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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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Before the storm, we counted ourselves lucky to live on Mollere Drive, known far and wide as the prettiest street in Waveland, Miss. My husband had retired from a D.C. job and we moved here in 2000. We had just finished a five year renovation of our entire home and thought everything perfect. We had added a covered patio complete with a hot tub and John finally had the workshop he had longed for. Then Hurricane Katrina hit and we lost everything.

After the hurricane we sent my mom, who lived with us, to stay with my brother near Seattle. We had friends who urged us to relocate, but for John and me it was an easy decision to stay in Waveland and rebuild. This is where we chose to retire and spend the rest of our lives and the hurricane did not change that. One of the many reasons was that in the five years we had been here, we had formed fast friendships with so many people. We love being within walking distance of the beach, we love the slow pace of life and we enjoy being a part of a lively and diverse arts community.

However, not everyone was able to make that decision. The hurricane tore apart more than our town and the houses on our street; it destroyed the fabric of our community. Many of our neighbors who evacuated to other parts of the country have remained there for one reason or another -- jobs, schools, health care. We still miss them.

John and my niece, Barbara, spent four months sorting through the layers and layers of debris on our property, salvaging what they could of ours and our neighbors. Finally, we signed the forms to bulldoze and clear our property. Much like pioneers, we looked at the land, walked it off and laid tree branches and pieces of wood to mark off where we wanted the various rooms in our new house. We decided on a different floor plan; one without hallways, with bedrooms opening off a large central open space. We built this house with our kids and grandkids in mind. As the plan evolved we sent copies for Mom and the kids to see.

The exterior is raised Acadian style as evidenced by the pitch of the roof and the spacious porches which stretch across both the front and back. Underneath are the elevator shaft, parking and John's workshop. Following the FEMA guidelines we built up 8 feet, bringing us to 23 feet above sea level.

John spent hours and hours researching building materials. Our goal was not to build bigger but better. We decided on a SIP (structural insulated panel) system for strength and energy efficiency. John acted as general contractor and we contracted with our then son-in-law to build the house. Along the way, John bartered lumber that he had salvaged after the storm for plumbing services and we engaged another friend to do the electrical. Labor was in short supply.

For 19 long months, John and I lived in a trailer while we planned and built our home. There were countless delays, frustrations with the insurance company and astonishment as the cost of rebuilding kept going up. I could write a book about the endless paperwork involved in insurance claims and applying for grants. Looking back, I do not know how we did it. I’ve got to admit it was hard but we survived by making a pact not to be angry or depressed at the same time. We had to be strong for each other.

We were able to get another trailer and Mom came home. She kept us fed and did the wash, which allowed us more time to work on the house. All the kids helped when they could – even the grandkids. Brett, Sanjana, and Raj strung telephone and computer cable in the attic while Amy and Andy helped with the porch railings. The grandkids blessed the house with hundreds of hand–drawn crosses on the studs before the sheetrock went in.

We were the first on our street to rebuild and during the process, our neighbors would come by to watch, ask questions and offer help. The process of rebuilding was a rewarding and unique experience. We have all grown closer as we have shared ideas and sources for building materials, fixtures and appliances. We know each other’s homes inside and out.

My job was picking out the windows, doors, cabinets, wall finishes, trim work, tile, flooring and wall colors. John sanded doors he’d salvaged, built shelves, installed sinks and toilets, toiled ceaselessly in every possible way.

We began work on the house in July 2006 and we moved in as soon as we had a bedroom, a working toilet and sink, which was in early March 2007. Workers continued for another few weeks while John and Barbara finished the four giant beams they had salvaged. The 23-foot beams are suspended in the large central open area with light fixtures and fans hanging from them. The interior of the house is very contemporary and spare in contrast to the old house, which had been filled with antiques and an extensive art collection.

This summer, three of our grandchildren, Raj, Anna and Meera, spent a week visiting, going crabbing, playing at the beach going sailing for the first time and checking out books at the Waveland Library. At the end of the week, they decided to hold a talent show featuring magic, art and karate. On their own initiative, they printed tickets and a program inviting neighbors and family. They also
served banana bread and pudding cups they made themselves. At the end of the show they announced that all donations would go to a local charity. Including their unspent allowance, they collected $33.00, which they donated to the rebuilding of the Waveland Library, which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Today, there are five houses on our street and we celebrate each one. Collectively, we’ve bought a tiller. For not only do we have to rebuild our homes, we also have to rebuild our yards – something else we took for granted. Starting from scratch, we've added truck loads of fill, then sod and now trees and shrubs. When we planted twenty crepe myrtle trees along our property line, our next door neighbors offered to split the costs. One of the empty lots has become the Mollere Drive Community Garden and, next spring our street will be on the Spring Pilgrimage.

Rebuilding encompasses not only houses and yards but our street infrastructure as well. New water, sewer and gas lines have been installed and, after months of dirt roads, our street has been paved. Each home boasts a sewer bladder in the front yard, but they will be removed when we are tied into the new sewer system. The mayor and department heads have held numerous public meetings to keep citizens informed of the infrastructure projects and our alderman sends out monthly newsletters.

John continues to be the spokesperson and leader for our street. He salvaged our "Christmas Card Lane" signs in the storm debris and saved them. When the City decided to bring back the Christmas parade, our street was added to the parade route. It may seem like a small step, but it was a huge step in our recovery. "Christmas Card Lane" is a 30 year old tradition around here.

When the Waveland Community Coalition handed out awards this spring for Best Neighborhood, John and Mom accepted the award on behalf of our neighbors on Mollere Drive.

House by house, street by street, Waveland is coming back to life.

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6 COMMENTS

how brave you are. i´m amazed by your resilience and moved by your story. god bless you all...especially your brave mom!

I have traveled from Greensboro NC twice to help rebuild the Biloxi Waveland area. We have a sense of "kinship" to the area as we have seen the distruction, desperation and finally hope began to reclaim the area. I was honored to be used by God to help those who were lost and needed comfort. I will never be the same and Waveland will always live in my heart.

I read through tears, Gwen's account of rebuilding on Mollere Drive. The tears were a mixture of hurt for their past loss and happiness for their accomplishments. Words are inadequate to express the pride that I feel for my sister, brother-in-law, mother and daughter. My husband and I live in Japan and have spent the past 3 years watching (and helping when we could)our family rebuild their lives. Gwen gave an excellent account of the time and energy it has taken to rebuild. What she did not say, (because of her humble way) is that she and John have helped so many others rebuild their lives. Immediately after Katrina, John set up tables of "found" treasures for people to look through. As we know, even the smallest memory was a God-send to those who lost everything. Gwen and John immediately thought of others as they rounded up support for the ARTS. After exhausting days, their nights were filled with researching ways to help their community finding displaced artist, locating help, and revitalizing participation in the Arts. Gwen has written grants, knocked on doors and email request around the world. John has been her "Rock", with his easy "What's my list today, honey" attitude. Gwen is now teaching teachers to bring the joy of Art to the children of the area. It's impossible to name all of the ways I've seen Gwen and John help others. Sharing essentials like water and food, tools, and their love for the Coast. So much was taken by the storm, yet so much has been given. Our daughter, Barbara has learned carpentry and life skills and she has shown her true character as she has helped our family. It is with pride that we see the woman she has become. My mom has amazed all of us as she continues to find joy in the gracious way of life on the Coast. She too is my role-model. In closing, my tears are also tears of pride as I realize how very special my family is and how much they love the area that is so affectionately called "The Coast". It is with much love and pride that we call Waveland, MS our home now. As another hurricane now presses towards the Gulf, our thoughts are not regret for making this our home, our thoughts are of survival because we've seen the finest examples of how to handle loss and how to rebuild and move on. Thank you Gwen, John, Mom and Barbara for showing us the way. Love, Tahmi and Ralph Keir

I have been to your town and fell in love with it. Despite the losses you've seen, I'd still love to foolow your path and retire on the gulf.
I hope your blessings continue and that angels protect your community against current and future threats.

What a wonderful and inspiring story. I live where the snow flies and complain about it often. Then I am reminded of what mother nature can REALLY do, and I stop my moaning and groaning. As I write this, Gustav is bearing down and I hope you and your very special neighborhood remain intact. My thoughts are with all those in the path of Gustav and future storms.

I am at a lost for words. This was so inspiring. I would not have the strength to indure what your family and friends down there did. God was surely with you as he guided you forward. May he be with you in this next challenge.

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