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.
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – With Christmas nigh, Hancock County is taking a breather.
On the eve of the big day, there’s very little traffic or action on the countless construction jobs. Even the normally packed Wal-Mart and Waffle House are only sparsely populated. Locals are huddling with friends and families in whatever shelter they have, and crews of workers have left the area for the holiday. It is, after all, a Saturday.
Making a bright appearance throughout Waveland and Bay St. Louis, however, are numerous homes, businesses and, yes, FEMA trailers, that their occupants found the time and spirit to decorate despite the demands of post-Katrina life.
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.
Geralyn Bleau receives a call from her husband, Gil, as he makes his way home for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. Completion of a ramp to Bleau's FEMA trailer happened in time for Gil, who uses a wheelchair, to come home for Christmas from a nursing home where he spent the last few months. Click 'play' to see Gil come home. (J. Brecher / MSNBC.com)
WAVELAND, Miss. -- Big Gil Bleau is home for the holidays and he and his family want you to know one thing for sure: “If it wasn’t for FEMA, I wouldn’t be here.”
In a story that would thaw the coldest heart, Bleau sits today in his wheelchair in a specially outfitted travel trailer at the top of a lovingly constructed ramp in front of his hurricane-wasted home down on Keller Street a bit north of the railroad tracks. And Gil, his wife, Geralyn, and their kids say they owe it all to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more often the focus of ire in Katrina’s wake.
WAVELAND, Miss. – Santa’s elves eschewed the big guy’s sleigh and showed up in a U-Haul truck Thursday to hand out toys, clothing and Christmas trees to dozens of Katrina victims in this devastated community.
“The town of Lincoln City, Ore., drove five days to bring you this stuff,” local organizer Ron Hill told the eager crowd of moms, dads and kids who lined up along the truck in a Highway 90 parking lot. “Everything in this parking lot is for y’all.”
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- A FEMA contract to house Katrina evacuees on cruise ships, roundly blasted as exorbitant government spending, is currently costing U.S. taxpayers substantially more per person than some of its harshest critics estimated -- nearly $250 per person per night, according to figures obtained by MSNBC.com.
At that rate, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would spend more than $175,000 for each family of four that lives for six months aboard one of the three ships provided under the $236 million contract with Carnival Cruise Lines. Room service also is included in that price tag -- three meals a day and snacks.
Click 'Play' to see and hear Curt Dunstan, a Bechtel engineer, describe the appointments of a FEMA-issued travel trailer.
If pictures of the wholesale devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast are what the American public remembers most about this disaster, then the bright white, 35-foot aluminum breadbox known as a "FEMA trailer" is a close second for Katrina's most iconic image.
These FEMA trailers dot the landscape here like metallic dominos, strewn along the Gulf Coast in patterns as random as the hurricane winds that took the dwellings they now replace. In other areas the trailers sit in neat tight rows, as if aligned by some control freak construction foreman. Such areas are known as "emergency group" sites -- or "egg" sites as FEMA personnel call them. They amount to aluminum subdivisions, complete with their own water, sewer and electric hook-ups; they have roads and even centralized laundry facilities in some cases.
The last time I wrote my blog, I was having good days and bad days. Well, that hasn't changed much. But with the holidays just two days away, I find myself irritable, short-tempered and not really able to focus. I guess it's just the emotion of the holiday fast approaching. All the normal traditions will not be this year. No more enjoying friends as before, mainly because they have no home and have either gone to stay with family or have moved away permanently. And then there's the tradition of enjoying a meal with friends and family. Well, in a FEMA trailer, cooking a Christmas meal is literally impossible. I think the ovens in the trailers are about 1 foot high and maybe 18 inches wide.
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- The storm that left this region drowning in debt and need also inundated it with some infamous examples of government spending.
From oak-lined Waveland Avenue to the quaint cottages of St. Charles Street in Bay St. Louis, the Katrina-wrought equivalents of the proverbial $600 toilet seat, courtesy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are everywhere to be seen. Behold:
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – To the long list of things that will be missing this holiday season in this storm-struck town, add one more: fireworks.
At the fire chief’s request, Mayor Eddie Favre on Tuesday night asked the City Council to suspend the sale and use of fireworks. Officials worry that all the debris on the ground and blue tarps on the roofs of battered homes pose too great a hazard to allow skyrockets and sparklers to close out the Year of Katrina.