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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

First, Mike's interpretations are so true. My husband and I have been coordinating teams and relief into the area. We gave out toys a few weeks ago. The people waited in line for over an hour. We got to speak with many of them at length. Without exception all were tired, all were hurting, yet all were thankful and hopeful. I heard no complaints, but lots of ,"We have our lives and each other. We will make it". Mike, don't minimize your role in telling the story. If it weren't for MSNBC and a couple others, the rest of the country would have no idea the extent of the devastation. Also, in telling the story you may encourage others to come and help. It is SO important to keep the stories coming so that the country doesn't move on. We refer many people to this site. Thanks!

Touched no words....

Thanks Mike for everything... you're great!!!!

From my dad and step-mom in Gulfport, thanks to everybody that still cares and remembers us.

From me... Thanks MSNBC for your continued coverage.

Mike ~ I've always appreciated reporters for what they do---making whatever story they're covering feel more real to us, when we can't experience the realities ourselves. And occasionally along comes an article like this... and it makes us even more appreciative of the person the reporter is. Thanks ~ and happy holidays to you.

Took a tour of Slidell yesterday after we feasted at my sister's house. They live in Pearl River just to the north of Slidell. They were spared from the storm, by the grace of God, only a downed privacy fence. But as I drove through Slidell, I cried. There is so much to be told about the strength of the people in this area. Thanks.

Thank you Mike, and thank you to MSNBC. Being able to read the news, stories, photos, and offers of support & encouragement is a 'bright spot' in our day. This work is so important to so many people here and around the country...please keep it going. May you and yours have a safe and peaceful holiday season.

If not for this site then there are lots of people that would never know what is really going on in our part of the world (Bay/Waveland). Please keep this going and maybe expand to other cities even if it only a weekly update.

"Rising from Ruin" has been a blessing. Thank you for
sharing the stories and news of the people of Waveland and Bay St Louis. You are correct, Mike...these Southern people are amazing! Such grace, courage, strength,
and the determination to survive was so evident when we were there in October. We came to care for these
lovely and wonderful people. They thanked God for
little things....new working gloves, a blanket, a mop,
and the food. Faced with huge burdens they expressed
joy in their friendships. They cared about co- workers. They were proud of their families.
They had hope! They worked very hard. It was an honor to work with the Salvation Army, and have the privilage of meeting so many special people. You all are in my prayers!
Best wishes in the New Year. And after that gorgeous, peach sunset.... lasso that moon for our friends living on the Gulf Coast!!

As Mike put in his article, just follow anyone around to see what is being done and what has been done. The comments from around the country for the most part has been very supportive. It's the ignorant who write the trash comments and upset the hard working people of the area ( and me for what it matters). It's common sense. If you live in any part in this world, you can be affected by any natural disaster, anytime. Do you think people back in the 1800's wrote to the survivors of Krakatoa and told them it was their problem, they lived next to a volcano??? Anyways, Mike, great article. You've proved a lot of peoples points.

George - er, I mean, Mike - I laughed and cried at the same time as I read your post. If only you COULD lasso the moon!

I want to thank you and MSNBC for your Rising from the Ruins coverage of Hancock County. I look at your stories on a daily basis. I was born and raised in Bay St. Louis and now live in Gulf Breeze, FL. I lost my home last year from Hurricane Ivan, and I had so many family and friends help me from Hancock County. I have felt rather guilty because I have not been able to help everyone that helped me, but everyone I know and love has been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. They have had ten times the devastation that we went through here. I am so glad that you and your staff are giving them the media coverage that they all deserve. THANK YOU!!!

To all of you in Hancock County, my continued thoughts and prayers are with you to have the strength and faith to get through these difficult times. May God Bless all of you!!!!

I and from the Mississippi Delta, and lived in Bay St. Louis /Waveland and Gulfport for several years before relocating out West. I am grateful beyond words for this blog. Mike, you've got it just right: the people there are amazing. To those who've never been to the South: don't believe all the stereotypes you have learned over the years. These towns are just like yours, only geographically predisposed to enduring tragedies like Katrina. Tell the people who live in earthquake zones or near "active" volcanoes to move, why don't you? Home is where home is, and the people of the entire Gulf Coast will rebuild, fighting tooth and nail if necessary, to restore normalcy and help one another continue surviving this devastation. I've got all of you in my prayers, and may God continue to bless.

Thank you Mike and MSNBC for what you are telling the nation about our homes. We have been living in Florida since Katrina took our home. It's still not the same. We went back to share our Christmas with family in Mississippi in a FEMA trailer. There was tears but gratitude that everyone is alive and we will go on strong. Please keep reporting. And to others, come down and see us. Look out at the water, into the faces of the people, and you'll know why we wish to stay. We have already decided to come back. God bless you all.

Ah Mikey, I believe we've hooked you in...I saw you the other day, waiting in line at the Wal Mart, and thought...he fits right in here!! You've discovered the essence of US..just like my Gil, Yankee that he is, did. As much as he loves his Red Sox..he was far, far contented to watch the World Series on our (former) sofa in our (former) house! He wouldn't trade a Barq's for a hoagie, would rather wet a line at The Pier...he's melded into that wonderful soup we serve down here in Waveland. I suspect that you, too, dear Mike, are a real candidate for residency here in Waveland. Stick around...I am SURE that the Civic Association will still be putting on the St Patrick's Day Parade and Ball,and I'd like to see you catch a cabbage in mid-air and drink a green beer!
Thank you for sharing US with the world...for weeding through the obvious disaster and tragedy, but coming up with the joy and the courage. Hey Mama, your boy's done good :)

"I would have fainted had I not believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living."

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