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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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Maria Russell lists her dog Jim as something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. (Image courtesy of Maria Russell)

There are so many topics one could write about in this post-Katrina state. Initially, I thought I would write about “diversions,” something so desperately needed by someone who is usually positive and “up” like me. After all, living among rubble, driving past endless miles of enormously high piles of debris, and making daily trips for something as simple as water CAN eventually wear down one’s spirits.

It didn’t take me long after accepting the reality of Katrina that I needed something to do. In those first few days after the storm, I was hardly ready for a “job,” but still, I needed a reason to get out of bed. Although Dave and I lost everything, I was not about to fill my days with going to the distribution points and hording anything and everything I could, like some people were. I counted myself fortunate to have a roof over my head (a rather small, but perfectly adequate, truck/camper), enough money for food and necessities (despite not having anywhere to shop), and above all, insurance.

Three days before Katrina struck, I had interviewed for a job with the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce, and so my first call went to Tish Williams, the executive director, asking her if she needed any help. I should have known that in spite of her own personal losses, Tish was conjuring up ideas for how to help restart Hancock County businesses. And so, ever since September 21st, I’ve been volunteering as a “gal Friday” at the Chamber's Small Business Assistance Center, a place where business owners can talk to SBA loan officers and everyone in the community can take advantage of computers, wireless Internet, a fax machine, copier, and above all else, get much needed information.

I answer the phone (which never seems to stop ringing), track businesses that are back in business, help residents get information on anything and everything, and in general, “duties as assigned.” I feel fortunate that I don’t absolutely need a job right now. I just need something to do to keep focused on recovery. I’ve got to be assured that things will eventually get better, though I know it’s going to be years before our community is close to anything resembling “normal.”

And so, this citizen’s diary entry was going to be about “diversions.” But I can’t ignore that my absolutely favorite holiday is fast approaching. I LOVE Thanksgiving. Sure, the food is a big part of it, but more than anything, I just think that it’s good to pause and reflect on all the blessings we have. It’s almost funny to think that any of us hurricane victims have anything to be thankful for, but I do. I have a LOT to be thankful for. Here are my Top Ten Things:


The car that Russell is thankful for. (Image courtesy of Maria Russell)

10) A working vehicle. OK, it’s the same car our kids learned to drive on. It’s a beater and has more than 126,000 miles on it, but it runs like a top. I’m glad to have it.

9) A FEMA trailer.

8) The fact that our firepit survived. Fires don’t just provide warmth; they encourage us to relax and just enjoy the beauty of a harvest moon, a million stars, and peace and quiet.


The firepit Russell is thankful for (Image courtesy of Maria Russell)

7) My washing machine (I wrote about this earlier—“Laundry Daze”).

6) The positive vibes from doing an honest day’s work.

5) Our dog, Jim. He’s my friend, my walking buddy, and our security system.

4) Good, good friends. Longtime ones who love and care about us and wonder why in the world we stay in Mississippi, and our Mississippi friends with whom we’ve bonded for life.

3) That our daughter, Kate, is back from Iraq.

2) My husband, Dave. He’s amazing. He’s my best friend who is always there, no matter what. I love him so much.

1) Optimism. Katrina threw us a huge setback, but we WILL get through this.

Happy Thanksgiving, Y’all.

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Maria, you certainly put things into perspective. Our house had burned Dec.2003 and we had already lost everything, had just started to rebuild and that structure was so badly damaged by wind and water that it will have to be torn down and started over. The few things that we had started to collect were stored in workshop and a storage rental unit and both were flooded. But the rental house we were living in survived, both vehicles survived and most important - our two dogs and two cats are OK and keep us laughing (seems they just know we need extra attention and love). So when I complain about some small thing I just kick myself and think about all of these articles I am reading on this site. I am sure you will have a great Thanksgiving because you are the sort of person that will make it good.

Thanks, you gave me pause and reflection with this story. My daughter returned from Iraq in March 2005 and I am so GLAD you have your daughter back too.
We are really so blessed, so much more than we ever stop and really realize, and your story made me do just that - stop and realize what blessings I have.
I wish you brightest blessings and that soon your neck of the woods will be OK again!

Yes; I'm so happy to read your list of 10 thankful things, Maria. Too many of us (me included) have top 10 lists of things we loathe. I hope that when it comes time for Christmas wishes, you can tell us that 10 more things have made you thankful and make it 20!

Maria, it is so nice to know that we aren't the only ones holding our heads high and getting on with life. They did a story on us (new life in a fema trailer) and we were thrilled to let people know what it was like in a FEMA trailer. Not the gripes, the disappointments, the headaches. But the good things like our family and our dog and a roof over our heads. I am thankful everyday for what we do have left. Our lives. Although right now I would do just about anything for our own washing machine. Ha ha. We are in the process of buying a new mobile home and we're putting in it Saucier. Hopefully we will be in by Christmas. I had my reservations about a mobile home, but I love it and we can have semi-normal lives again. It is 4 times the size of what we're in now, and that's great since we have 5 kids. But I am definitely greatful for the housing we have had so far. We're not cold or hungry. That's what counts. Good luck on rebuilding and keep up the optimism. It can only get better from here.

It's great to see someone who still has hope. I live in the Northeast and cannot imagine the hardships you all have had but i am happy to know that Amercians everywhere fight with all they have all the time. I hope you have the best Thanksgiving ever. Thank your Daughter for me, All armed forces need a big Thank You.

Maria, Thank you for your heart felt story. So many times we only think of ourselves and what WE do not have, but I can only commend you for your strong spirit. Thank you and may you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving.

I'm glad you have your daughter back!! Although I don't support the war itself, I support the military people who do their jobs and allow me to freely express my point of view. I was a military wife for 20 some years, living in Biloxi a long time ago, during Hurricane Fredrick. The devastation then wasn't anything near what it was during Katrina, so I can only barely relate. I do commend you for your positive approach to living, though. Instead of worrying about "why me?" you seem to have the attitude of "why NOT me!" Best of luck to you and your family, and all in your community. I still love that place even after all these years of living in Alaska! I should add that my son was born in Biloxi, was accustomed to the sand, and when we moved from the south up to Fairbanks, Alaska in January of 1982 he was 3 years old. His constant confusion was always "Why is the sand so cold, mom?" It took him a few months to figure out that it was snow. He still says he wants to go home, and he's 27 years old! So we know why people stay in Mississippi. It's a great place. God bless and keep up your good work.

Thanks to you and your daughter for her service to our country. Thank you for in the midst of devastation that I cannot imagine you have reasons to be thankful and that makes me realize that I am blessed and have lots to be thankful for. Whenever I try to throw a pity party for myself, I think about this hurrican season and say" Shirley, give thanks."

Thanks to you and your daughter for her service to our country. Thank you for in the midst of devastation that I cannot imagine you have reasons to be thankful and that makes me realize that I am blessed and have lots to be thankful for. Whenever I try to throw a pity party for myself, I think about this hurrican season and say" Shirley, give thanks."

You and your family are the true reasons to give thanks on Thursday. Best of luck.

My eyes welled up when I read your message. I don't even know how I found this web site, but I am grateful that I did. Did I really almost cry with worry over whether my turkey would be too dry for my guests? You are an inspiration, truly living the message. Thank you.

Fist of all, my best wishes go out to every single person affected by this disaster and I hope that at some time your lives will be back to normal. Just to let you know that my heart goes out to you.

Maria, I know what you are talking about. I didn't have to go through a hurricane but went through a number of years of mental illnes, job losses, and financial distress (we really almost went bankrupt). And all this continued for years (I guess it was like a slow hurricane) I was devastated and so empty of hope. But in the last few years, I have gotten better (still on medication), can hold down a job (I have a very good, steady job that pays well), and although I am still in debt, we have a positive cash flow that will eventually allow us to pay off our debts completely. So, I guess I can say that the one thing I am most thankful for is hope. Things are really getting better, but it takes time and I try very hard to stir up my mind to be thankful for the things that have gotten better and cultivate hope for the things that although are not yet better will get better. Thanks for helping me put things in perspective.

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