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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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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – If the trees could talk, they would tell us everything.

Silent, gnarled sentries, the live oaks of the Mississippi Gulf Coast have seen it all. Since well before they beckoned Spanish and French explorers with their massive limbs like welcoming arms, the oaks have been dutiful witnesses to the timeless cycle of birth and life and death. And hurricanes.

Of Hurricane Katrina, 20 months after she unleashed her fury, they have two stories to tell. One story is as plain as the leaves on their branches. Denuded by 120 mph winds, the oaks now bristle like happy Chia pets.

“Last summer, you saw no green,” says Bay St. Louis artist and businessman Mark Currier. “This year, look at the live oaks!”

As with the oaks, the outward signs of human recovery are visible all along the coast.

Locals are planning the biggest party they’ve ever thrown to mark the opening of the new $267 million, four-lane Highway 90 bridge between Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian to the east. The nearby CSX railroad bridge has been open for a year now and freight trains rumble daily through town.

While the occasional jolting juxtapositions of stairs to nowhere and toilets on slabs remain, the breathtaking piles of debris that clotted the landscape after the storm are gone. The cleanup efforts, subsidized by billions in government spending, are in their final days.

Fast food and box stores

Between Waveland and Bay St. Louis, there are more flavors of fast food than you can shake a stick at and a healthy number of more refined eateries. There is still no stand-alone grocery store in either town, but the Wal-Mart in Waveland, forced into a circus tent after the storm, is back in its building and busting at the seams with everything from pineapples to patio furniture. Kmart has reopened, and a booming business in building materials is being done at a new Lowe’s and Home Depot as well as several outlets that pre-date the storm.

Tax revenue from gambling also is helping the battered local economies, through the reopened Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis (formerly the Casino Magic) and a new 5,000-square-foot casino at Bayou Caddy, attracting thousands of gamblers and generating millions in new tax revenue.

Housing construction has been slow, but skeletons of wood and steel are more numerous than they were six months ago, with the largest efforts still coming from volunteer crews and the Habitat for Humanity program. Little has been done to replace the hundreds of rental units lost to the storm but plans for new projects are emerging in both the public and private sectors.

In Bay St. Louis, city employees have moved out of their temporary post-Katrina City Hall at the Old Depot and regrouped on Highway 90 in the former Coast Electric compound, also home to a new police station. Late last month, the City Council approved a $14 million contract to replace utility lines in the downtown area.

While still governing from a collection of portable buildings at Coleman and Central avenues, Waveland is forging ahead on big-bucks projects to rebuild utilities and restore the devastated civic center complex at the old Waveland School.

Scant activity in downtown cores

The downtown cores of both cities remain very light on business and commercial activity, a fact laid mostly to post-Katrina insurance issues.

The beaches are clean and the cries of gulls fill the air at sunrise while wading fishermen stalk the shallows. Soccer moms meet like they do everywhere to stroll and confer on the jogging path along Beach Boulevard. The warm spring temperatures are luring ever more sunbathers, picnickers and swimmers.

But the live oaks – and the people of the hurricane zone – have a second, inner story that can’t be so easily seen and understood. As storms have battered the trees across the centuries, roots have shifted, trunks have twisted and limbs have curled in ways that are no longer apparent. Long after Betsy, Camille, Elena and Frederick, the oaks hew to the force of their winds and so too do the people.

It is no different in the aftermath of Katrina.

Just how it plays out is hard to divine. You cannot bisect hurricane survivors and look at a neat record of concentric rings for when and how they were wounded, healed and changed. But there are signs and there is talk, although most of it not on the record when a reporter is notebook-in-hand.

For some, it is a real sinking spell. Depression, drinking, drugging, marital discord, troubled teens -- they have seen much more of it all since the storm swept through. The situation is especially bleak in FEMA trailer parks, according to a recent study, with suicide and violence sadly common.

There is more suspicion about who has profited in the aftermath of Katrina, who is trying to pull a fast one. There is disgust with gouging landlords, agony over skyrocketing insurance rates and soaring utility bills. And there is constant distress over being forgotten by most of the nation and harshly judged by the rest of it.

Nobody 'has a fight left in them'

“I just think everyone is tired,” says Michelle Allee, an artist who displays her work in a Bay St. Louis gallery. “I don’t think anybody has a fight left in them.”

In political affairs, tensions are flaring over a Bay St. Louis City Council redistricting plan and Mayor Eddie Favre’s choice for a new police chief. Townsfolk mutter at each other under their breath at council meetings. In Waveland, Mayor Tommy Longo’s citizen detractors nitpick virtually every city decision from their folding chairs at sessions that recall the old admonition against watching sausage being made.

What are the inner stories here, coursing like sap through lives that have been entwined forever? “These people have known each other all their lives,” warns one transplanted county resident. “You don’t know how much of this is Katrina and how much of it is who beat who up in the first grade.”

And as old feuds and rivalries have been exacerbated by Katrina’s fallout, some unlikely new alliances have been forged.

It is a time of great soul-searching along the coast. The frantic hand-to-mouth pace of immediate survival and initial recovery has slowed. There is time for reflection, time to look for slivers of meaning as carefully as if they were shards of a precious heirloom smashed by Katrina into the red Mississippi clay, but an heirloom that might be pieced back together.

Some are wondering why they stay. It is at the top of a long list of perplexing questions. Should I rebuild? Should I reopen my business? Where? Why was my house spared? Should I feel guilty? Am I crazy? Are we all crazy?

No Cliffs Notes for this test

Even the most introspective seekers can find themselves puzzling like freshmen lit majors over a Faulkner novel. But there are Cliffs Notes for “The Sound and the Fury.” Not for this.

Just as we must wait to see when the leaves come back and then, wait much longer to see which direction the trunks will lean and the branches will grow, only the future will reveal how Katrina has changed these people, these towns, this coast.

Now, a new storm season is on the horizon, predicted to be “very active.” Whether a major hurricane spins out of the Atlantic, across the gulf and slaps Mississippi is anybody’s guess. But the possibility is on everybody’s mind.

When the winds do come again, in a year or in 30, the live oaks will be here as they have always been. They will shudder, they will bend, they will crack, and they will let loose their leaves in the howling breath of a new legend whose name awaits on an alphabetized list.

Then the trees will grow anew, and more will be revealed.

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209 COMMENTS

Thanks for the update. I will be heading to Gulf Port in a few hours. Those trees you so elequently describe were not on my agenda. Your story and pics have changed that.

I am saddened by the human despair, but like many, I can't help or at least I don't think I can, so I just watch from afar.

Thank you for such a beautiful reminder of the way I remember the Gulf Coast. As a LA resident, seeing the oak trees destroyed touched me more than anything. Building can be rebuilt, but I will not see the beauty of the trees replaced in my lifetime.
My son attended St. Stanislaus boarding school in Bay ST. Louis for 7 years. He is still is distraught over the loss of what he calls "his memories of growing up". I still pray for the people of the Gulf Coast and admire their ability to survive.
JTB

Living in New Orleans, and having relatives in Long Beach and Biloxi, I observe differences in recovery styles. People on the coast seem to be quietly rebuilding, retaining their world reknown charm and grace. Here, we seem to fuss, shout and complain, and eagerly allow ourselves to be used by the professional victim-mongers and march-organizers. It's great to see the Oaks coming back. In time, hopefully we will, too.

I'm from central LA, and toured this area last August with a friend who lost his home. It was still devastated even a year after Katrina. It is so wonderful to see that people are rebuilding their homes and businesses and nature is again taking her course, proven with the beautiful line of green trees.

What a beautiful view to see those green oaks again!

Our church just returned from its 3rd mission trip to the Gulf Coast. While some towns seem to be recovering well, our time in Pass Christian showed that other towns seem to be out of the limelight and not getting the attention they deserve. In Pass Christian, all municipal operations are still in trailers. The beach still needs to be cleaned up, only one gas station is open, there is no grocery store, the downtown is still out of business, churches are meeting in tents, all are signs of a wonderful place with wonderful people who are being left behind.

Yes, there are some signs of rebuilding and the trees are markedly different this year - although the heavy damage that they suffered is still abundantly apparent. The greenery seems to be a veneer of hope. It is similar to the tentative hope and the still evident suffering that I see in many of the residents. My heart breaks when the children ask, “Miss Suzanne do people know that we’re here?” Do I tell them “yes” or “no”?

I am not from the area, but have spent many months over the course of more than a dozen trips getting to know the locals. I have witnessed the spirit, determination and hope of the amazing people of Mississippi and Hancock County. I can say what most of them will not (they are perpetually gracious in the face of the extraordinary circumstances they have endured.) I have become endlessly frustrated knowing that 20 months post Katrina that most Americans do not realize that Hancock County was Ground Zero for Hurricane Katrina’s landfall and that 67 miles of Mississippi’s coastline has lost more than 90% of its buildings, many down to foundation and that more than 300,000 people populate this area. I too would become frustrated and not want to talk about it if I were them. I would fear that I would find myself putting a deadline on things, “If I don’t get a response/a full payout from my insurance company by _______ I just can’t do this anymore.” “If I cannot find someone to help me gut my house by _______ ….” Many of those who have given up are the ones who had deadlines on their hope for change. How do you move on to another area? If you “just move on” and stop paying your mortgage it’s hard to go elsewhere and rent a home or to get a job with a bankruptcy on your record (many employers check these days) – besides Mississippi is home. There is only a difference of four Hurricanes that have made landfall in the state of Mississippi and New York in the past 150 years. Should residents of all of the states with histories of a higher number of hurricane landfalls move? What about those who live in Earthquake zones, area with high flooding and heavy snow records? Are you not home too?

Please learn more about Mississippi and what has happened. There is so much to be learned for all of us. It is historical situation, hopefully we will all take some historical type of action that we have never taken before – and find a way to reach out to the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Even if you don't believe in global warming or that the sea level will be 10 to 20 feet higher in the next 150 years, it is foolish to live so close to the gulf coast. We need to be smarter and live safer. We cannot afford to keep rebuilding our commnities that fail to head the warnings.

My dad was one of 16 children from the Biloxi area, he helped to build the sea wall that is still there today. Those oak trees are like silent guardians guarding over the entire coast area. Mother Nature will heal herself and return stronger than before, as the people will recover and be stronger. God Bless

A 33yr resident of the Gulf Coast of Florida, I was horrified as I watched Katrina barrel northward through the Gulf. I knew that whoever bore the brunt of that storm would suffer greatly. I was brokenhearted to find that that came true and then some. It's so uplifting to watch people rise from the despair and destruction as if it is a completely new day for them. God Bless all who were touched by this tragedy.

I went to Biloxi over my senior fall break with some classmates to help clean up and rebuild and help in any way we could. It was a very sobering experience, and it continually reminds me how lucky I am every day. There is still so much to be done, and it's not too late to help. I was only there for three days and it changed my life forever.

keep your heads up folks...'what doesn't kill us makes us stronger'...great news about the live oaks, they are one of my first thoughts when i think of home. to see them battered and drab last summer was heart-breaking.

This may be odd but maybe someone reading can answer this. In this article and in other media over the years I have seen references to "live oaks". Is "live oak" a specific type of oak? Something unique to the south? You don't see "live maple" or "live pine".

I had occasion to visit New Orleans the weekend before last (for the Southeast Regional Junior Freestyle & Greco-Roman Wrestling Championships) and made a point of visiting the Lower Ninth Ward on Friday morning. Almost two years after Katrina, I was shocked and appalled to still see such devastation and the apparent absence of progress. How can this be? bush said whatever it took, he'd fix things. 'Course that was before he realized 80% of Naw-lins would likely vote in the opposition party. There are still destroyed houses sitting on top of destroyed houses. Many of the roads are still impassable. List this as another of the bush white house crimes & misdemeanors. Where has the money gone? Halliburton? This should be a much bigger story. We need weekly "lack of progress" reports.

I watched the eye of Hurricane Carol pass over my home back in 1954 on Long Island. I can only imagine what life is like for those who have to recover from Katrina. The thing is... They have to recover or make the decision to leave the area. There really are only two choices, aren't there?

@ Chris Eldridge:

Please remember, many of those folks work in the ports. This means many more people work in other capacities to support these port workers, be it a clerk at the Wal-Mart or an attendant at the local bowling alley. Who would work the ports if we move everyone off the coast? These people need our support, not our admonishment.

I had the privilege to work with Habitat for Humanity in Bay St. Louis September 2006. During my trip there I met a wonderful man named George. One of my fondest memories of the trip was when George showed me his favorite oak tree behind where his home used to stand on Washington Street. George and others from Bay St. Louis are in my thoughts and prayers daily. My hope is that they will continue rebuild not only physically but emotionally as well. God bless.

I spent a week in By St. Louis last June with the youth group from my church. Getting to know the people taught me a lot. I see a lot of similarities between the live oaks and the citizens of this area.I believe the deep abiding faith in God the people have is what keeps them anchored and gives them the strength to perservere. I wish them God's blessings.

Hurricane Katrina was bad enough in McComb, MS. Our electricity was out for two weeks. A mere inconvenience compared to what some people went through. We would listen helplessly on the front porch as our battery operated radio gave the horrifying accounts of what was going on the Gulf Coast, in New Orleans, in Bay St. Louis. Would I rebuild and make a go of it? What if I had grown up there, and spent all my life there? What if I had a wife and three kids to think about? What if I had lost everything? Would I rebuild, and stay? Honestly, I really don't know.

In New Boston, IL, many people were not allowed to rebuild in the high flood zone of the Mississippi River after the "500 year" flood in 1993. We understand that not many hurricanes have hit the state of Mississippi over the past 150 years, and that the state of NY has experienced hurricanes, too, but the most intense, damaging, expensive, and lethal storms ever to hit this country have always been in the Gulf and FL- Galveston 1900, Camille, Andrew, and Katrina just to name a few. Everyone's insurance rates all over the country pay to rebuild and rebuild again. Rebuild if you must, but why are the rest of us expected to pay for the rest of our lives too, while some towns Are moved away from flood zones?

To Chris in PA - that was an unfair remark amidst all the positive comments others were making! If that were the case, we need to tell people not to live in areas tornados hit, or earthquakes, or where it snows, or wildfires occur... My family has lived on the gulf coast for years and years - I couldn't imagine going anywhere else. We know we have the hurricanes to deal with. Katrina was very out of the ordinary and many people learned lessons. However, I don't know anyone that moved away and didn't come back. It's a great area to live in. Maybe you should try it and you wouldn't be so negative!!

I'm happy about the rebuilding, and healing, but much to my disappointment, I didn't read anything in this article about the people in NOLA. Is THAT city healing? I think if you are going to publish an article about Katrina, and how people are coping 20 months later, NOLA should be included. Everyone who's had to deal with this hurricane should be included. Not just a few.

I, like many, just don't want to talk about it any more. Maybe when who ever it is cleans out the recovery money and there isn't anything left for those patiently wating to rebuild or replace,we will somehow get our lives back together and somehow rebuild or replace. Thanks for giving me a chance to vent. sign me (Tired & wore out)

Pretty and simple: God bless(ed) America! The resilience of the trees and people demonstrate this.

To Bob K: Live oaks are so-called because they don't lose their leaves in the fall, like many other species of oaks do. They generally have smaller leaves than deciduous oaks. Southern live oaks, such as the ones in Hancock County, are of the species "Quercus virginiana."

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