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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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051024_blog_paper_1Sea Coast Echo News Editor Geoff Belcher published the paper's first post-Katrina edition from Kentucky. (Jim Seida / MSNBC.com)

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – Before they could cover the biggest story of their lives, Randy Ponder and Geoff Belcher had to save their own.

As Hurricane Katrina barreled toward their Gulf Coast community with torrential rains and howling winds, Belcher, news editor of Hancock County’s Sea Coast Echo, and his wife threw their dog and cat in the car and headed for higher ground. Ponder, the newspaper’s publisher, put flashlights and a chainsaw in his attic and watched the water rise in his Waveland rambler.

Then the storm came, wiping out hundreds of homes and businesses in Bay St. Louis and Waveland. Among them, the offices and printing plant of the Sea Coast Echo, the two-day-a-week newspaper that has served Hancock County since 1892.

Separated by the storm and unable to communicate, it would be days before Belcher and Ponder knew if the other was alive.

Belcher cut a deal with a newspaper where he had previously worked in Pikeville, Ken., and was able to produce a four-page, full-color special edition just days after the storm struck.

“I was printing the first paper and I didn’t know if Randy was still here,” the bespectacled, Marlboro-smoking Belcher recalled in an interview on the deck of the two-room apartment that is now serving as the Echo office. “It was going to press and I got a phone call: ‘Randy’s still alive.’”

'Ground Zero' edition

Soon, the 34-year employee of the Echo was on the streets, distributing Belcher’s special edition, headlined simply “Ground Zero,” by hand since there weren’t many sales racks left.

“It was a very emotional thing when people were getting that issue,” Ponder recalls. “People were stopping the cars, coming up and hugging us.”

Proudly, Ponder says, “We only missed one issue.”

But what was once the 7,800-circulation voice of the county, usually sporting 36 pages an issue with four to six lucrative advertising inserts is missing a lot more now.

051024_blog_paper_last_1 This copy of the last edition from before Katrina hit, dated Aug. 28, 2005, stares out of a mud-encrusted vending machine behind the paper's downtown Bay St. Louis offices. (Jim Seida / MSNBC.com)

First, there’s the office and printing plant at 124 Court St. It came through the hurricane’s winds intact, but Katrina’s storm surge sent four feet of seawater into the building, rendering $750,000 worth of equipment useless. “Totally gone,” says Ponder.

Computers, phones, files and most of the paper’s bound copies of its editions back to No. 1 also were destroyed.

With 80 to 90 percent of businesses destroyed, advertising is now “way, way, way, way down,” says Ponder, resulting in a product that at 20 pages is a shadow of its former self. And subscription cancellations have cut circulation to 5,500.

Staff members vanish

But the toughest loss is this: Of a pre-Katrina staff of 22 journalists, press operators, advertising and circulation people, and clerical help, “We have five people right now,” Ponder says, “and we are about to be down to four.

“A lot of folks lost everything they have and just have no reason to come back,” says Ponder, also the camera-carrying editor in chief of the Echo. “I don’t know what we’re going to do as far as people goes.”

As far as the printing plant and offices go, they’re already working on that. Ponder purchased some used presses that he thinks will be a good replacement for the eight-unit Color King that also printed other newspapers in the county, high school and college publications. After some modifications, he thinks the presses will roll within two months. He hopes the entire Echo staff will be back in its offices within six months.

In the meantime, he’s grateful to be able to print the much smaller version of the paper at the Picayune Item and thankful that the newspaper postponed a capital improvement program it had considered just prior to Katrina.

He also applauds the behind-the-scenes owner for what he considers extraordinary support of the staff -- continuing paychecks with no questions asked for a month, providing hotel rooms, food and other help.

Both Ponder and Belcher have plenty of Katrina issues in their personal lives, too. Belcher is living in a FEMA trailer as he tries to get the mold out of his Bay St. Louis house, which took on four feet of storm water. Ponder’s house, which also flooded, is livable, but heavily stacked with items he rescued from the Echo.

Mission remains the same

In the craft of community journalism, best know for long hours and low pay, Belcher believes his mission is no different than it always is: Give his readers “the most updated information as we possibly can” and “at the same time, tell people’s stories.” (Some of that news and those stories will appear on MSNBC.com's Rising from Ruin section).

He’ll also continue to act as watchdog over public agencies charged with leading the recovery efforts. Right now, he and Ponder have questions about the official death count in Hancock County. They believe it will go much higher.

Of the current total of 51, Ponder says, “You talk to anyone on the street and they’ll tell you that’s bull. You’ve seen the destruction. A lot of people stayed in those houses.”

Lighting another cigarette, Belcher nods at the wreckage piled in the streets below the Echo’s new headquarters.

“Every house you see here that has a survivor has a survivor story. We’ll probably be telling survivor’s stories for the next three years.”

Will he ever cover a bigger story? “I hope to God not.”


Randy Ponder shows off the secondhand presses that will replace the ones the Echo lost in the storm.

(Jim Seida / MSNBC.com)

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I was so touched by your article and your bravery and loyalty to your community that I had to fight back the tears. God Bless all of you in beautiful Bay St Louis and Waveland.. I hope you are able to rebuild and keep the wonderful old town spirit alive.... We always endearingly call the coast people mullet chasers.... Fun loving hard working folks..I hope to be able to go again to that good ole spot and have a sure nuff genuine POBOY sandwich.

Sylvia Sones

Does anyone know about Garcia's in Clermont Harbor?

I was in Biloxi/Bay St. Louis/Waveland 3 days after the hurricane as part of the Florida Task Force and assigned at the re-located Hancock EOC. I have the Sea Echo hurricane Katrina edition prominently displayed in my office in Tampa, FL. Keep up the good work.

Thank You for continuing to publish the Sea coast Echo in these trying times. I teach a Local Culture class to sixth graders at Hancock Middle School, I would like to have copies of the newspapers right after the storm to add to my "newspaper booklet", as a teaching tool. Please respond.

Personal to Randy Ponder:
What a journalist! Keep up the great work!
Your brother,

Sep 24, 2005, 12:44
That's the last Sea Coast Echo online...did you lose your website person? I had hoped to keep up with news and family and friends via your online paper but...

I appreciate all you've done - in fact, you handed us a couple of your papers as we were walking back from what was left of the Bay Bridge.


I also read the Sea Coast Echo on line and have since I moved to Plano 4 years ago. It was my way to keep in touch with my friends and family. I look forward to having the paper online again.
Thank you for your hard work and dedication. Hancock County continues to be in my prayers.


I am "one of the Labats" from Bay St. Louis. We grew up in New Orleans and have been living in New Jersey for 30 years. We visited "The Bay" often and purchased a protrait of my 102 yr old aunt ,"Teenie" from your Gallery. So good to hear of your commitment to rebuild "the Bay".

I just finished reading your story about the newspaper and the sacrifices many made. I cannot imagine the fortitude it must take to remain but I admire those who do. Hopefully, in the near future,I will be able to pass your way and see the progress that those who have remained are making.

As a native Bay St. Louisian. Me and daughter have recently relocated to Clinton, TN about 20 miles north of Knoxville after losing everything in Hurricane Katrina. I still have friends and family on coast. I too miss reading my hometown paper online. This was a way I kept up with the local news and people. I miss it but I understand. I admire you two Mr. Ponder and Mr. Belcher. What dedication and home town spirit you both demonstrate to the rest of us "hometown" folk. We can certainly learn a lesson from your pride and determination. Me and daughter were recently headlined on the front page of our local paper to tell our hurricane stories. Thought ya'll would appreciate that bit of journalism news.
Keep up the hard work and dedication. There are lots of people that support and appreciate ya'll.

I appreicate you keeping us informed of Bay St. Louis. I lived there for thirty years and relocated to Granbury, Texas. My parents Stan and Fran Cremer lost everything and decided to move to Texas. My daughter Mallory Webb decided that her home was BSL and she just moved back. BSL is in my prayers, it will always be my home.

We thought Bay St. Louis was a beautiful place, and often thought we'd like to have a home there one day.
Welook forward to the time when we can dream that dream again. Keep up the good work. As an old retired pr man, I've always admired the talent and dedication of community-paper people.

Hi my family and I stayed in Waveland for the storm so I know what you have been through, we have since relocated and depend on the sea coast echo for local news. Thanks for stayin alive.

We lived in the little yellow house next to the sheriff and down from the ECHO on Court Street. We were foolish and remained in the house and almost drowned. We were fortunate that the sheriff's dept. was so close. We have relocated to Canton, TX but miss all of our friends. Ed Young and his wife were very dear to us, please let us know how they are. I worked in Bay St. Louis on Main St. and pray all the great people we met and grew to love are well. I have been back a couple of times but due to health related problems will remain in Texas for the time being but my prayers are always of Bay St. Louis
Jinks and Michael Welch

As a spokes person for MS I will make sure that everyone in NYC knows the struggle of the press and its undying love for communications. This fall 2006, IMPACT will host a multidisciplinary forum of the stories from the Gulf Coast. If you have a poem, story, pictures that you would like me to take to NYC please contact me by email. These items will be assembled in a gallery display near Grand Central Station on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Thanks for all of your dedication.

It is great to here news about the Bay. We were in Biloxi at Keesler for the storm and now live in Tucson. I grew up in BSL and fell in love with the area right of the bat. I grew up in a home on S. Beach Blvd. which we thought would stand forever. It did not and neither did the home we later lived in on Ramoneda. I have lived in close to a dozen different cities throughout my life, but none come close to BSL. From fishing and crabbing along the beach to late night floundering and bonefires, the Bay was a special place to live. For those of you who have never seen the Bay, it was a wonderful little city with Oak lines streets, some over 200 years old. It was a great place to live and grow up. I hope it will again be such a place and that it will keep the small city
character for which it is famous.

My husband, Leroy Noto, a native of Bay St. Louis and I were married in the little white Methodist Church on 2nd Street in 1956. We were happy to see from pictures that the church still stands as does his family home on State and 2nd Street. We both mourn the loss of so much of Bay St. Louis and Waveland. We saw the aftermath of Camille a few weeks after but have not yet been to the Bay. God Bless you all, our hearts are with you.

My husband, Leroy Noto and I took a drive from the Beau Rivage last week to see for ourselves how the Bay fared. Even with all the photographs on the tv news and in the newspapers we were not prepared for the devestation of the Beach Road, even the old Breath home is completely gone. That home had withstood many hurricanes. The Noto home on 2nd Street stood but has a new roof. The Farve home was heavily damaged. The "Bay" as it was will always live in our hearts. It is our hope that she will be restored. Bettye McIntosh Noto

Can anyone send me a copy of "The Nothing" that appeared on June 3rd? I have a website dedicated to getting help to the people of Mississippi. Too many have forgotten already what your lives are still like. God Bless you all.

i do appreciate the things you do for the people down there this is amazing how we can over come some disasterious thing like this keep up the good work and continue doing and being the best you could be you are truely appreciated


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