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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