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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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New Waveland Café volunteers serve food for a community Thanksgiving meal.

This isn't their first Thanksgiving and it won't be their last; it just may be their most memorable. 

All along the Gulf Coast, families and whole communities are celebrating the fact that they are simply alive.  Three months ago when Hurricane Katrina blew this region apart, shattering property, people and their prosperity, being alive was far from a given.

And here in the tiny Mississippi towns of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, where Katrina unleashed the brunt of her wrath, where people are picking up, literally, the pieces of their lives, they are not all that unlike the original Pilgrims, striving against the forces of nature to carve out new lives.

And so on this day, the people of these small towns came together in public places to share in a Thanksgiving feast not even imaginable just a few weeks ago. 

A breather, a break, a respite, a haven, safe-harbor.  Salvation.  All these were words used by those attending today's public offerings in Waveland and Bay St. Louis to describe how they felt about receiving a free Thanksgiving dinner.

At the New Waveland Cafe, preparations start at 5:30 a.m. for a brunch to be followed later in the day by traditional Thanksgiving fare. As people file into the cafe for brunch, Joe Cocker's "A Little Help From My Friends" blares away in the background.  On the chorus people join in, loudly, becoming a spontaneous, if slightly off-key, back-up choir.

Ray Acosta sits drinking coffee. His weathered face and tired, raspy voice speak volumes.  "The people here have helped smooth out the rough edges," he says.  A senior citizen, Acosta notes that "Southern people are social people."  One of the things this cafe has done is give him and his wife, Cookie, a means to recapture a part of their pre-Katrina lives:  a daily gathering place for friends to catch up.  "Thanksgiving Day doesn't mean didalee-sqaut," he says.  "It's the day-to-day socializing that's important for us here."

The feast at New Waveland Cafe is a bittersweet one; in just two days, the entire complex of free goods and services that has built up around the cafe will be torn down.  And that worries a lot of people.

"The hardest part of Katrina hasn't even hit yet," said Terry Zimmerman of Waveland.  "That will happen two weeks after all these groups [offering free meals] have left and there's nowhere to turn.  We're really gonna miss them," he said. 

For others, like Michael Necaise, who often sleeps in his truck, this Thanksgiving meal is a heartbeat away from the reality of tomorrow:  "When this places closes, if I can't find some place else like it, I'll just pull out and leave," he says.

Feast turns into festival

In neighboring Bay St. Louis, a small army of yellow-shirted volunteers moves down a line of food servers in assembly line fashion.  They file out from under an open big top tent carrying trays containing plates of turkey, ham, yams, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing and rolls to people waiting at picnic tables for their meals. 

Meanwhile, a group of folks from CityTeam ministries, a San Jose, Calif.-based organization, are packing up meals to go for those who can't stay.  The group even loaded up a minivan and made deliveries to people that couldn't drive or were disabled in some way, and not able to attend.  One of their deliveries included a carrying a batch of meals to an assisted-living facility in the area.

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Yellow-shirted Calvary Chapel volunteers serve drinks and food at the Depot in Bay St. Louis.

Outside the train depot in downtown Bay St. Louis, which is now the de facto heart of city administration and county relief efforts, the Thanksgiving Day feast has all the trappings of a festival.  A stage for live music dominates the eating area.  There are inflated "bounce-arounds" set up for the children to romp on.  A face-painting booth was doing brisk business even before the official 11 o'clock start of the dinner.  Balloons for the kids were everywhere and even Clifford the Big Red Dog showed up, followed shortly by Superman and Mr. Incredible.   (Hot Tip:  Tomorrow, MSNBC.com has learned, Santa will be at the train depot, as well.)

And everywhere you turn, there are people with stories of amazing survival and endurance.  Like Derek Miller and his family.  Miller came to Bay St. Louis 13 years ago and lived in the KOA campground in a trailer.   Just eight months ago, he managed to put enough money together to buy a house.  It was obliterated by Katrina.  "Now I'm back to living in a camper at the KOA campground," Miller said, "not 50 feet from where I first started.  Am I thankful for this meal?  It goes without saying."

Then there's Ron and Dawn Laabs and their eight kids, four of whom are adopted.  The  Laabs actually left a profitable office supply goods business in Senatobia, Miss., to move to Bay St. Louis AFTER the hurricane hit, "to help the people rebuild," Laabs said. 

"I felt like the Lord called us here," Laabs said.  "I tried to talk myself out it, but God kept calling."  So he packed up the family and moved; his parents are running his business.   For the Laabs, the move isn't temporary.  "This is our home now," Dawn says, admitting she misses the newly remodeled house they left behind and have now put on the market for sale.  Their kids are now enrolled in school in Bay St. Louis.  "This is where we're staying," she said.  And so the Thanksgiving meal at the train depot takes on even more meaning for her and her family; they would have no other way of fixing dinner.  They currently live in a house they have committed to rebuild.  "And we don't even have a kitchen yet," she said.

For Kelley Kelley of Bay St. Louis the day's festivities meant nothing less profound than providing a good measure of hope.  "For anyone on the verge of giving up, of thinking it's not worth staying, that things are too overwhelming, this day helps us believe that everything will be alright after all," she said. 

Overcome with emotion, Kelley began to cry when describing how it made her feel that people would step outside their own busy lives to come help.  A small, face-painted flower began to dissolve down her left cheek as a trail of tears ran through it.  "Today has given us a moment of normalcy," she said.

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18 COMMENTS

As I've read these blogs over the past few weeks I've felt a lot of hardness and bruises I've carried over the years disappear--If anything good can come from these storms I've learned from the faces and stories of these survivors and the volunteers that this isn't the human "race"-We're all in this together and we gotta help each other to the finish -line. Age,color nor religion should separate us-There are no 'Red States,Blue States'-These are the Red,White and Blue States of America-If Anne Frank could still feel that 'all people are good' why should we find it so hard to accecpt? As my grandmother often said 'If everybody was blind,nobody would know who to hate'-Bless each of us,and may we never forget the lessions of this tragedy.

people helping people...it's beautifal...you go guys

I want to give a big shout out to turtle soupers who are down in Waveland. Much love from your Rainbow family in Michigan. I promise I'll kick out some mad eats in Colorado for y'all. Lovin you! *E*

Thanks to all at the New Waveland Cafe! You made our stay in Mississippi the week of Thanksgiving most memorable and made our stomachs happy every time we shared meals together. Your untiring service and love for mankind is overwhelming and obvious, and the folks of Waveland I'm sure will miss your love and kindness to them. May God bless your efforts in St. Bernard Parish in New Orleans while you are there!

Love,

Your friends and volunteers of Operation Safeplace/Project KID

I just got back from a week of helping out in Long Beach and Pass Christian. The heart ache and despair I felt because I had to leave those people to fend for themselves is a lot for me to handle. That area of the coast isn't getting the attention that New Orleans got in 1 day. The Mississippi coast is what got the full brunt of the storm surge. I keep looking for information on Long Beach and their status. Very little is found. I hope the dinners and assistants we gave told those people there that they are not alone. We are coming back.

I just wanted to say thank you to the Calvary Chapel volunteers. They were wonderful and made it truly a Thanksgiving Day for us in Bay St. Louis. They even thought to set up a portrait place and take family photos so that we could begin to replace the ones we lost. There were people volunteering from as far away as Japan to keep our hope for community and rebuilding going.

Someone was looking for information about Long Beach - I live here and it's OK if you are in an area where there was not so much destruction. Some people have been able to get back in their houses that are the furtherest ones off of Hwy. 90, the ones closer to Railroad St. There are some street lights back on, looks like down to about the 2nd or 3rd houses on those streets that run north south from Hwy. 90. Our house is 4 blocks from where the water stopped, lots of roof damage, big trees down. It seems that there was less structures taken down by surge, more damage because of wind. I know that everyone thinks there town was hurt very hard but nothing compares to the damage in Bay/Waveland AREA and Pass Christian when it comes to the sheer volumn of destruction and buildings that are totally gone. In Long Beach there are two large grocery stores open and Walgreens Drug Store, schools are OK. I would say that many of us living in Long Beach are VERY lucky. If you want info on a daily basis try wlox.com, sunherald.com. More info from katrina.passchristian.net, arloandjanis.com, femaforgotwaveland.com, if you are concerned about the companiion animals try hssm.org.

My 16 year old son and I just returned from 9 days at the Waveland Cafe. Not only did we help at the kitchen but found our way into the community step by step. Yes there are many many people who appreciated our help and expressed great love for the kitchen and distribution center. Truly they show us all how to drop the walls of separation. It was a beautiful experience. I would encourage anyone with a little time to try to get there. Other organizations are setting up now to help volunteers connect with the work that needs to be done. There is also a need for paid workers if winter is slowing you down here in the northland. I promised one resident that we helped that she was not forgotten. Others would come.

Just want to give a special thanks to everyone who helped make the New Waveland Cafe happen. Many of us really didn't want to leave such a magical place, much less have to take our "village" apart. Some have even found other outlets to continue helping our new family members in Waveland. Our next project is taking us to nearby Arabi/Challmette, La in St. Bernard Parish. Our new kitchen, some of us are calling the "Pearl Harbor Grill", will serve it's first meal on December 7, 2005. Please continue to support ongoing efforts to provide relief for our brothers and sisters all along the gulf coast. Emergencycommunities.org

Dear Honey Spoon, Deanna here. I was glad to see you made it. Sad to see how it is. I am displaced with Rebekah. Our house is completely leveled in Clermont. I got mom and dad out, they are in Texas. I worry of Dina's fate. I hope your brother is okay. I will try to find you when I come home. We will all rebuild...Love you....stay strong...the south will rise again!

Hi. In October, my co-teacher and I went down to Waveland with our church teams from Heartland Church in Illinois. My students were concerned for the residents in that area. I'm glad I was able to help, but I always feel I could have spent more time helping the residents down there. When the residents came into the Heartland(& Willow Creek Church & Christian Life Church) Clothing Tent, my heart went out to them. They had such strength and courage. Heartland had planned to be helping with the "Tent City" well in to the new year. Unfortunately, K-Mart wanted the tents down in its parking lot. Those 3 churches and their volunteers are still finding ways to help where they're needed. My co-teacher and I brought down donated backpacks to put in the regular store to be given away to children, especially since school started Nov. 1st. Our students put their names, addresses, and little positive notes into the backpacks. Our students have received notes from 2 children in the Waveland/Slidell area. I'm sure like many other organizations and schools, our school organized a donation drive(that we took to the Heartland Donation Center to be sorted/sized/separated). My students felt that even though they were up here in Illinois they were helping. We talk about how our school, our family, our town, and our state are communities and communities help each other. We also talk about how our nation is a community. They wanted to help their community how ever they could. I think this will be with them for a very long time. Take care.

Thank you guys so much! It's people like you that make the world go 'round.

A response to Shelley, Illinois...I was also at Camp Katrina a few weeks ago. My church was only able to send a group of 12 of us for one week, but it was an amazing experience. The people of Waveland (and Bay St Louis and Pass Christian and all the other 'forgotten' small towns of MS) have the greatest spirit. They are dealing with so much loss, but also show so much strength. I went with the expectation to help some people in need, but they were also able to provide me with hope and strength and spirit. I understand that the stores want to reopen, but by forcing the camp out of the parking lot, many people will lose thier only source of food, clothes, and supplies. Much good has been done by the people of Christian Life Church and Heartland and Willow and all of the other smaller volunteer groups in Waveland, but the need is still very real...I pray that they will find a more permanent place to continue helping the people of Mississippi.

I found out today at church that the Heartland/Willow Creek/Christian Life churches will continue their efforts at a NAPA auto parts warehouse that is located in Waveland.

Just want to encourage anyone thinking of going to help the Bay/Waveland area, or any of the towns hit so hard by the storm... please follow your heart. Help. The need is so great, and you will be met by people who find your simple presence and willingness to share their experience, as an encouragement, in and of itself. They are good people and they're trying hard to keep going. Every time someone comes to help and lighten the burden, recovery seems a little more possible. I agree that it is hard to leave. This was my hometown. I'm heart broken and wish I could do more. But each of us, doing our little bit, can make a big difference!

True christens forgive others and some do things just for there own benifit.

I live in Waveland and would to thank all the volunteers who has helped in more ways than you will ever know. Ya'll have really been our life source,without you we could not have made it this far. Please don't forget us ,God Bless you!

Camp Lehrmans, St. Bernard Parrish, Challmette LA. Via Ft. Wayne IN.

Happy holidays to all of the good people of Lousiana,Mississippi,Florida,Texas,& all of the coastal states that have been embraced by the wrath of God/Mother Nature. I extend to you my most humble thanks for teaching me the true meaning of humility and gratitude. I spent the month of July away from my family and loved ones to try to help make some kind of a difference, I feel I failed, but I tried, which is all that any of us can do. I walked the streets of Challmette and the lower 9'th ward in utter disgust and disbelief. I asked myself how could God do this to us?, When I found the answer. God did not do this to us we did this to ourselves. Greed,jealousy,oil, industry,racism,political corruption(You Know Who You Are), need I continue. It is on our shoulders alone that we make this right. Perhaps I am a raving madman but what I saw In New Orleans broke my heart more than once. You don't know unless you have been there so if you have not reserve your comments. I will go back and cannot wait to see you ya'll again. God bless you and save me some gumbo.

Justin

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