imagine that anything has been done,” she said Friday. “And yet, on the other hand, there’s a lot that has been done.

“Everything takes a long time,” Purdy said. “We think that we have such big heavy equipment in the United States, and we do, but it just makes a dent on a daily basis.

“There’s just so much work. The magnitude of the number of buildings that have been destroyed and just need to be knocked down boggles my mind,” she said.

“It’s like it hit yesterday.”
 

The series

Part one: Impressions of Long Beach (10.31.05)
Part two: A Halloween to remember (11.01.05)
Part three: Rebuilding their homes, lives (11.02.05)
Part four: Life is an adventure (11.03.05)
Part five: The healing power of God (11.04.05)
Part six: Valley responds … or not (11.07.05)