Jeanette Lynn Lusich sweeps the tarp that is the floor in her open-air living room. Her family is still living in tents in the aftermath of Katrina. Click 'Play' for an audio slide show.
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – Let’s get one thing straight right now. Jeanette Lynn Lusich is not a complainer. Nope, she’s about as cheerful as you could expect a body to be after losing most of her possessions and a home that had sheltered four generations of her family. But living in tents for five weeks is getting old.
“I can’t understand this,” says the 48-year-old homemaker and mother of two teen-age sons who has been waiting to get a trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency since shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck. “There’s so many stories, you don’t know who to believe anymore.”
Drive west of the Hancock County seat a few miles to the Lakeshore area – it’s still a Bay St. Louis mailing address – and you’ll find the Lusiches and most everything they have left spread out beneath a pair of sprawling oaks.
A tarp is the floor of their outdoor living room where they can watch TV when the sun’s not shining too brightly to blot out the screen. A camp stove, a few battered ice chests and a pair of barbecues serve as the kitchen. They have a bucket for a bathroom, carefully surrounded for privacy with plastic tarps. A makeshift shower – cold water only – hangs inside the same enclosure. The rest of what is left of their 28 years in the house lies in piles beneath the trees.
And then there are the tents. Jeanette and her husband, Dale, a carpenter and maintenance man, share the largest, a gift from the Rotary club by way of their county supervisor. The big green nylon dome sports a queen-sized airbed and a few neat stacks of clothes and bedding. A shotgun lies on the plastic floor. Dale Jr., 19, has his own tent, while Clint, 15, shares one with the food. The family keeps what is left of its clothing in a fourth tent.
That they have these things to keep themselves as comfortable as they can is a matter of their foresight as they fled the oncoming Katrina that last weekend of August. They piled what they could in Jeanette’s car, Dale’s truck and a boat.
“We took our camping equipment because we go camping,” says Jeanette. “But mama, we’ve never gone camping this long,” chimes in Clint, a curly-haired, lanky youth with faux diamonds the size and shape of Chiclets pinned to each ear.
They hunkered down in Bay St. Louis proper with longtime friends Starbrenda and Patrick Tustin and rode out the storm. When they returned to their three acres, the simple white three-bedroom, one-bath, 100-year-old home that had come down through the family from Dale’s grandma had been shoved off its foundation blocks by 20 or 30 feet. It was a total loss. They spray-painted their Lower Bay Road address on the door along with the message “We’ll be back.”
They heard about the travel trailers that FEMA was bringing to homeless Katrina survivors and started calling the agency to get in the system.
“We tried and tried and it took us two weeks before we got through,” recalls Jeanette as she stands on the dusty tarp in a neat denim dress, her sandals showing off carefully painted pink toenails. “Then we got a number and my husband went … and signed up for the trailer.” Near as she and the Tustins, who are frequent visitors to the encampment, can recall, that was mid-September.
Then they set up the tents, moved back to their land with their chocolate Lab Cocoa and started waiting.
It got a bit confusing. They were told they had to have utilities before the trailer would be delivered. So with their own funds they had a temporary electric service installed. But then they were told FEMA was supposed to handle that. Agency workers or contractors did show up recently to run water and sewer lines to the site that awaits their trailer and one for Dale’s dad and step mom.
The last she heard from FEMA, on Saturday, was that she could expect to see her trailer any time.
“They say that,” Jeanette says, but they’ve said that before.
“She’s on the list.” Starbrenda Tustin says, rolling her eyes.
“That’s all they know,” Jeannette says. “Any time. You’re on the list.”
So they’re still waiting.
“The worst thing about it is the bugs,” says Jeanette as Clint, who lost most of his drum kit to Katrina, knocks out some licks on a practice pad.
Also, “I love to cook and I can’t cook.” She likes to keep house, too. “I can tidy up the tent, but that’s about it. I can’t do it like I want to, but nobody can.” She doesn’t think the trailer will be a great substitute for the house, but hopes “it’ll be somewhere where I can stay out of the weather. … I’m tired of getting sunburned. “
That handful of minor irritations is the worst she has to say about her family’s plight, though. “If you let yourself go and get down, you’re not going to be able to do anything. You’re going to be miserable.”
And miserable is one thing she refuses to be, although she has great sadness for the loss of her home and even greater uncertainty about what will ultimately replace it since the family had no insurance.
“I tell Dale, I don’t want to go near the house. I can’t. It upsets me. It’s not going to be there anymore.”
But the Lusiches are not complainers. When the trailer comes, fine. In the meantime, here they’ll be, beneath the oaks, keeping house as best they can and looking squarely to the future.
“Thanks for interviewing us,” Clint says politely.
“Take care,” calls Jeannette Lynn in a voice as warm and southern as the late October breeze that carries it through the woods. “We love you.”
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