Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Pearlington 2010

My website is under re-design and I sure hope you are getting this. Until I can get the “Website Tonight” (that has so far taken me about 12 “tonights”) the only way to access the blog is through Blogspot. But here you are, so one of us must be doing something right. I’ll continue the report on my visit to New Orleans and Mississippi.

First, I need to update you on some of the questions I had in my post last week about the new houses in the Ninth Ward. I noticed wavy lengths of metal but couldn’t figure out their purpose. Here’s the explanation from Kim Dungey, a regular volunteer and the mother of Heather who has managed volunteer camps on the coast for a couple of years now: (I’m just going to cut and paste. It may be long but every word is worth it.)

"I was there last month. The swooping lines on the Make it Right houses are like louvres - they let the low winter sun in, but keep the hot summer sun out - and the swoop channels water into the rain garden at back of the house.

… a handful of us ended up being invited inside Robert's new house - complete with a trip up the spiral staircase in his bedroom to an outside balcony way higher than the flood waters - so no one needs to keep an axe in the attic to escape the next hurricane. Robert even asked if anyone wanted to use the bathroom - such is southern hospitality! Robert said his utility bill in the old house was $300 a month, the FEMA trailer $180 and in the new house, less than $100. No wiring from light switches to lights - it's all wireless. Special carpets that don't provoke allergies or Robert's asthma. We left, went back to our car, and by the time we drove past Robert's Tennessee Ave house, he was engaged in conversation with some OTHER people. I bet if you stop by next time you're in NOLA, he'd have you in for a chat, or the bathroom, or maybe even lunch."

That cleared up the Ninth Ward design questions. Some of them-- Lord knows what else they put into these state-of-the-art houses. A far cry from the historical shotgun houses. I’ve said many times that we can never give people their history back but we are giving them a whole new history with it's own beautiful stories.

Saturday morning I drove to Pearlington where I had managed the Volunteer Village in 2008. I picked up a coffee cake at the store and Jan made cappuccino.
Jan was my roommate when we evacuated from Hurricane Gustav. She and her two dogs and I shared one of the trailers we drove up to Jackson for a few days until the storm blew over. She was also one of the “Pod Nazis” I talk about in the book. For anyone who ever wondered how long the corrugated plastic tents would last I can only say that the only reason they lasted as long as they did is because Jan took such good care of them. The term “Pod Nazi” may not be politically correct but it was the only way I could emphasize how strict she was in their care.

It was good to see John looking so healthy. John was the guy in my book who did all the electrical work on the camps. During the two years I was in Mississippi I watched his knees give him more and more trouble and he spent an increasing amount of time in his truck rather than walking around. He designed and directed the construction of the Pearlington kitchen by remote control, using such clear directions like , “Take that board and mark three inches from the end and drill a hole there…” His knees eventually got bad enough he had surgery to replace them both. The first one went perfect but there was some extremely rare complication with the second replacement and they ended up amputating the leg. Consequently, he’s still not walking around much these days until he gets some experience with his prosthesis but at least he’s out of pain.

The town looks great. They’ve put in pipes and water hydrants in order to have a water system in Pearlington. But it isn’t hooked up yet. When it’s all finished I understand that everyone will have water and sewage in Pearlington. Then they will take out the septic tanks. This is a kind of scary proposition for the town since the wells and septic tanks have always given everyone a degree of independence. Your neighbors’ water pumps might go out but yours might still work. This would tie them all together.

After coffee and conversation I went to lunch. I shouldn’t admit it but one of the things that was very important to me was visiting Rickey’s restaurant in Bay St Louis. They make a seafood au gratin that is out of this world. I wanted to savor each bite so I made sure I was alone. Conversation can be very distracting when you have friends as interesting as mine. I had bread pudding and coffee for dessert. It was delicious. I was happy. I wasn’t hungry again for the next 24 hours. This interfered with my plans for dinner at BB’s BBQ Shack in Waveland. Too many choices and not enough time. I had deliberately scheduled this trip around the dates I knew my favorite restaurants were open. Guess this means another trip.

After lunch I went by to see Dallas. She’s been working at a brand new Dollar Store helping stock the store and now they’ve asked her to stay on and work there. Her grandson was there and he wanted to build a bookshelf. So periodically she would stop and measure or nail something. I’ve known this kid about two years now and it was amazing to see how much he’s grown. And it’s also wonderful to see how comfortable the two of them are with each other.
I could have stayed all day (or as long as the Dr Peppers lasted) but I needed to keep moving if I wanted to see everyone.

I left and went by to see Shirley Thompson. Not much was new with Shirley. She gave me the scoop on the new church in town. It’s housed in the same building that IDES (International Disaster Emergency Services) was using to stage their materials. The Mennonites who came to work on the recovery stayed in that building as well as several small buildings in the back. The grassy area I was used to seeing roof trusses stacked up is now empty.

Shirley is a member of the Methodist church but they don’t meet on a weekly basis. So Shirley loves to catch worship at other churches and it doesn't matter what denomination. I like to say she “worships around.” I wondered to her if the town could support another church. Shirley counted them off to me as the five “black” churches and four “white” churches. So segregation is still a fact of life and Shirley sounded comfortable with that. (And even though these churches have a majority of one race I’ve seen for myself that most of them aren’t exclusively one race.) I didn’t ask nor get a feel for whether this new church is white or black. So I really have no idea. It’s called the Pearlington Christian Church and the new pastor’s name is John. And that’s about as much as I know about it. He leads a bible study that Shirley really enjoys. Does that make it a black church? Or maybe just Christian?

The Community Center is finished and in use. I don’t like the color they’ve painted it but nobody asked me. Shirley says it’s used a lot.

It looks like there’s a second wave of construction going on here. They’ve pretty much finished with the remodeling and construction of houses. Now some of the houses, old as well as new, are being elevated. I think there is a separate government grant to help pay for this. I remembered the storm surge that came in 2008 with hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The elevation of houses will lift them out of this flood level. And it was spooky to see a house looking exactly the same but ten feet higher off the ground.

Pearlington is so close to getting everything done; getting as rebuilt and storm-proofed as it can be. I can see the finish line. They still don’t have a restaurant or a store but maybe they’re close enough to Slidell that it isn’t important. Someone from outside has bought one of the empty houses and moved into it. Tiny signs of becoming normal again.

My last stop with to see Miss Susie Burton. At the end of my book Shirley Thompson had found an organization that was going to build Miss Susie a new house. Not only is it big, it’s high off the ground--probably twelve feet off the ground. So high you can walk around underneath it. A lot of people use this area for a carport. You can’t enclose it because it would resist storm surge and the waves would carry your house away. I found Miss Susie and Mr. Josh sitting under the house in the shade. And I saw people working on her yard. When I called out to her as I was walking up I could tell she remembered me. I got one of her great hugs that finished with a little kiss on my neck. Miss Susie has a bristly little old lady’s mustache and it always tickles a bit. She had her wig on so I knew she was ready to receive visitors. Mr. Josh sat there in his wheelchair looking a little frailer than I remembered. But he was out of bed and that counts for something. We all joked about me giving him a hug without permission from Miss Susie.

The people working in her yard gave us some time to visit before they stopped for a break to come check me out. I met Miss Susie’s niece, Ada, and her husband and about three of their tall and healthy looking sons. I think Ada told me there were eight in all. This is Miss Susie’s sister’s daughter. Ada told me her mother’s had told her to always take care of Susie because she had been so good to them when they were growing up. It was a big relief to know she had family who were watching out for her. And I couldn’t help but notice they were having as much trouble as I had trying to throw things away. Miss Susie didn’t want to throw anything away, no matter how old, tattered or useless it was. And, as always, she had a smoke fire going to repel gnats and mosquitoes. It just wouldn't be the same at her house without a fire in the yard.
I wrote in my book that “the storm changed Miss Susie.” I wish I could have met her in her prime. I can tell she must have been a dynamic woman then.

One interesting note before I leave you-- and it might be the final joke Katrina played on us all: I got a GPS when I was working in Pearlington in 2008. It gave me a sense of freedom that I could drive around without getting lost. But I found some of the Pre-Katrina buildings were gone. I plugged into the GPS one day to take me to the closest Walmart and it took me to an empty concrete lot. Katrina had destroyed the store and it had been bulldozed. So, before I made this trip I told Beaven I needed the most recent update to the map in the GPS, the one that would eliminate all the buildings Katrina had destroyed. I didn’t want to end up at more empty concrete slabs like in the past. So we spent half a day downloading bits and bytes then transferring it all to the GPS. I was equipped with all the current info on what was still there and what was gone.

But once I got to New Orleans I started seeing stores that weren’t in my updated Garmin GPS. I drove past a brand new Walmart that seemed vaguely familiar. I had driven out to this corner once before when the Garmin told me there was a Walmart but I had only found an empty concrete slab that day. My new and most current GPA now told me there wasn’t a store there. Katrina had destroyed it. But now there was a brand new on the old site and the GPS didn’t know it yet.

We’re on the other side of outdated maps. Two years ago my GPS was outdated because of the things Katrina had taken away. Now my GPS is outdated because of what people are putting back. Thanks be to God.

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