Above:A 360-degree photo shows a rusted boat and other wreckage at Bayou Caddy, a port west of Waveland. (John Brecher / MSNBC.com)
About this project
In the coming months, MSNBC.com will focus its coverage of the Hurricane Katrina recovery on two cities on the hard-hit Mississippi coast.
Though Bay St. Louis and Waveland are far from the media spotlight on New Orleans, the intertwined fates of the people, businesses and institutions in these towns tell the story of an entire region's struggle to recover from the most destructive storm in U.S. history.
WAVELAND, Miss. -– It was hot, sunny and two months before Christmas, but Santa suited up and showed up anyway to bring the kids of hurricane-hit Hancock County a little early holiday cheer.
And don’t forget the presents. Hundreds of children who lost all their toys when Katrina struck on Aug. 29 lined up with their families in a giant beachside tent to visit the man in the red suit and receive some gifts.
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – Sometimes when you’re surrounded by chaos and destruction you just have to go fishing. And take the kids.
That’s what a trio of Hurricane Katrina relief workers did on Friday.
Dale Brothers from Queens, N.Y., Monica Marquez of Fort Smith, Ark., and James Day of Santa Cruz, Calif., are with the Calvary Chapel Community Relief Response Team. Marquez said they are among a “constant stream of teams” from around the country coming to help feed Bay St. Louis residents, clean up their property and keep an eye on the town’s kids in what is now a menacing wasteland of toxic debris.
WAVELAND, Miss. – If an army marches on its stomach, the Sonic Drive-In on Highway 90 is due some credit for fueling the legions that are digging out and rebuilding this Hurricane Katrina-battered region.
The hamburger joint that likes to call itself “America’s Drive-In” has become an oasis of light and, well, cholesterol, for relief workers, police officers, firefighters and regular citizens.
A native of Bay St. Louis and a 14-year veteran of its police force, Officer Ernest Taylor has seen the town through integration, growth and, now, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Click Play to hear him talk about how the town will never be the same.
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – If you are Officer Ernest Taylor, life in this small Gulf Coast town has been pretty good to you and a lot of others. So far.
You were born here, a child of the ’60s, in a place where people know their neighbors and care about them. It’s a place where jumbo shrimp are available at four or five bucks a pound "right off the boat" just across the bay in Pass Christian, where you can fish away summer evenings while the sun hangs low over the gulf, where you can marry your girl and buy a nice house in Spanish Acres and raise three sons and live a full and gentle life just like the kind of man you are, a trustee and deacon at your church and your police department’s school resource officer.
It’s not perfect. No. As a child, you attend segregated schools and, at age 7, are in the first audience allowed to sit in what used to be the "white seats" in the town theater. You see a John Wayne movie.
In the summer, there’s a stand where you get snowballs and eat them with your friends underneath the giant oak tree at South Beach Boulevard and Washington Street. Years later, your kids will do the same.
It is a good town and getting better, even though, as you say, "it still has a long way to go" on many things.
"Easy living," you recall. "Everybody knew everybody. If you grew up here and did something wrong, they’d just call your parents or your grandparents."
In ’69, you ride out Hurricane Camille in a local school that has yet to be integrated and then your family moves to Houston to escape the devastation. But you always come back, every summer, because your grandparents still live here and the snowball stand is still here and so is the big oak tree and this is really home. Then you’re 22, your grandfather is ill and you are back to stay, working as a machinist at NASA’s nearby Stennis Space Center.
A few years later, the new police chief brings you on the force. Bay St. Louis is a good place to be a cop, little crime and a laid-back department where callers are greeted as "baby" by a honey-voiced dispatcher. Even now, with your police radio crackling "once in a blue moon," you can still keep an ear on FM 98.5 as you cruise the streets.
Your boys grow up and so does your town, from "just a Winn-Dixie" to Burger King and McDonalds and Wal-Mart and Rite-Aid and too many stoplights to count anymore. The school that saved your family from Camille is the police station now.
And then you’re 43 and you’ve been a cop for 14 years and the awful day comes. It’s Aug. 29, 2005, and in a few hours of mad horror, Hurricane Katrina changes it all. They just don’t make verbs for what she did to Bay St. Louis so the elegant simplicity of your words says it all: "Nothing is the same."
18 frenetic hours But you are a cop, and a good one, so you go to work. For 18 hours, there’s no sleep as you and fellow officers conduct search and rescue missions.
When the winds stop and the waters recede, you thread your way through the rubble-clotted streets and have a look. Remarkably, your own house fared pretty well. And at the police station, "We had water all around us, it just didn’t get to that particular area."
But the rest of what you see is devastating. Your bearings, all the way from your boyhood to your work on the beat, have disappeared. "That’s the hardest thing," you say, "the landmarks are gone. … Like you knew this street was Bay Oaks because you had the doctor’s house here."
With the schools shut in the wake of the storm, you’re back on the streets, but classes will resume Nov. 7 and you’ve been pondering what you will find among the high school kids. Before, you refereed "boyfriend-girlfriend stuff, fights, the normal things kids do."
Now? Some of the kids have homes and some don’t. You’re hopeful that Katrina’s indiscriminate destruction may bring the students closer together. "Everyone’s at the same level, no big person, no little person."
You’ve certainly seen that among adults. The other day you found yourself in a food line with a banker and a real estate mogul. "Before, that never would have happened."
Youngest son living in Houston But despite your own calm strength and your faith that Bay St. Louis will rise again, there are dark moments. Your youngest son, 13, has been sent to Houston where he has begun school and may stay for the whole year. "It’s a little difficult" for you and your wife, Lotus, because "he’s the baby."
Your grandmother’s once splendid white frame house at the corner of Sycamore and Old Spanish Trail, now splintered and wrecked by Katrina, is an unavoidable sight on patrols.
And there is the nagging question of your own future. With the town’s coffers plundered in every conceivable way by Katrina, "Will I still have a job? How will they keep me?"
Whatever the answer, just like you decided all those years ago, you will stay in Bay St. Louis. It is home.
Click "Play" below the image to hear Ellis Anderson describe why she wants to be a watchdog on how Bay St. Louis is rebuilt.
As the rebuilding process in Bay St. Louis shifts into high gear, longtime artist and newly minted development watchdog Ellis Anderson plans to do her best to occasionally tap the brakes.
Anderson, a 48-year-old jewelry maker, already had assumed a high-profile role in the battle over development in Bay St. Louis, Waveland and surrounding Hancock County before Katrina came through and literally bulldozed nearly all of the historic buildings that she was trying to protect from "inappropriate neighbors."
Now the co-founder of Coastal Community Watch, a grassroots non-profit organization formed to fight planned condominium projects in the area, said the goal has shifted to trying to at least preserve the flavor of the town she loves.
"I don’t want to see us be Gulf Shores (Ala.)," she said, referring to the miles-long strand of condominium developments and strip malls that has sprung up in the coastal vacation resort south of Mobile over the past decades. "It would break my heart. … I don’t want to have to move. I want to be a little old lady in this house. I want to be the town eccentric, reading tarot cards or something."
Anderson said Bay St. Louis, Waveland and the county already were "under attack" by developers before Katrina turned up the pressure on local government by gutting their economies and slowing tax revenues to a trickle.
"The cities and the counties need the money more than ever now to rebuild … (and) it’s going to be very appealing to put high-density housing on the beach," said the North Carolina native, who spent more than a decade selling jewelry from a shop in the French Quarter of New Orleans before moving to the Gulf Coast in 1984
But Anderson already has shown herself to be a resourceful foe.
She formed Coastal Community Watch with local painter Lori Gordon in May -- the very day that county supervisors approved a zoning change that cleared the way for a condominium and casino project outside the nearby community of Clermont Harbor. She then proceeded to hire well-known environmental attorney Riley Morris to file a lawsuit to stop the project, figuring she’d borrow money if necessary to pay his retainer.
Fortunately for her bank balance, the plan to fight back struck a chord with the town’s populace.
"We raised about $10,000 on a weekend," she recalled. "I had somebody leave a $500 check in my shoe on the front porch. As soon as the word got out, I had people writing checks and just thrusting them at me."
As the campaign to block the county project and head off other proposed developments in Bay St. Louis and Waveland gained steam, Anderson sold the gallery she had been running in the Old Town area, figuring she could work part-time making jewelry and devote more time to the organization.
Hurricane Katrina changed the equation, as it did for so many of her neighbors. But in an odd twist, it freed up more time for her to devote to the cause by destroying the shop where all her jewelry-making tools were stored.
"I was lucky my house came through fairly unscathed and I don’t have a business anymore, so just six months of my life I’m going to take a little sabbatical and focus on this," said Anderson, Anderson, who lives in an old schoolhouse with her dogs, Frieda, a 13-year-old terrier mix and Jack, a 5-year-old border collie mix. "I don’t know if it will do any good or not, but somebody has to say something. ... And I just don’t like the idea of a few people making decisions for everybody without any input."
In addition to the more than 800 members of Coastal Community Watch that she will be representing, Anderson undoubtedly will enliven whatever public meetings she attends with the passion she feels for her adopted hometown.
"It was so quaint, so charming and quaint," she said, remembering Bay St. Louis as it existed before Katrina and, she hopes, as it will again.
"... That was the essence of this town. It did have that great ‘Mayberry’ feel to it. … It felt safe, and charming and American and relaxed and open and Southern and very, very friendly. It has a real sense of community. When you walked down the street and saw people, you knew them."
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – Capitalism is rising steadily from Katrina’s ruins here in tents and trailers and parking lots. With ingenuity and can-do spirit as the guiding forces, business owners are doing what they can to serve customers and get some green back in their tills.
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – The cops of Hancock County, so instrumental in saving hundreds of their fellow citizens from Hurricane Katrina’s deadly pounding, could use a little help themselves now.
From the police departments of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, to the sheriff’s department, to the local branch of the state Highway Patrol, they’re drying out and resting up, more than seven weeks after the killer storm deluged their communities.
For many, though, the future is about as tangled as the mounds of debris that loom endlessly along the beats they patrol.
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – There’s not a lot to do by way of entertainment in a hurricane zone where theaters have been leveled, video stores flooded and most restaurants boarded up indefinitely.
And it’s not like folks of this hard-hit town are out looking for amusement as they busily rebuild their lives in a landscape of wreckage to which even Hollywood could not do justice.
But seven weeks on since Katrina hit, there has been time for word to pass along the ruined streets, at the gas station and over coffee – where you can get it – of some of the more bizarre sights that remained when the storm’s waters receded.
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – Wandering Hurricane Katrina’s killing fields, you can’t help but notice an odd phenomenon: In the chaotic confetti of wood and brick and shingle that covers virtually every inch of some neighborhoods are small clearings that display relics pulled from the wreckage as if they have been carefully set up for a garage sale.
Deputy Police Chief Dave Stepro, who lost his own home near the beach in Waveland, explained the collections, which appear to be mostly plates and dishes.
"There’s an etiquette about finding treasures when you’re searching," he said. If the object isn’t yours –- highly likely even on your own property, given that Katrina’s surging waters carried many items far from their original resting places -- but you think it might have any value to its owner, "You just put it on your slab," all that is left of many homes.
"Hopefully," he said, "no one (other than the original owner) ... will come by and pick it up."