Looking for Hope

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 29, 2006

Residents of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Miss., continue to dig out from under the debris, five months after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast.

By Tammy Leytham

The Selma Times-Journal

WAVELAND, Miss. – Debby Plauche knows God is trying to tell her something. She’s just not sure what.

Plauche lives in Waveland, Miss. She lost her home and her business when Hurricane Katrina came ashore at the Mississippi/Louisiana line on Aug. 29, 2005.

Five months after the hurricane, Plauche is still shell-shocked from the ordeal. “I am remembering to take a lot of deep breaths and trying to give it to God,” she said Friday as volunteer crews from the First Baptist Church of Selma worked on removing debris from the inside of Caf Reef, the restaurant on U.S. Highway 90 that Plauche has operated for 15 years.

The restaurant had five feet of water in it during the storm. Plauche’s house took on 13 feet of water.

“It’s awesome to imagine this thing was almost five months ago,” she said. “Everything has taken so long.”

Ground Zero

Waveland, with a population of 7,000, was virtually wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. It is estimated that 50 people died in Waveland during the storm.

Just about every home south of Highway 90 has some damage.

Most of the homes within a half mile of the beach are gone. Nothing remains but slabs of concrete, a few flattened cars and pilings of what were once beachfront homes.

City Hall is gone. So is the American Legion building.

All of the city’s operations have been conducted out of a complex of metal, portable buildings a couple of blocks from the city hall’s previous location since Oct. 22.

Few businesses have re-opened on Highway 90, the main business thoroughfare.Most of the convenience stores and gas stations are still closed. Many of the businesses that are open operate out of trailers. Even the Wal-Mart is an abbreviated version of its former facility, with plywood sectioning off a small store mostly stocked with cleaning supplies, mattresses and used washing machines.

There are still people in Hancock County living in tents, said one Waveland fire fighter, who added that the biggest need right now is to get those people into shelter.

“But, things are getting better every day,” he said.

Helping Out

Charley Elgin and his wife Martie coordinate the Waveland Baptist Disaster Response effort in Waveland. They are operating out of tents and portable buildings set up on the site of the Shoreline Park Baptist Church, which took on 29 feet of water during the storm.

The church is now gutted and worshippers gather in a tent for Sunday services.

As for the recovery effort, the Elgins believe the Lord has provided everything they have needed. “We’ve always known and seen how God provides,” said Martie Elgin. “What we’ve seen here is that he’s a just-in-time God. Just when we need it, he sends it.”

That has been true for the construction of bunkhouses on site, as well as an office, kitchen and bathroom facilities, all used by volunteers.

The recovery effort has seen 600 of those volunteers pass through its camp since the Elgins arrived. Most of those are church groups from across the country, but there have also been individuals who just stop by and want to help.

Among those volunteers this week was a group of about 20 members of the First Baptist Church of Selma.

While one of the crews from First Baptist Selma helped Plauche clean out Caf Reef, another crew helped clean out sheetrock, roofing and debris from the home of an elderly man.

“I think the best thing to me was meeting the home owner,” Beth Mott said of her volunteer efforts. Mott spent two days with a crew of five volunteers “mudding out” the man’s home. “Just seeing his determination – even at the age of 88 – he’s determined to rebuild his home.”

Currently, the home owner is staying with his nephew in New Orleans. He wants to come back to Waveland, but his home is not safe, though FEMA says it’s livable and that he doesn’t qualify for a trailer.

Another crew from First Baptist Selma helped build storage “pods.” For the folks living in FEMA trailers, with no way to keep their belongings out of the weather, the pods are heaven-sent. Before delivering the pods, crew members write a Bible verse on the door (Matthew 22:37-39) and place a plastic-wrapped Bible inside the unit.

Crews construct anywhere from four to six each day, but it’s not enough.

Charley Elgin said there are more than 500 people on the list to receive the pods. “The only criteria is that they are in a FEMA trailer,” he said. Each day, Hancock County residents drive by and ask how to get on the list for one of the units, but organizers are no longer taking names.

While First Baptist Selma’s youth minister Larry Hyche led the mission team, the church’s pastor, Jack Lovelace was along as a volunteer. “It’s worse than what you think,” he said of conditions in Hancock County. “The need is great. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be a long time before this place gets back.”

Lovelace added that he’s realized “we’re fortunate in Selma. We have power, water, restrooms. When you think it’s bad, it’s really not.”

While volunteers are sometimes overcome by how great the need is, Martie Elgin has seen progress. She said the recovery effort is in a transition period right now. “We’re still doing mud-outs,” she said. “But we’re beginning to do construction – installing sheetrock and insulation and some roofing.”

What Now?

After staying with a family in George County, Miss., then with a friend in Slidell, Plauche and her six-year-old daughter, Cairo, are now back in Waveland, living in a FEMA trailer that sits on her property.

“I have a Barbie-size kitchen, a Barbie-size bathroom,” she said.

Cairo started back at Bay Catholic School in January. “She wanted to be here. I explained to her that everything was different,” said Plauche, who added that Cairo is handling things very well.

While their house is still standing, the family can’t occupy it. Though the home is insured there are questions about the flood elevation. She can’t get a building permit yet and Plauche is discovering how slow the paperwork process is. “I feel like I’ve personally been ineffective because I didn’t know what to do.”

Katrina came ashore on a Monday morning. By Wednesday, Plauche was able to get back home. “I expected to be able to open (the restaurant),” she said.

Like everyone else, she was surprised by what she saw when she returned to Waveland. “The mayor – the EOC people. Everyone was walking around in a daze. It was unbelievable,” she said. “People were in the same clothes they rode out the storm in.”

Plauche hired some people to clean out her restaurant, but a sheriff’s department from Florida told them to leave because they didn’t have written permission to be there.

“After that, the whole system broke down,” she said. “There was no mail. No communication. I couldn’t get in to see EOC.”

As she watches the volunteer crew remove debris from the restaurant, she

still expresses disbelief in the events that have transpired during the past five months.

“I never expected 13 feet of water in my house. I never expected five feet here,” she said of Caf Reef.

For now, she’s taking things one day at a time.

“I don’t know if God’s trying to tell me to get out of the restaurant business,” she said. “I kind of feel like I’m supposed to be in Waveland.”

She says what she needs most is direction. That, and maybe some sand and fill dirt. “I know it sounds silly, but mud surrounds me. I just need some way to dry up the mud.”

Bay St. Louis

Just a few miles east of Waveland is the city of Bay St. Louis, which was also dealt a heavy blow by Katrina.

But you wouldn’t know that at the Child Development Center on Washington Street where on Friday children filled the playground.

The Center, operated by the Hancock County Human Resources Agency, is the only public day care facility currently open in the county.

The Center reopened in October with about a third of its regular students, said Ronia Peterson. They now average about 50 children, more than they had prior to the storm.

Of the Center’s 10 employees, Peterson is the only one who did not lose her home in Katrina. She had 38 family members living in her three bedroom, one bath home during the weeks and months following the storm.

Sallie West, director of the Center, was taking a day off work Friday – the first chance she and her husband have had to clean up at their home, which was damaged by the storm.

She and her husband, along with their two children, ages 10 and 11, are living in a FEMA trailer.

“It’s very stressful,” West said.

“I have great employees. Everyone goes home and has to deal with their FEMA trailer life. It’s been a test of their patience and their commitment to early childhood education,” she said of her staff. “It would be so easy for everyone to throw their hands up and just give up.”

Many of those who lost their homes, including West and her husband, still had a mortgage to pay after the insurance company paid them off.

“That’s the biggest obstacle for a lot of people, including myself and my family. It’s that a lot of people have found themselves with a mortgage, but no home … We talked to a financial advisor and the only option is to save and rebuild,” she said.

“Everything has been a waiting process,” she said. “Right now, our biggest priority is to get our two children out of the FEMA trailer.”

There have been blessings.

A group – the Main Street Methodists – called West and said they would provide the volunteer labor to rebuild her home if she would provide the materials.

West said what has made a difference is people coming down and volunteering their time and donating materials.

“It’s definitely going to help,” she said. “It gives a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Katrina has brought another blessing for the childcare center as well. Peterson said a group from Pennsylvania heard about the center – which got six inches of rain from the storm – and has committed to building a new facility away from the beach on Highway 603.

Other businesses in Bay St. Louis have not been as fortunate as the Center. Many of the downtown buildings that housed restaurants and shops are now crumbled shells. The beach front road has been washed away. In Bay St. Louis, as in Waveland, there are rows and rows of FEMA trailers sitting on slabs that once held houses.

Back in Waveland, Plauche may not be certain what the future holds, but she’s getting ready for it.

“I knew God was with me. I don’t know what I did to deserve God in my life,” she said. “But, I really felt like he was with me. I’m trying to keep a pretty good attitude. It’s a continuing adventure.”

For more information on Waveland Baptist Disaster Response, check out the Web site at wavelandbaptistdisasterreponse.org or e-mail Marti Elgin at .