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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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Pete and Betty Benvenutti watch the demolition of the 100-year-old front section of their house that was rendered unlivable by Hurricane Katrina. Click "play" to hear Betty and Pete describe the history of their house.

The house at 114 Felicity grew slowly over five generations, but it came down quickly. Pete and Betty Benvenutti, who lived there 41 years, are making plans to rebuild.

After surviving countless storms, including Camille in 1969 and unnamed monsters in 1915 and 1947, Katrina fatally wounded the 107-year-old structure with a wall of water that many have likened to a tsunami. Wrecking crews finished the job in a few quick hours this month, leaving just the shell of a back wing added by the couple in the 1960s.

"I have some real sad thoughts about tearing down this house," said Betty, 75, a proper Southern lady sitting in a lawn chair and enjoying a snack as she watched men in heavy machinery combing through the wreckage. "It was a very good house and a loving place for us to be."

Betty and Pete, 80, have deep roots in Bay St. Louis dating back more than 100 years and a clan of relatives including some of the area's most prominent citizens. The story of the Benvenuttis and their house speaks volumes about the past, present and future of the Mississippi Gulf coast.

The structure originally was a "camp house" built for so-called Bohemian workers in the nearby shrimp and oyster canneries, the same industry that attracted Pete's father to the region in 1900.

By the early 1960s, Pete and Betty were living with their seven children outside Washington, D.C., where Pete was holding down a desk job with the Marines after serving in Korea and World War II.

Suburban Virginia had "a lot of traffic, a lot of people." said Betty. "It’s just not my idea of where you raise children."

When Betty's father died, her mother used the life insurance money to buy the couple the two-bedroom house a quarter-mile from the beach, mainly because she liked the oak tree in back. Pete got himself transferred to New Orleans, and the couple ended up raising their own eight children (including one born in Bay St. Louis) and "15 million others" in the house, said Betty.

"We fed half the neighbor kids out of the garden," she said.

The house was far too small for the growing family, but the enterprising couple quickly discovered there was enough room in the attic to create a dormitory for the boys, and "sho 'nuff, the next day we started building the attic room," Pete said.

A few years later he added the 1,000-square-foot addition in the back with a sprawling family room and two small bedrooms.

By the time Katrina hit, the house and its one-acre plot were worth about $300,000 in a neighborhood that featured an increasing number of $500,000 homes and even some $1 million homes along the beachfront.

At 20 feet above sea level, the flood risk was considered minimal, and family members say they stayed put for every major storm except Camille, which caused only minor water damage.

Fortunately they did evacuate for Katrina, but only to nearby Waveland, figuring they would be safe at an elevated house north of the raised railroad tracks, which were considered a final barrier against any rising seawater.

Instead the Benvenuttis and 13 other people watched in horror as the street turned into a backwards-flowing river and water began rising in the house.

"When the chairs started floating, we all went up the stairwell," Betty said. "I will tell you one thing: We prayed and we prayed and we prayed, because the water was in the house and it kept rising. I never said the Lord’s prayer so many times in my life."

After Pete retired from the Marines, he had a second career as an office administrator at what he calls the "Cocola" Co. and founded Bay Motor Winding, a family business repairing electric motors and submersible pumps, a service in high demand since Katrina.

With his close-cropped silver hair, steel rim glasses and twinkling blue eyes, Pete is every inch the retired Marine master sergeant and "can work circles around you," said his son Chuck, an accountant who is county chairman of the Governor's Commission for Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal.

Even as crews swarmed over the property with a trackhoe, a bulldozer and claw-like device called a knuckle boom, Pete was up and down a stepladder with a crowbar in his hand, ripping off loose paneling and generally staying busy.

Where an outside observer saw little left worth salvaging other than a concrete slab, Pete and Betty already are dreaming up plans for a new house extending from the shell of the surviving 1960s-era structure.

But insurance problems loom as a major issue. With no flood insurance, the Benvenuttis got only $30,000 for wind damage to their garage and another $26,000 for the home’s contents. Even if they qualify for the maximum $26,000 FEMA grant, that would leave them well short of the $200,000 they figure they need to rebuild.

"At 80 years old I'm not looking forward to a 30-year mortgage," Pete said.

Nevertheless, he paid some $4,000 to have his land cleared, and he and his wife are looking at design ideas for a new house. For now, they are living in a trailer at their youngest son's house a short ride away in Gulfport, enjoying unexpected quality time with two of their 13 grandchildren. Eventually they probably will move the trailer to their own land.

"We're still in a quandary about what we're going to do," Betty said, reflecting the uncertainties of timing and financing. With enormous piles of trash and debris everywhere along the coast, and dried muck caking all her possessions, "it's like you’re living in this terrible nightmare," she said.

Still, she said, "We feel very blessed, because we have good children."

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52 COMMENTS

My heart goes out to everyone in this area and all effected by this awesome storm. I have been down to the Gulf Coast more than twice with a disaster Relief Team and our last assignment was in what they fondly referred to as " The Bay ". There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of all of the people I met and the devistation I saw and felt. The stories you heard of courage, bravery, love, and sheer strength. The WORLD could learn from these people. My prayers and love to all of you. Be strong, we haven't forgotten that you are there and I know, personally, I am planning on coming back to help and to continue to raise awareness in my home town. I'll be your voice from a thousand miles away.

man...im only 45 years old my house is paid for and would not like to be looking at another morgage...stick in there...blessings will be sent

Like you, maintaining family history is important to me. Your desire to keep and maintain your family's history is completely understandable for in living our history we pass it on to succeeding generations; am thankful to have read your travails; you represent the spirit of our South. You have my prayers and best wishes as you rebuild. May He guide you and lead you always.

There are so many people in this area of Mississippi that are going through this same thing that you can't make any sense of it right now. I lived in several cities around the country before moving to BSL. The welcome I received was beyond my comprehension after just arriving from a big city where you felt more like a number. If anyone out there wants to keep up with other happenings check out wlox.com and sunherald.com. But what I have seen is that Bay/Waveland area and Pass Christian (katrina.passchristian.net; arloandjanis.com) are the worst destroyed.

My aunt, uncle and little cousin live on the water over in Pass Christian, well I guess they used to. Of course, their house was completely gutted, up to the main floor ceiling (the house was even on 13 foot stilts). (wow mother nature is crazy!). They had just finished a major 2 story addition on their house, which makes it even more sad. They are faced with the same daunting task of rebuilding vs. not rebuilding due to the lack of insurance money. They have received nothing so far. Now, there is a chance that FEMA will change the building codes so that they have to tear down what is left of their house. The government sure seems to be working against the victims of Katrina. They did not even qualify for a trailer. I am very thankful to hear that you are considering rebuilding, because that area is wonderful. I spent much of my childhood at my aunt's house. I am even sad to see the state of the bridge from Bay St. Louis to pass Christian. That was my favorite part when going to my aunts house from our home in New Orleans..the noise it made. My grandmother is also sad to see the pictures of where all of the historic mansions and homes sat along highway 90. Anyone that we hear that is considering rebuilding, we urge to do so. Hopefully, the priceless charm will be quickly restored. And hopefully you will find a way to rebuild your home, too. May God Bless.

After reading the story re: the Benvenutti couple, my heart goes out to them and the countless other families that were affected by Katrina. It saddens me that everyone is having such a hard time getting the funds to rebuild their homes and communities. May God bless them all.

I had never heard of Pass Christian Missippi, but my daugher from Virgina and her neighborhood filled a uhaul less than two weeks after the storm. We went to the small town and what we saw has changed our lives forever. Two weeks later I went back , with more supplies and went to Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and most of the area. We pledged then we would continue to support their efforts and a large group of volunteers, are planning a trip to help our whereever they can in January. Mississippi is not forgotten and will never be in the hearts in the thousands who are their and who have been there. It will take more than prayers, blessings,for them sometimes God wants us as individuals to step up for our neighbors and we will receive the blessing.

Good luck to you and your family in rebuilding your new home. I'm glad you allowed your story to be told. It's important to have a historical reference to what folks are going through and what they will continue to encounter in the recovery effort.

I had a fire two years ago and lost everything. I had more blessings that came from people I did not
even know. I did not have enough insurance; however,
I know the flash-backs and anger and all the emotions that go along with this. My children have kept me going along with the power above to help through. I hope there is a follow-up story of making lemonaid from lemons.

Hi Betty and Pete,
I'm so sorry for the damage done to the Bay and Waveland areas as well as Pass Christian, the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. I graduated from Bay Sr. HS in '75 after living in N.O. for many years. I have been living in Brunswick, GA since '83. I felt at home here because Brunswick looks a lot like the Bay, and the community is wonderful! I know you have a large family, but if you ever feel the desire to relocate, please take a look at Brunswick and the Golden Isles! Maybe you could plan to visit. May God bless you and your family.
Judy Greer Driggers

HANG IN THERE. GOD LOVES YOU AND YOU ARE AND WILL NEVER BE DESERTED.

Seems to me that while I am sympathetic to thier plight, you have to ask WHY NO FLOOD INSURANCE?

And now they want to build in the same spot, I would hope not.

There are millions praying for those who have been affected by so many natural disasters. May the Lord bless you as we know that this world is not our real home. It is wonderful to know that you are praying and looking to Heaven and not cursing God. Miracles still happen. We are praying for you all!

A friend of mine and I went to Bay St. Louis a week or so ago and spent a week helping in the distribution center for Hearts for Hands out of Asheville, NC. We drove away saddened by the situation and praying for the families that have been left in desolation. We felt like we were driving away and leaving family. We will be back to do whatever we can until these people are in a normal situation. God Bless!

Dear Pete and Betty,

All ways remember the Lord Jesus Christ has already paid a price for you. There was nothing you brought into this world and nothing you will take when you leave it. The Earth is the Lord and the fullness thereof. Jesus Christ has blessed you with life, continue to live. You have already reached the 3 score and 10 that was promise. Give thanks to the Lord Jesus Christ for your life and put your care's in his hands. He will direct your path.

God Bless you and your family.Coming together now shows all what the word"Family"means.

Eight folks from our church in Bartlett, TN went to Gulfport to do what we could in October. I was very discourged and saddened by the effects of the hurricane but very encourged by the resolve of the people. Each resident we worked with had sadness on thier face but were ready to get on with the clena-up and thier lives. Those that could worked along side of us. We were the ones that were blessed!

As a friend of one of the Benvenutti's daughters, I know this family and have spent many happy days on "Felicity Street." This is a loving couple who have devoted their life to children, family and God. My heart breaks to watch them tear down their home, but know that whatever shelter is over their heads all will feel welcomed and loved. God bless you Mr. and Mrs. Benvenutti. You have blessed me with your friendship and love.
P.S. To the gentelman from Buffington, ID: Katrina was a catagory 5 hurricane with a storm surge 30 feet high by 80 miles wide. The Benvenutti's were not required to have flood insurance, nor were they advised to, as the majority of those who lost their homes to Katrina. This storm is not the norm. We tried to purchase flood insurance on our Pascagoula beach condo even though we were not encouraged to by our mortgage company. The residents who have suffered from this nightmare need support, not a scolding.

My prayers go out to Betty and Pete and hope their recovery will be smooth. We are having similar problems here in Gautier, MS but am fortunate to have outside walls and a roof. For those who ask why no flood insurance? We shouldn't need it because there was no flood. This was all wind driven surge. Allowing the insurance companies to propogate the fallacy of "flood" borders on criminal and allows them to avoid payment of claims or to limit them under "flood insurance" that pays far less than than homeowners and storm policies. Calling this a flood is the same as calling the Tsunami a flood.

Seeing a home torn down has more meaning when you can actually see and hear the people to whom it belongs to. Good luck in rebuilding your home and lives.

It is in my prayers that the storms do not continue to intesify. Please keep informed of current information regarding global warming and weather cycle theories - and make a well thought-out decision to rebuild so close to the Gulf waters. Twenty miles, even ten, makes all the difference in the world. . . I've been there. God bless. jc

Hi Betty & Pete,
Your family is in our prayers... you won't remember us probably, but my family lived on Leopold St. back in the mid 1970's and my sister Kelly played at your house many times with your children. My heart goes out to you and the whole town during your struggles. Ironically, my family returned to BSL this summer for an amazing reunion just a few weeks before it was torn apart by Katrina. Watching these events unfold has been heartbreaking. I will continue to pray that God will show you the way to rebuild your lives.

Hello, My Name is Rea and I live in Crystal Springs Ms. I Had damage done to my home and I couldn't afford to fix it, therefore i had to let the person who i was paying rent to keep the house and I had to move out. I have been staying in a shelter every since the storm. I am now staying in a hotel and it is so hard. I have a good job and my co-workers and boss(es) are wonderful, but it is so hard!!!!! I have 5 children that are staying with me in the hotel. My oldest daughter is 15 and she is pregnant. Her baby is due in 2 1/2 weeks. I hope to have a home by then. We look for a home every day it is hard. but all you can do is pray and keep a smile on your face so that your family and friends can't tell that you are about to give up. But, for my childrens sake, I will give out before I give up. (smile) So keep your head up. God may not show up when you call him, but he always makes it on time!!!!!!! Hopefully we will have a home for Christmas, but if not we will have a merry Christmas anyway, you do the same!!!!!

Dear Mr. Pete & Ms. Betty. God bless you. We see you every week at church. You are a wonderful family and our good friends. We saw your home and it broke our hearts. My sisters and I are praying for you. You both know we love you and so does your church family. We all had SURGE water in our homes also with no flood insurance but nothing like you had. We still have a shell. Take care and God bless.

sorry to see all the damage but one is to think why would you buy land or a house 28 feet below water? If you are to stay i guess you will have to deal with this mess again well to all that ok keep up the prayers and the hope and maybe after Bush is gone things will be right again for you all good luck to all for the hard work and willings to keep hope alive

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