What is this?

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.

Map of Southeaster United States

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.

Background on the towns and this project is available under the about tab above.

Click here for bios of the reporters and media producers who have worked on the series.

How you can help

RSS 

Get the latest stories, journal entries and images via RSS subscription.

WEST PEARL RIVER, La. – Denny Holmberg is trying to get by with a little help from his friends: alligators, turtles, flying squirrels, bass and gar, wild boar and 29 different kinds of spiders, just to name a few. Oh, and don’t forget a handful of kind-hearted humans.

Two years after Katrina swamped his once-thriving swamp tour business, Holmberg is still in a world of hurt. In a cruel encore to the hurricane’s devastation, Holmberg was hit just after the storm by a recurrent brain tumor that had been in remission for a decade. Surgery and drugs have left him subject to frequent seizures, unable to run his business, down to his last few dollars and wondering how he’ll pay for another operation.

“Eeeaaahhhh!” bellows Holmberg from his moss-draped compound on the banks of the Pearl River, where Highway 90 crosses it just west of the Mississippi state line. These days, a good Cajun yell – at once mournful and joyful -- sometimes comes easier than words for Holmberg and seems a fitting summation of his predicament.

Trim and handsome, Holmberg, 56, couldn’t look more the part of a backwoods guide with his neat gray mustache and goatee, Indiana Jones hat and, hanging on a string around his neck, a 3-inch tooth from a 17-foot gator. He will not venture anywhere near the water without a life vest that he could inflate with the pull of a tab should he feel a seizure coming on.

“I love the swamp,” says Holmberg. And the swamp loved him back for 25 years, providing a fine income from Mr. Denny’s Voyageur Canoe Swamp Tours. With seven canoes and several guides, Holmberg’s tours took as many as 150 visitors a day at $20 to $50 a head up the river’s tiny tributaries. Powered only by paddles, the boats let their occupants slip quietly across thick carpets of salvinia grass and beneath towering cypress trees to get an up-close look at the amazing array of wildlife in the swamp.

But Katrina washed away Holmberg’s modest riverside home and four of the seven 22-foot canoes that he designed and built himself, modeled on the Canadian fur-trading boats he paddled and raced as a youth in Minnesota. Then the tumor returned, leaving him unable to rebuild his home or business.

Since his last surgery, Holmberg has been living in a FEMA trailer on $700 a month in disability payments, mostly consumed by his prescriptions. His home was uninsured – “foolish enough to live on a river,” he shrugs – and he got $9,000 in Katrina grant money, now almost gone.

“I’m in a dilemma,” Holmberg says, which is just where Russ Vandercook found him in late June, packing his few remaining belongings into a couple of plywood crates for a move back to Minnesota, where his mother, brother and sister live.

070825_swamptour_hmed_460 Russ Vandercook, left, is helping Denny Holmberg re-establish his swamp tour business. Image: John Brecher / MSNBC.com

Vandercook, a building contractor, was looking for recreational outlets for the AmeriCorps crews he was working with on Katrina relief efforts. When he heard Holmberg’s story, he decided to help get the swamp tour business going again as a way to help Holmberg raise enough money to rebuild his house, take care of his health needs and stay near his three kids, 20, 16 and 14, who still live in the area. Eventually, Vandercook hopes, the business will provide a living for him too.

For now, Vandercook, his wife, son and a couple of friends are guiding whatever tours they can book to raise money for Holmberg. Their efforts have been adopted by a Hancock County relief organization, which is publicizing the tours on its Web site, and Vandercook is promoting the business with new brochures and yellow pages listings.

Vandercook, 47, himself a recent transplant from Michigan, has developed a passion for the swamp and loves to pull canoes through the muddy water wearing camo pants with a foot-long combat knife strapped to his thigh.

And he has grown very fond of Holmberg, helping him sort through his medical and financial issues and deal with the seizures that come at least several times a week and sometimes once a day. One of Vandercook’s biggest goals is to see Holmberg, who studied biology, lead tours again.

“You get out here with Denny and it’s just like going back to school,” he says. “He’s a very knowledgeable man. We just wish it wasn’t stuck in his head right now.”

They gave it a test run of sorts recently.

“He said he’d never get back in the boat because of the seizures,” Vandercook says, “but we took the middle seat out and put some cushions in and put him down in there and took him out in the swamp.”

The voyage was a success, Holmberg said, unleashing another “Eeeaaahhhh!” for emphasis.

NOTE: Mr. Denny’s Voyageur Swamp Tours can be reached at 985-643-4839.


MAIN PAGE NEXT POST Sense of optimism takes seed

Email this EMAIL THIS

16 COMMENTS

What a wonderful, inspiring post! Denny sure is fortunate that Vandercook came along--and I hope his health improves and wish his swamp tours every bit of success. And thanks for the slide show--my computer doesn't have audio but the pictures are beautiful.

Wonderful story and great photos. As a photographer who is interested in the swamp and the wildlife there I will be making a trip to see Mr. Holmberg.

I work in travel and often am able to book tours but only if associated with a hotel. Do you have any such association?
TNX

If I am ever in the area in which I will be you are tops on my list

Denny is a true Katrina victim as well as survivor. There are many lives that need rebuilding as we sit at the 2 year anniversary of Katrina. I have personally watched Denny and Russ begin the jorney of rebuilding their lives and buisness. They are HEROES! They need a lot of support and tours! Thanks for spreading the word to the rest of America!

I second what Todd says about Denny and Russ being HEROES. Wish I were able to come down and take one of their tours as well as visit and see the rest of the storm zone firsthand. But I can at this time only provide moral support and cheer them on from afar.

Katrina survivors ARE heroes who deserve the support of all other Americans--as much as are the 9/11 widows and everybody else who lived through that horrific event. The following is something shameful that truly bothers me: The fact that from the rest of America from the government on down, the 9/11 widows and other survivors, even close to 6 years after the attack, are still getting sympathy, respect, and attention. Also, after 9/11, they got a far better deal in terms of aid from the federal government than the Katrina survivors have. And I've never heard of anybody saying they have "9/11 fatigue."

However, regarding Katrina survivors--while right after the storm there was a massive outpouring of sympathy and aid from the average American, as early as 2 months later--or maybe even sooner--many Americans outside the area started experiencing "Katrina fatigue." Both the Bush Administration and Congress dragged their heels when it came to providing aid, and when aid was provided, it wasn't enough. And coverage in the mainstream media for the most part dried up in spite of the fact that survivors in Mississippi and Louisiana are still in a world of hurt.

Why is this? I find this disparity grossly unfair and I feel Katrina survivors (I prefer "survivors," which is a more positive term than "victims," because to me a "victim" is someone who has died) should make their voices heard by the Administration, presidential candidates and other politicians, and the media so the spotlight will be kept on their situation. It's time for someone to start a grassroots effort to make this happen.

What a great testimony of a family giving up their needs to help others. Katrina changed alot of lives and it is a great inspiration to see others stepping in to help this community get back to some normality. Our hats are off to the Vandercooks and those that have helped in Denny's life.

This past summer, I had the privilege of leading swamp tours along side Russ. I also was a able to experience Denny back out on the swamp for the first time. Both Denny and Russ are amazing people that have had a everlasting impact on my life. Russ' actions taught me more about friendship and love than I can explain. Denny's determination, knowledge, and kindheartedness have left a mark on my heart forever. I want to thank both of them for all they have done for me. Thanks to everyone else who has been a part of rebuilding the homes and lives of the Hurricane Katrina Victims. They are people just like you and I who, like Denny, had their lives flipped upside down. Thank-you for your prayers and support.

Wow, Denny is a true survivor. What a wonderful story this is. It is such a pleasure knowing that there are people willing to help like Vandermark has.

Over the years we have enjoyed several tours on the West Pearl with our young children, who are now young adults. The tours inspired them to be enviromentally aware and it's so good to know that you are part of the recovery after Katrina. We'll add your tour onto our list of "gotta do's" and hopefully see you by next summer.

I was able to spend a week in Feb 2007 in the Slidel,La area working along with other volunteers, including Russ Vandercook, helping to rebuild homes damaged by Katrina. The images are still vivid in my minds eye of the resultant distruction of property and devastation of peoples lives. The survivors deserve the opportunity and help to reclaim their lives and livelyhoods. I applaud Russ for helping and Denny for his amazing resilience. Good luck and God bless you both.

What an inspiring story. I see surviovors and kinship in these to individuals and great role models to us all. It is hard to believe that after 2 years there is still so much more work to be done. Prayers and blessings to these two men and the people of the Slidel, LA and the surrounding areas as they continue to rebuild thier lives.

My friend and I were lucky enough to go on a swamp tour with Russ and his wife. It was so amazing and rich; a much more rewarding experience then going on one of those large tour boats. If you have the opportunity to go don’t miss out.

Wonderfull story, i would love to be there with them.

The stories of courage and strength just keep flowing out of this site, which is an amazing testament to the importance that the internet can play in keeping us connected and informed with regards to something as tragic and important as Katrina and the people she affected.

A truly inspiring story, this one! I never thought the swamp would look as beautiful as it does in the images here... makes me want to try one of those tours. The gators are so intimidating though... how to get past that will be my challenge. . .

I will post a link for this story

We'll be there. Hope you can wait for us.

Comments for this post have been closed.

TRACKBACKS

Trackbacks are links to weblogs that reference this post. Like comments, trackbacks do no appear until approved by us. The trackback URL for this post is: http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451b0aa69e200e54ed180e48833

More Rising from Ruin

Story tips?