WAVELAND, Miss. -- The building blocks of John and Pat Ellis’ future lie in the rubble of their 4,000-square-foot rambler, leveled seven weeks ago by the winds and waves of Hurricane Katrina.
“Our interest right now is saving the brick,” says John Ellis as he roams his debris-covered acre-plus lot on Waveland’s Nicholson Avenue. “It’s old Chicago brick.”
The sand-colored blocks were once an elegant façade on the Ellises’ 30-year-old home, whose U-shaped floor plan enclosed a courtyard beneath a ceiling of live oaks. Unsure of just what the days, months and years ahead hold in terms of rebuilding their lives and their home, the couple is certain of one thing: the bricks will be part of the new structure, spanning the gaping void left by a storm that took virtually all of their belongings.
John, 63, and Pat, 58, are among the first residents of Waveland who lost everything to return to their land, struggling to move forward in a landscape that looks more like the result of an atom bomb than a natural disaster.
“We came back to just total, total devastation,” Pat says. “Nothing is standing” in what was once a neighborhood of $300,000 to $500,000 homes just a few hundred yards from the gulf shore.
“The furniture is not to be seen,” says Pat. “There’s automobiles that do not belong to us, the roofs on our lot do not belong to us. … This roof right here is from next door. That’s our roof way over there.”
From their property, the Ellis' can see pieces of their home on a neighbor's lot. (Jim Seida / MSNBC.com)
Waveland will come back, John believes, but “it’s going to be a solid year before we can stand on our own two feet and say, ‘We can take it from here.’”
Since the storm, the couple has been staying in a pair of tents pitched amid piles of wreckage and reclaimed bricks. They admit they are luckier than many storm victims: Because John, a civilian oceanographer with the Navy, has a long-term assignment in Norfolk, Va., they own a condo there. But it’s furnished with mismatched, hand-me-down items, more of a hotel room to them than a home; all but a few of their most-cherished belongings perished with the Waveland home.
On Tuesday, the Ellises were scheduled for a big improvement in their new lifestyle. They were off to take possession of a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, awaiting them in nearby Buccaneer State Park. They weren’t allowed to have the trailer on their own property because of a lack of utilities in the neighborhood, but the roof and walls and indoor plumbing will be a welcome respite from the thin nylon tents that have been home beneath the relentless October sun.
As they chatted with friends and neighbors just before leaving to collect the keys, the tanned, athletic-looking couple talked about how, in John’s words, Katrina “kind of changed our entire outlook.”
For starters, they have been almost overwhelmed by the assistance offered by churches and other private relief organizations. This week, a trio of church volunteers from Washington state stopped by and helped the couple gather and clean bricks, piling up thousands in a few hours.
And John is pretty sure he’ll retire soon, a year or so earlier than they were planning, so they can oversee the cleanup of their lot, due to begin next week under the auspices of the Army Corps of Engineers. Then, they’ll spend a few months away, likely with a daughter in Alaska, before returning to see what they are allowed to rebuild.
Pat Ellis and her husband are salvaging thousands of old bricks from the rubble of their destryoed home. They'll use the bricks in a new residence on the same property. (Jim Seida / MSNBC.com)
Money will be a big factor. John says the company that carried their homeowners insurance is refusing to pay a cent, saying the damage was all caused by flooding, acting in lockstep with other insurers and raising his suspicions of collusion. They did have flood insurance, which he says will give them “30 cents on the dollar,” or $131,000 to replace a house valued at over $400,000.
While the couple is not worried much about their personal plight, they are concerned that as news coverage of the disaster fades, so will relief efforts. “Pat and I will be fine,” John says, but “we have some people along this coast who really depend on this.”
Adds Pat: “There’s a lot of people that are hurting a lot worse than we are, I guarantee you that.”
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