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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.

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Unlike the majority of people living in Hancock County, Miss., who have been born and raised there, my husband, Dave, and I are transplants.

After living aboard a boat for most of the past 25 years in places like San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Pensacola, West Palm Beach, and Key West, Fla., we discovered the Mississippi Gulf Coast. At a boat show in Biloxi in 2004, we talked to several people who raved about Bay St. Louis and Waveland, places we had never heard of before. They especially talked about the genuine hospitality, the outstanding food and the laid-back lifestyle. At the time, we had our boat up for sale and were looking for a place to call Home. I believe that there are no coincidences in life and it was no accident that we happened to talk to these particular people. We decided to check it out.

One April morning we left Pensacola and headed west on I-10. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is only 26 miles long, so we departed the interstate in favor of taking Highway 90, considered to be the “beach road.” At first it seemed that all we saw was one casino after another, but once Gulfport was in the rearview mirror, things changed dramatically. Stately homes framed by towering magnolia trees on the north side of the road and a beautiful, unspoiled beach on the south made the drive pleasant indeed. Coming into Hancock County for the very first time via the highway bridge connecting Bay St. Louis to Pass Christian was a sight I’ll always remember. How refreshing it was to see so much coastline unspoiled by condominiums and overdevelopment! We couldn’t wait to explore these towns that we had heard so much about.

After a couple of hours of driving around and deciding that we liked what we saw, we dialed the phone number of a Realtor whose name was on a sign in front of a house that we found interesting. To make a long story short, we bought the second house that Lori showed us. It was just two years old and in great condition, but what we loved about it the most was that it was on 100 feet of waterfront on a bayou off the Jourdan River. This river feeds into the Bay of St. Louis, which in turn feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. To two people who had lived on the water for so long, we felt as though we had died and gone to heaven.

Everything that the people we had spoken with at the Biloxi boat show said turned out to be true. In the South, food is a big deal, and every single restaurant we tried was outstanding. I truly believe that a mediocre restaurant could not survive here. But what struck us immediately about this place was The People. They look you right in the eye, smile, and say “Hey!” What a refreshing change from most of the places we’ve lived, where people deliberately look away and avoid eye contact at all costs. Conversations are struck up quickly and nearly everyone asked us where we were from, probably due to our blatant lack of Southern accents, I reckon. When we announced that we had just moved there, the standard response was, “Well, Welcome!” And it was genuine. That certainly didn’t happen anywhere we had lived! We immediately immersed ourselves in Hancock County, first joining the Chamber of Commerce and then the Bay-Waveland Yacht Club. Meeting people was easy and making friends was even easier. We loved it here.

With the exception of Mike and Diana, none of our friends could believe we moved to Mississippi. Many people have misconceptions about the South, and if you are one of them, I encourage you to check out the website www.mississippibelieveit.com. It just might change your perception. Mike, who sells mega-yachts, and Diana, a flight attendant for American Airlines, live on the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale. One day she and I had lunch. When I showed her pictures of our new home, she immediately said, “Mike would love this!” Again, long story short, they bought a house on our canal just a few months later. Their plans were to have it be their vacation home for a few years and eventually move here permanently. They loved it as much as we did.

Unless you’ve been through a disaster, I don’t think words can adequately describe what an ordeal day-to-day living becomes. Here it is, nearly a year after Katrina, and my neighborhood still looks pretty much like it did after the storm -- like it was bombed. Our street remains covered with dried up muck from the river. The main road coming into the subdivision is getting slowly but surely destroyed by the constant comings and goings of big trucks hauling debris, heavy equipment, and building materials. For that same reason, it’s impossible to leave the windows open in the FEMA trailer or to keep anything clean. The trunks of leafless, lifeless trees stand everywhere, threatening to fall any minute. Horseflies, mosquitoes and no-see-ums abound, thanks to a milder than normal winter. Here and there new houses are being built, but most of them are second homes. People are noticeably absent. There are no lawns, no flowers, and not many birds. We do, however, have an overabundance of stray dogs. The county doesn’t have the money for payroll, much less luxuries like animal control.

I think what is still hard to comprehend is that, after the storm, we found just a handful of belongings, and if you think about all the stuff in your house, garage and storage room, that’s pretty incredible. Our living room furniture, dining room table and chairs, beds, lamps, cabinets, appliances, bar-b-q pit, lawnmower, patio furniture … where did it all end up?

We lived in Bay St. Louis only 17 months, but we considered it home. Perhaps that’s why we came back one week after the hurricane and volunteered at the Chamber of Commerce. Eight out of every 10 businesses were damaged or destroyed, and many of these business owners lost their homes as well. We were committed to doing whatever we could to help. We did it for ourselves as much as for the county; we needed a reason to get up in the morning. When you’ve lost everything you own, depression will settle in very quickly unless you find a reason to step outside of yourself. Even if you do have a reason, it’s difficult to maintain a positive attitude. Life is far from normal—so much is gone, you’re living in the biggest trailer park in the world, and realistically, it’s going to take five to 10 years for the county to be vibrant and lively once again. Because so many people need homes, the price of building a house has gone up exponentially -- I would say 50 percent, and that’s being conservative. A word to the wise: if you haven’t increased your homeowners’ insurance coverage in several years, you might want to revisit that. We know so many people who cannot afford to replace what they lost because it costs so much to rebuild.

It was hard, but in May, nine months after Hurricane Katrina, we made the decision to leave Bay St. Louis, for awhile anyway. Our daughter, whose husband is in Iraq, gave birth to our first grandchild and we felt that we had a better reason to go than to stay. We’re getting an RV and that will be home, at least for the foreseeable future. But after Katrina, is anything really foreseeable? On Aug.27, 2005, I had everything I could possibly want. Two days later, all of those material things vanished. Going through Hurricane Katrina definitely ranks as the most intense experience I’ve had, and although I would never, ever want to go through it again, I learned so much. I certainly appreciate my husband, my family, my friends, and my furry children (two dogs) a whole lot more. The beauty of simple things like green grass, sidewalks on which to walk and grocery stores are seen through new eyes. I realize that I can live without a lot of the “stuff.” And even though I may not have everything I want, I know that I absolutely have everything I really need. As strange as it may sound, I feel truly blessed.

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I read your post carefully. As long as you have your husband, family, friends and dogs it's good! I don't know where ya'll came from but now you are Mississippians!

Maria, wherever you travel in that RV, it sounds to me like you will always consider MS your home. God bless you as you go on your way! Enjoy that new grandchild - grandchildren have a way of renewing faith, hope, and joy in our lives!

God Bless You! Praise God that you survived! It's hard for me to believe that a lot of things are still the same way... wow. I cannot imagine what you have described. It is so pitiful. However, you always know that there IS a rainbow after the storm! Maybe the flower is starting to bloom after all. :)

That was a great article. I am a transplant as well. I have had a hard time with family members who do not live here understanding what I am going through. This community is strong and the community itself allows us to lean on each other and helps us pick each other up everyday. I see that everyday through my students. This community will survive. Good Luck Maria and happy RVing.

Maria, ever since I moved to the Bay I loved it. We bought a boat and every weekend we went up the Jourdan River. Just before the storm we had built a house on a bayou just a couple of miles north of Pass Christian. We knew the storm was going to be very bad so we packed up the two dogs and two cats and headed out of town to Baton Rouge. As we passed over the I10 bridge across the river I just knew in my heart that I would never again see things the way they were at that moment. Our house and all our neighbors homes were destroyed (12 feet of water). Slowly they all are building back. I have had my moments and still do about going or staying. But for now we will stay and as I write this our contractor has a full crew working on our place. Today I have cried more than I have since this all happened a year ago tomorrow. I was so touched by your story, I felt just as you did when we built our house and moved in. We felt like we had found a place that the citizens cared about each other. All the reasons you mentioned is why we will start over again and we will remain on the coast of Mississippi. All the best to you and your family, take good care of the dogs. Sometimes pets can keep you going.

Maria: We, too, were transplants to the Bay. After 28 years in the Army and 8 years in NE TN, we settled on the Gulf Coast. We were living in an apartment on DeMontluzin and were building two houses: one for ourselves on Whispering Pines Dr. in Waveland and one for my parents in Pass.

We loved the Gulf -- of the 24 places we lived on active duty, no other place -- absolutely no other place -- was as magical as Bay Saint Louis.

We evacuated on Sunday and returned on Wednesday to find everything in the apartment ruined; everything in storage unit in Pass ruined (including all our family photos, wife's quilt collection, books, family treasures, you name it); you know what Whispering Pines Dr looks like and the neighborhood where my parents would have moved was destroyed.

We lost $45,000 of building materials, appliances, fixtures, etc.

We moved back to NE TN and just last month sold our lot in Waveland. We turned the lot in Pass over to a builder who has finished the house we planned for my parents and is now trying to sell it.

While we certainly admire those of you who are returning to rebuild, we just can't take a loss of this level and we refuse to go through another hurricane season. While other parts of the country are subject to natural catastrophes, nothing equals the destruction of a hurrican and we simply are not going through another one.

Best wishes to you all.
Joe in the mountains of East Tennessee at 1,500 feet above MSL and not coming down

As I wipe back the tears, I want to thank you for sharing your words. Its hard for some people to express their feelings for the coast, but you did a wonderful job describing it for us. I miss the old days, more now on the aniversay than ever. I will probably go to the candle light vigil tonight and the tears will be flowing. I can not believe it has been 'a year'. It's hard to be strong all the time, so the next two days I will let myself mourn. I do not want to celebrate, although I do want to thank everyone who has helped in anyway.

We will have our moment of silence at 9am Tuesday, August 29. There are going to be lots of events, prayers, and even a parade. I will get through the day in saddness. Then Wednesday I will put my 'strong hat' back on... lol. It is going to take a very long time, but this place, our home, is worth it. We need to protect it. Not let the politians keep us from rebuilding our towns the way they were. Watch out and keep an ear to the ground about zoning changes for commercial and multi family constuction. Be a voice and protect our town, your town. Help your neighbors. Donate your leftover build supplies and furniture to the next neighbor. If your home is built, then go help someone else finish their home. There is playground and fitness track equipment being donated to be built in front of the Hancock Medical Center on Thursday morning; go volunteer to help there too. We need to keep our 'old town' spirit alive, like the one Maria described. Our spirit is all we have left.

It's 6:15 am Aug. 9. At 9:00am I will observe a moment of silence also, Vanessa. Keep the spirit strong.

Dave and Maria are my neighbors. Although we only met a couple of times before the storm you can't imagine how much they have helped me since and inadvertently during the storm. Thats another story. I am a transplant too, retired Navy. The same points Maria made about Bay St. Louis is why I decided to settle here. I am almost back in my new house and have no plans in leaving the Gulf Coast. Hurricane or not.

Oh Sh** I don't know what's coming here right now. But toronado warning have been issued 12:05 pm. Shutting down my computer! Wish us well.

From beautiful Nanaimo, Vancouver Island Canada...my heart and many others here are with all of you during this very sad anniversary. I still grapple with how on earth such a disaster was able to happen. The natural disaster was uncontrollable but the aftermath...and watching all of the suffering and "waiting for help" has been devastating to watch on TV. How has this been allowed to happen in the USA???? God Bless all of you who are in the process of rebuilding your lives. The rainbow awaits you.:)

It is very heart wrenching, yet heart warming to read your stories, I live in Wisconsin and it is hard for us to see these things, but you have explained them very well. I appreciate your posts and pray for you all. Thank you.

As I read your story, I had to consider how many other people have gone through and felt exactly the same way you do. And, your right, to get up in the morning must be hard but you must have a reason even if its to go out and help eachother. I visited Waveland and helped rebuild a home with my husband and another couple. We stayed just a weekend and lived in a FEMA trailer so there was 4 adults. I couldn't imagine having to live in one of those for a year or longer. We came over in September and even then, there was trash and cars upside down all over. Some people still didn't have power, it was an experience that I'll never forget! My father-in-law is going down to the LA bayous this weekend to help them down there. They still have check points and are still finding bodies! It is a poor area that has just been completely forgotten! People have turned away from helping them because they say they lived liked that before the hurricane! Shame on Them!! Well, God Bless you all that are going through this!! There are better days ahead!

Thanks for the story and thank you for the comments on our lovely city.. well now a bit desolate but I have lived all of my 57 years here except for college..it is home, family , roots and people are laid back and trusting.. I wish you well, but I think in your Heart you will always be a resident of Mississippi.

Dear Maria -- All I can say is, "Hey! It's a DISASTER!" (You better still have your shirt!) I couldn't stop thinking of y'all today. And although we only knew each other for a short period of time, you and Dave were fast, good friends and the best of hosts during a difficult time earlier this year. Hopefully, we'll all get together again on the BSL beach someday and remember when. I send only sincere, heartfelt wishes to you & Dave and all of yours. Take care, my friend, and Godspeed!

Don't take offense to Dan's comment. He came down as a IEDC volunteer (International Economic Development Council) and helped the Hancock Chamber for a couple of weeks. It was his "vacation." As we drove around and he witnessed the destruction, it was so disheartening. All you could say is, "It's a disaster," because it was. That saying caught on and he had some t-shirts made to that effect. Thanks, Dan & Melody! Now that we're in an RV, you just might be seeing us before too long.

Sociologists agree that happiness is related far more to close friendships and a sense of belonging than to income or material goods. Since Katrina the bonding which has taken place among residents of already close-knit communities such as Bay Saint Louis and Waveland makes it very difficult for people like the Russells to leave their friends and neighbors and strike out for far colder (in every sense) parts of the United States, but, alas, leave they must. The facts are on the ground for all with the eyes to see: flooding, ruin and pestilence; economic deprivation; broken infrastructure; rebuilding on the waterfront principally for second homes and by developers with little stake in the community; limited insurance and harsher insurance conditions. It is all very well to blame the politicians and to place one’s faith and hopes on fairness, tradition and God, but politicians, despite their dubious talents in other areas, cannot defy nature and economics in the long-term any more than can their constituents, and the conundrum facing the Russells is essentially God-made. Take your children, pets, insurance money and what is left of your belongings and start over in a place which is not threatened with periodic destruction, and try to rebuild the precious sense of belonging that you have in Mississippi somewhere else. It’s hard to leave, but the alternative will be harder, and far more dangerous.

Thanks for such a beautiful, heartwarming post! I found it sad, however, to read how depressing things in Bay St. Louis had gotten to be and that you ended up leaving. My heart and prayers are going out to you. Hope all goes well with your daughter and her baby, and I pray that her husband stays safe in Iraq and makes it back home soon.

That sounds like it would be interesting, though--traveling in an RV. Maybe you'll run across a place you like better than Bay St. Louis--but if you don't, I hope you can eventually return to a rebuilt Bay St. Louis, or, at least, to Mississippi.

And I was happy to read at the end that you feel blessed. I strongly believe that if you FEEL blessed, you ARE blessed. Take care and God bless.

Hi Maria,

I'm grew up on the MS Gulf Coast myself (graduated from MGCCC and USM) and moved away 6 years ago to Dallas, TX for a new job. I was raised in Vancleave and absolutely love my hometown and the coast! Fear not though, we as a population survived the great storm (Hurricane Camille) back in '69. I do realize that as bad as Camille was, Katrina was even worse. However, one thing I'm sure you've come to learn is that the spirit of the Mississippian is not only hospitable, it is enduring. I can think of no better example of perseverance and the "can-do spirit" as I've travelled over this great country than that in Mississippi.

It will take time and it is hard for my family and friends back home, but I can assure you, the great Mississippi will survive and eventually excel again!

In the meantime, I will say prayers for you and your family. God bless you and yours!

shine, just keep "shineing on"...........dang did you listen to Grand Funk Railroad ?

Dear Maria,
I finally took the time to read your commentary on our situation in Hancock County, MS. You certainly hit the nail on the head. It has been a long 14 months but there is starting to be a small light a the end of the tunnell. Joey, Lori & I miss you and Dave terribly. We can not wait to see you again. Maybe one Mardi Gras' HA We had cruzin the coast last week and it was almost like old times in the Bay. That is what gives me hope that no matter how long it takes we will be back just a beautiful, strong, and fun as before. My biggest dream is that all the people that lost their homes will be back soon as I miss them all. This has been my home for 20 years and will hopefully be forever as you described it to perfection. After father's retirement and my move from the east end of the coast to Bay St. Louis; I finally found the city of my dreams. Love to you, Dave, and the children.
Sessie, Bay St. Louis, MS

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