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.
DIAMONDHEAD, Miss. -- It’s literally a sign of the times: A huge banner outside the Burger King in Diamondhead, a community northeast of Bay St. Louis, advertising yearly bonuses of up to $6,000 for workers.
So difficult is it to find workers after Katrina (see our earlier report), that the operator of this franchise and others in Mississippi and the greater New Orleans area have resorted to signing bonuses to secure enough workers to operate.
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- Marco Giardino is on the bubble. Hurricane Katrina left him with $1,525 monthly payments for a $400,000 home that is now little more than a shredded shell. "I'm thinking of walking away from it," he says.
The day before Hurricane Katrina hit, he was sitting on $300,000 in home equity. It was his nest egg; it was his future. "I was sitting pretty," recalls the 55-year-old NASA employee. "I lost all my wealth overnight.
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- “Katrina took a lot of things, but it can’t take Christmas.” That’s how Lance Rihner of Bay St. Louis explains why he insisted on decorating his house this year, despite the devastation that surrounds it.
Of the few homes left standing here and in neighboring Waveland, many are decked out with Christmas lights and decorations, even though the residents have many more-pressing concerns. Click here to see the decorated homes, tents and trailers and hear the residents talk about the holiday season.
“It’s important, especially for the children … even if it’s just a little styrofoam snowman in the front yard,” says Bob Welz of Waveland.
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- The Big Apple has come to Bay St. Louis in the form of 20 professional actors and singers intent on spreading holiday cheer throughout a community stripped clean of nearly all forms of entertainment. Think the cast of "Rent" meets Christmas caroling and you'll get an inkling of the sort of diversions the group is offering.
The New Yorkers are here courtesy of the World Art Project, a three-month-old nonprofit group headed by veteran actors Liza Politi and Sarah Hamilton. None of the participants is getting paid for their time and the organization itself is operating on "a wing and a prayer and contributions from very generous hearts," says Hamilton.
WAVELAND, Miss. -- Christmas won't slip through the cracks for the children of Waveland and Bay St. Louis this year if Margaret Raker, founder of GERT Ministries, has anything to say about it.
Operating at the margins of bigger, more organized relief efforts, Raker practices a kind of guerrilla relief. The Temperance, Mich., woman founded GERT (God's Emergency Response Team) on a shoestring, funding the three-person relief effort out of her own pocket and operating out of a "mobile command headquarters" cleverly disguised as an aging RV with threadbare tires and a wheezing eight-cylinder engine.
I have been very good this year! I even helped my parents clean up our house after the hurricane! So I think that I should get extra presents this year! So here is my wish list! These are in no particular order.
Sheetrock (because it gets really cold downstairs without it!)
Windows (for the same reason)
The debris outside my window gone (I used to have such a nice view)
Snow on Christmas ( I was gone last time it snowed)
Chanel shoes (the pink flats with the logo on the toe
A couch (because there is nowhere to sit!)
A big purse (to fit everything I'll never need)
A hot shower(the one we have is lukewarm)
Our neighbors (we are the only ones on the street)
Tickets to a U2 show (backstage passes preferably)
A REAL refrigerator (one that doesnt freeze the milk)
My all girls school (because boys are gross)
A grocery store (so we don't have to drive 30 miles and wait in really long lines)
A bookstore (because I've read all the books at the library)
No more people living in tents! (it is cold)
A Christmas tree (it isn't Christmas without one)
Something green outside (not just the debris)
A table (because we eat on the floor or the bed)
More designer shops in Mississippi (I only get to look at pretty clothes in magazines)
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- At the Business Assistance Center, two rows of chairs set up in a makeshift waiting area sit empty. Two employees of the Mississippi Department of Employment Services sit at a folding table that doubles as a desk, in front of a big "Employer's Assistance" sign, with only each other for company.
And yet you can't throw a rock here without hitting a "Help Wanted" sign. People ready to start rebuilding their homes can't find contractors with enough workers to begin the job. At the same time, the unemployment rate has hit a staggering 20 percent in an area that before Hurricane Katrina blew through was sitting a statewide low of 5 percent. The math just doesn't work.
WAVELAND, Miss. -- In a sense, Jose Luis and Maria Martinez created this situation themselves by moving to the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina with their four children, no place to stay and no job guarantee in pursuit of what so many want: The American Dream.
“We do this for our children,” Maria, 39, says of having left Houston in a run-down minivan with the hope that Jose Luis, 49, could cash in on the Katrina work boom that has drawn countless Hispanics to the hardest hit areas.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, its storm surge brought four feet of salt water into the Bay St. Louis post office. About a mile away, postal worker Micki Clifton rode out the storm on the roof of her house with her husband, her 16-year-old daughter and her 72-year-old mother.
Today, Clifton, a lifelong Bay St. Louis resident, is delivering mail to some of the few residents who have returned to their destroyed neighborhoods in Waveland. The route, which before the storm served 1,047 addresses now serves only about 25. "It's an adventure every day, let me tell you," Clifton says, searching in vain for anything familiar to guide her through the streets she used to know so well.