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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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This project is evolving. Our daily dispatches coverage has been retired. Click here to see what happened in the area between mid October and January 1, 2006.

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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- “It’s another of our great bumps,” is how Charles Gray, director of the Hancock County Historical Society, describes Hurricane Katrina’s horrific impact on Bay St. Louis, Waveland and the surrounding Mississippi Gulf Coast.

"Bump" though it may turn out to be, Katrina dealt a devastating blow to the Gulf Coast's rich architectural history, and much of Gray's time is now devoted photographically documenting the losses among the 576 homes in Hancock County that were on the National Registry of Historical Places prior to Katrina. To do that, he often has to turn to landmarks in order to identify the slabs of concrete where the grand homes once stood.

He is being assisted in the effort by fewer than a dozen members of the Hancock County Historical Society, which before Katrina had 1,018 members and was one of the largest civic institutions along the Gulf Coast.

“Our job is to fill in the records that were kept over the last 25 years, particularly the National Registry houses, but also the other beautiful ones not on the registry,” Gray says. “Our project is to document the demise of these magnificent homes and, possibly, the families along with them.”

As the effort moves forward, the full extent of the loss of the area's historic treasures becomes clearer.

“Everything you see here is just about gone,” he says, gesturing toward a wall of the society's offices in a small house behind the courthouse, which is covered with more than 100 photographs of historic buildings. “Everything.”

Gray, a former New Orleans restaurateur with a rich, melodic voice, isn't approaching the project as an observer. He is one of the thousands of Gulf Coast residents who lost a home to the storm. He now lives on its slab in a FEMA trailer differentiated from those of his neighbors only by the silver Rolls Royce parked in front.

In his case, the loss of his home was made worse by his family's deep roots in the area and his passion for history. Gray's great-great-great-great-great grandfather was one of the original surveyors of the Mississippi Territory and a signatory of the Mississippi Constitution in 1817, the year the territory was granted statehood, and a great many family treasures were stolen by Katrina. The storm also snatched treasured antiques and artworks, including a painting by 17th Century Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn and furniture dating back to the reign of Louis XVI (1774-92).

While he clings to the historian's view of Katrina as a "great bump" for the region and sees "great prospects" for Bay St. Louis, Gray has no illusions about what has been lost to the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history.

“Everything will be nice and new, but everything will be a reproduction of what we once had, which will not necessarily please me as a historian," he says. "But that’s the way it goes.”

“As long as it has that ambience,” Gray says, his voice trailing off as he gazes ruefully out a window.

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34 COMMENTS

As a former resident of the Bay-Waveland area and having been raised there for the first 20years of my life, I am disappointed in what I am trying to read from this "Mary" who seems to have found "hard times" in collecting from Uncle Sam. First of all, as mentioned previously by another outraged person, Hurricane Katrina did not see any one race as it bore down on the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts. Storms are color blind and unlike you, did not discriminate. Mary needs to find her way...and if she is working, go back to school to improve your job status. The federal Government is doing what they can. Stop complaining and start doing for yourself...you will find it more rewarding this way.

Marylynne McMahon: You were wondering about the cemetary where your ancestors are buried. It survived. As a member of the CYO, I and a group used to clean that cemetary on All Souls Day... don't know if they still do it now, but I am sure someone is doing it. Usually family would be out there working with us. It looked just fine when we were there over Thanksgiving. Hope that is some comfort to you.

May God truly bless each and everyone that has been affected by that storm. It is still so sad to see pictures of New Orleans and surrounding areas that were hit by Katrina. Those of you that stayed or came back deserve the very best. The city belongs to you; you are somewhat heroes in my book. Again, God Bless! from Colorado

Charles,
It was so nice meeting you in January when our group from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater came down to help. I am so honored to have meet you and I hope that everyone in Bay St. Louis looks towards the future and rebuilds the great city it was and still is. I am going to give a presentation to one of the local schools and they are going to learn so much about you.

Thanks again for the southern hospitality and for the dedication you have for the historical society. It is an important thing.

I was mentally devastated over what happened to New
Orleans. Being a jazz musician I wonder where the
majority of musicians are? My heart plays the blues
for all the states devastated. There but for the act of God I could be with you but I cry when I hear your sound and visual damage.Your spirits will rise--

Thank you Lord for being by our side at all times!

To the guy cocplaining about the man's nice car. Should he sell it, and buy a beat up one? Why do you want to see him have everything lost? Why not be glad that at least his car made it through. Have you thought that maybe he evacuated in his car and then came back? Many on the Coast did. And you are not paying for his car.

Dear Charles,
Your cousin, Jo M., tells me about you and all that has happened. So glad you are doing all that you can to get the info. for the Historical society. So enjoyed meeting you when the Westminster group came to the Bay and you were our guide. It was a great day. Thanks for all you are doing.

Dear Charles,
It has been 7 months since our group from UW-Whitewater had the pleasure of meeting you, and working with the community of Bay St. Louis, but it seems like yesterday. I am glad to hear of the progress, yet still driven by the fact that there is still much to be done. Thanks to you and all in the community, many of us here in Wisconsin have a new outlook on life. Hope all is well with you! Take care!

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