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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.

Background on the towns and this project is available under the about tab above.

Click here for bios of the reporters and media producers who have worked on the series.

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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. –- Dear Friends and Family:

I’ve never written one of these holiday letters before (don’t they all begin with that disclaimer?) so it’s a bit hard to begin. And awkward, seeing as how I have some confessions that I didn’t think I’d make while still working as a journalist.

But after two trips to this ravaged region, I want to tell you what I’ve seen, what I’ve really seen, and how it has touched me in ways that covering no other story has. So indulge me if you will for a few hundred words on this eve of one of the holiest days on most calendars in this part of the world.

I had never been to the South before October. And other than a fleeting fantasy or two over the years about Mardi Gras, I can’t particularly remember wanting to come. To me, it was the land of fried okra, Civil War buffs and lyrical knife fights between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

But Katrina came with devastation of such magnitude that MSNBC.com decided to devote considerable resources to reporting the comeback –- or not -– of Bay St. Louis, Waveland and Hancock County. I arrived with photojournalist Jim Seida on Oct. 18 as one of the first of many rotating teams the Web site would send to tell the stories.

Even then, more than six weeks after Katrina had struck, the ruin was so vast and fresh that it looked as if the storm had roared through the day before.

The destruction never surprised me.

I mean that with all humility. I have not experienced a hurricane but I have seen nature’s work in the rubble of a tremendous earthquake, the misery of widespread flooding and the awful torrents of a huge volcanic eruption. I have lived long enough to know how small and insignificant we are.

Two months later, in my second tour of duty, things have changed dramatically. The splintered debris of so many homes, scattered endlessly across the neighborhoods of lower Waveland, is slowly giving way to bare, dark earth, scraped cleaned by Army Corps contractors who seem to be everywhere with their Bobcats and Big Tex trailers. The thwack of nail guns and the whine of Skil saws fill the air all day along Washington Street in Bay St. Louis as one roof after another is repaired.

The vehicles, overturned and left like forgotten toys as far as the eye could see, are mostly gone. The red Chevy pickup on its side over on Second Street and the blue Caddie slowly rusting out on Bourgeois are two familiar exceptions.

The bustle of commerce is everywhere. Wal-Mart has moved from its giant tent into a downsized version of its store to offer pallets of everything from chainsaws to steaks. There’s a shiny auto parts store and car wash. You can choose Chinese, Mexican, Italian, seafood, burgers, waffles and more at the restaurants that are up and running. There are plenty of boats at the yacht club and new portable buildings to house the office and bar. Hubbard's Hardware and 84 Lumber are thick with customers morning, noon and night. Behind the wheels of the ubiquitous trucks and SUVs of contractors and government agents, cell phones sprout from the ear of every driver as they buzz from one meeting to the next.

The destruction never surprised me, but the people were a different story. About them, pushing rules of journalistic neutrality and objectivity aside, I will not beat around the bush. From the moment I first alighted on Waveland soil to shake hands with Pat Ellis in the rubble of her once lovely brick rambler, to just yesterday afternoon when I watched Geri Bleau weep with joy at her husband Gil’s homecoming, I have been amazed.

We hear in tragedies all too frequently that folks “lost everything,” but do we often stop to think what that really means? Everything, they lost everything. And do we ever stop to think what we would do if it happened to us? I have, and I tell you, honestly, I don’t know.

But I know that whatever I did it wouldn’t hold a candle to what Trinh Huynh and Hong Tran have had to do to get their 65-foot shrimper the Dustin Randy back in the water out at Bayou Caddy. Trinh and Hong, who probably each weigh half of what I do, will clearly move mountains to restore order to their flooded Waveland home and keep their children in college.

The same goes for Viren and Mita Patel, who have worked virtually around the clock since Katrina struck to push the Key West Motel on Highway 90 ever closer to full operations. The Waffle House next door is not coming back, but this week the Patels’ children did, home from staying with relatives to the east, and the joy in Viren’s eyes is unmistakable.

Their stories are the norm here, not the exception. And as people like them go about reclaiming their own lives, their hands seem ever outstretched to others in gestures epitomized by the likes of Pastor Alan Jenkins at First Missionary Baptist Church in Bay St. Louis. His congregation’s sanctuary was spared from Katrina’s waters, though the homes of many of his parishioners were not, and Jenkins has looked beyond his own church walls from Day One in an effort to build bridges in the community.

The list is, literally, endless. To the cynical critics in our “Comments” section, doubtful about the intentions of so many Katrina victims, come here. Follow Wendy McDonald or Ellis Anderson or Rory MacDowell or Ron Hill or Ernest Taylor around for a day and you will see just how capable the citizenry is of helping its own. Try to get a meeting with Mayor Eddie Favre of Bay St. Louis and you will see that his life is a 24/7 meeting of working on nothing but Katrina issues.

This is what I see, what I really see. And knowing, again from more than a little age and experience, that people are pretty much the same everywhere and that given half a chance we’ll generally do what is good and right, or at least try, I am willing to bet that the story is pretty much the same in New Orleans, in Gulfport, in Slidell, in Baton Rouge.

The destruction never surprised me. But the people never failed to amaze me with their strength and hope and hearts so full of love that even the eyes of an aging reporter can well with tears at the most unexpected moments.

To our readers who think we just take up space and get in the way of the far more important work of rebuilding, you have a point. But you may not realize how hard it is sometimes to not be in the story instead of covering it, to not stop asking questions and scribbling answers and just pick up a shovel or a hammer or a spatula and go to work.

Alas, I am merely here to observe and note in the small ways I can what has happened and how these towns will or will not move on. But thinking of George Bailey in the old Frank Capra standard that will light so many TV screens tonight, I believe just now that what I’d really rather do is put the notebook down and lasso the moon for each and every one of these brave and wonderful souls.

Merry Christmas,

Mike

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40 COMMENTS

Thank you -- this is a wonderful article. My kids & I just returned from a trip to do what we could to help earlier this week. We shared many of the same impressions you described, although we also encountered many discouraged, depressed, and/or angry people. I have a question: we heard from people in Bay St. Louis that the Red Cross, which had been feeding huge numbers of people, has pulled out of the area, and that some folks are having a tough time finding a reliable source of food. The churches seem to be feeding people, but from what I understand there's not complete coverage in meeting people's needs for food. What have you observed in this regard? And why has the Red Cross pulled out? Yes, there is progress, but the basic needs also remain great.

Thank you again. And Merry Christmas.

Barbara G.

I can see that this plight has touched your heart. In your profession you see many things. I think after this "tour" you may see things in a different light. God Bless you for your kindness to my brother Gil and his family.

Great article! What it is really like in Mississippi and, like you said, in other places as well, is a great thing to know. People helping people! That is what makes America great! God Bless America!

Mike, you have hit it directly on the nail head. I, too, have tried to imagine what it must be like to lose everything, but can't. Keep this reporting going. We need to see and hear the good and the ugly. But you know, there will be more of the good. Maybe this time next year we can wax nostalgic about Katrina.

Thanks Mike, we try. It's nice to know when someone has the realization that Mississippi and it's people are not what the normal stereotype makes us out to be. We WILL be back!!

Thank you so much, Mike, for telling what Mississippi and Mississippians are REALLY about! We try to be, for each other ... courage even in the face of depression, strength even in the face of overwhelming weakness and hope even in the face of unimaginable odds. Thank you for trying to show the REAL us to the rest of the world!

Merry Christmas to all you Mississippians; I hve tried and failed to put myself in your places - having lost everything, including my close-knit family and my treasured pets. I will be thinking of you - and your neighbors in Louisiana and Alabama - as my family gathers to be together on this holiday with all our meger finances. I hope all of you get to feel at least one moment of "normalcy" in an otherwise very abnormal existance of late. Peace, hope, and love to all! ~Stephanie, the cats, guinea pig, and bunny.

I have lived lots of places, been even more. My lucky day was when I moved to the Bay. Never met nicer people, never had so much fun. Now I have the choice to leave again and move to a beautiful place in mountain and lake country in another state. I'm not going, I'm here and you can't blow me away! Thank you so much for writing this story from the heart. We need more reporters like you to make others see what it is like now and how it was before - and how it will be again. Merry Christmas.

Mike, You have expressed so beautifully what I felt when I watched the ufolding of happenings in the areas so hard hit by Katrina. I'm proud to call you my son.
Love,

Mom

When I moved to Bay St. Louis from Dallas, we arrived with a large moving van full of possessions and a cat named Nigel. Few years ago we lost everything we had arrived with and lots more that we acquired after getting here because our house burned. But the most impt. part was that we saved our two dogs and two cats and us. We had already lost almost everything before the storm put our new house under 12 feet of water caused by the storm surge. But we still have us, the two cats and the two dogs. It's gonna be a very Merry Christmas because I've learned what is important.

I have read your stories over the last months, and have been motivated on occasion to post a comment to show my support and try to clarify the picture of what life is like there after Katrina. It is harder to explain to outsiders the essential spirit of the South. How appropriate that this blog post focused on that. I've heard so many times from other people, "why don't they just move away?" and that always astonished me. The South is its people. It is still the South, even if every magnolia and oak tree, good home-cooked meal, every afternoon sky dotted with fluffy white cumulus low to the ground, that build up into the daily quick afternoon thunderstorm, every historical treasure, every early-morning fishing trip upriver, or afternoon on the coast, all just went away in a New York minute, because the people are the heart of the South.

I have thought of you all, and about the entire MS Gulf Coast, so many times, since Katrina; more often than not, really. It's been a long time since I was there, but you know that saying: you can take the girl out of the the honky-tonk, but,... Old roots run deep, anyway.

I hope this blog is around for a long time, with a link on the front page for a long time, for as long as it needs to be. Your voices need to be heard, and here they can be read not only around the country, but around the world. And some of us that aren't there are real glad to be able to come here on a daily basis and hear from you all.

once again thanks Mike for telling The Great State of Mississippi's story.....Merry Christmas...to all of ya'll!!!!

My friend, you have given more than you will ever know. You are doing something very important with this website. Thank you so much.

Thanks, Mike. We sure do appreciate your being here. The people are the reason we moved to Waveland; the people are the reason we're staying. Merry Christmas!

Has anyone ever been totally torn between where your ROOTS are and where you had decided to make a home for you and your family? I was born and raised in Huntsville, AL but was transported here by my first husband. I didn't want to move here, I was so depressed for months but as time went by this became my home. There is no way that I can leave the coast now that it has been ripped apart but I want to go back to where I grew up. Have you ever been torn in half? But I feel in my heart that a year from now I'll still be here and part of rebuilding.

My Daughter and I just returned this past Wednesday from a trip to Bay St. Louis. Your words expressed everything we felt. It was truly a life altering experience. The people are so unbelieveable, and now I understand why they are rebuilding. Their town is worth it!!! To all those we met and who deeply touched our hearts, we wish you a Merry Christmas and we love you. We hope to return soon.

Mike, thank for spending your holidays telling a story that needs to be told. And will need to be told for months and years to come. It is often said in this part of the country, "If you haven't been there, you just can't know." Having a son living in Biloxi and having been there myself,I appreciate what you so eloquently expressed in your blog.

Mike, Another big thank you for doing this site. It's a way for me to keep in touch with the recovery in my home town, and for many others to do the same. We get a chance to send an encouraging message back home, and that means everything in the world. Thank you for capturing the courage of the people here, and for responding to the cynical comments too. If your heart were made of stone, you wouldn't be moved by the Bay/Waveland experience. I am grateful that you are.

Thank you, Mike, for a 'from the heart article' and I agree with Twin Cities Margie...keep this site going. To my family and friends in Mississippi, may the spirit of Christmas bring you joy and may 2006 bring a new beginning to your lives.

Your article brings tears running down my cheeks as I remember singing Christmas carols so joyfully in the Methodist Church in Bay St. Louis seven years ago this evening.......and have never forgotten the people there. My thoughts and prayers have been faithfully with them since the tragic storm hit. May they be lifted up to know that they are not alone!

Thank you Mike, your colleagues, and MSNBC for working so hard to tell this story. It is important that the people of the Coast not be forgotten in this time of need.

This is directly related: Rita devastated Beaumont, Texas and there is nothing in the news about that. I have friends and relatives there and they have spent the last four months of their lives trying to piece them back together. Both of my daughters still have no home to live in. It is Christmas. Remember these people also. Thank you.

Mississippi has shown the way to the Golden Rule. Great Article, wonderful comments and so completely sincere, it is a star in the crown of journalism

I have had the opportunity to speak with many of artists from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi in the last couple of weeks. Though we have only spoken by phone and by e-mail, I too was awed by the loving kindness of these people. I hope we will be able to deliver the supplies they need. God bless all of you.

Great article, very moving pictures. I cannot imagine what the people of the south went through. I do applause them on their strength and courage. I would like to take the time to wish them all well in the future. God bless to them and to you Mike for taking the time to tell and show the rest of the world the plight of these incredible individuals.

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