PASS CHRISTIAN, Mississippi (Reuters) - When hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans it also ravaged a series of small towns. Nearly two years later they have faded from the spotlight but are still struggling to rebuild.
Katrina left a trail of damage from Mobile, Alabama, through the cities of Gulfport and Biloxi with their casinos all the way along the coast to the Louisiana-Texas state line.
Recovery has been “at best, uneven” according to a recent report by the Rockefeller Foundation. Many towns, including Pass Christian, Mississippi, face a particular challenge because of their small tax base.
Residents say that limits local government’s options, and as the plight of places like Pass Christian (pronounced Pass Chris-chee-an) fades from the headlines it has become harder to attract volunteers to help with the No. 1 need — rebuilding.
As a result residents fear they will have to open up to developers their greatest asset, the strip overlooking the beach, raising housing prices and forcing out families who have been in town for generations.
“What we don’t want is miles of high-rises on the Gulf of Mexico white sands and no access to our citizens,” said Diane Peranich, a state representative who grew up in the area.
“Those of us who have been here as long as the mosquitoes are not going anyplace. You are welcome to come join us but you are not going to replace us,” she said.
Few of the town’s houses were left unscathed by Katrina and the old beachfront mansions were devastated.
Residents say they see signs of progress, but to an outsider what is most striking are the scenes of destruction remaining, particularly on back streets.
Concrete foundations are all that remain of houses on one street, while on another a crumpled roof rests on the ground. Next to the remains of what must once have been a dream home sits a swimming pool filled with dark green slime.
Pass Christian benefits from a group of citizens determined to resurrect the town, as well as rebuilding their own homes.
Government buildings and a library, volunteer center and two banks are clustered in trailers behind the main park in a community that had a population of 6,000 before Katrina.
The library, whose 17,000 titles were all donated since the storm, serves as a nerve center and meeting point.
“I can’t feel sorry for myself because you are standing in a group. Everybody lost their home. I think that people in Pass Christian are resilient and hard-headed,” said librarian Sally James, 69, who lost her home in the storm.
“I hope I can live another 10 years so that I can see the changes that will come,” said James.
But the process is complicated by bureaucracy and a host of hidden costs. Families lost jobs as well as homes and many now live without health insurance as a result, residents said.
Residents trying to rebuild face the hurdle of applying for government loans, while flood insurance costs have soared.
Pass Christian’s difficulties pale compared to those of Pearlington, which as an “unincorporated” town does not have a tax base or local government to coordinate reconstruction.
Pearlington is four miles (6 km) inland but Katrina sent a surge of water racing up the Pearl River that flooded the town and rendered all but four of its houses uninhabitable.
The local school and post office remain closed, few businesses have reopened and only a quarter of its 800 homes have been rebuilt, according to Glenn Locklin of the charity One House at a Time.
Volunteers are key to reconstruction but their numbers have dwindled as other natural disasters, such as a tornado in May that ravaged a town in Kansas, have drawn the focus of concern away from the aftermath of Katrina, he said.
“You don’t hear about us anymore. They say we’re not news,” Locklin said. “The one thing people don’t realize is that we are just as bad as we were.”
Lula Jones’ story typifies the problems many families face. The surge flipped her house on its back, splitting it in two and dumping on her new car.
Before the storm she had to quit her career as a teacher because of a stroke and since then her husband George, a military veteran who later worked as a truck driver, had surgery and is now disabled. As a result they don’t qualify for a government loan and can’t rebuild their home.
These days she sits outside a government-issued trailer next to her half-rebuilt house, a book of photographs showing life before Katrina at hand.
“We are on a fixed income. We are just struggling. It’s hard,” she said. “We are taking it one day at a time.”