Amid hurricane ruins, resilience and hope
In Waveland, Miss., one of the hardest-hit towns, residents reach out to comfort and help.
Nothing looks as it used to in this historic beachside hamlet. An attic sits atop railroad lines. The altar of a Catholic church sits unshielded on a slab of concrete looking out at the ocean. Displaced community members are living in tents in a Kmart parking lot.
Near one of the many relief and rescue stations along Highway 90 is the Lutheran Church of the Pines. Inside, hymnals and leaves are scattered across the floor. The organ has been smashed against the ground. But a church organist has brought his piano from home, dried and set up chairs on the front lawn, and painted a sign so that community members know they can worship here on the first Sunday since hurricane Katrina struck.
Only some 20 members of 175 showed up for that service, but those who did were able to mourn and pray together - and share tales of selflessness.
"The loss of life is going to be devastating," said Hayward Guenard, before church began. "But the stories of survival are going to be more powerful," he avowed. Mr. Guenard lives in Indianapolis but has traveled to the Gulf to help his family.
The Waveland Police Department estimates that only 20 percent of the town's 7,000 members are currently residing in the community, and the death toll is still undetermined. But those who were there on a recent day - some setting up tents on slabs, others living among mold, silt, and the giant roots of oak trees - exhibited a Southern hospitality and indomitable spirit, giving hope that one of the region's most impacted areas would make it.
And throughout the region, many have even found moments of humor. The levity, however brief, is one way to deal with the loss of life and destruction of homes and landmarks that at times have seemed too much to bear.
Take Carole Janssen. When the hurricane struck, and her oak dining table was no longer keeping water and wind outside her home's French doors, Ms. Janssen tried to make the best of the situation: The septuagenarian, who is fond of water aerobics, sat in an old chair and began extending her legs to get some exercise.
"It was perfect for doing the bicycle," she says with a laugh, reenacting perhaps the most unusual routine she has ever improvised.
Even though communication was completely down, survival stories have spread just the same. The entire Waveland police force, for one, waited out the storm together - 12 on the roof, and 14 in a nearby bush - until the waters receded.
Arguably the most famous story is that of Brian Mollere, who treaded in 25-foot water, clinging to tree limbs and withstanding wind that sounded like 100 freight trains, all with his Chihuahua Rocky over his shoulder. He made it across railroad tracks to the French doors on the second floor of a newly built home.
When he knocked, no one came. So he stopped for a second and considered braving the surge yet again.
"He didn't want to bust the door. Now that is what I call character," says Bart Brooks, whose family finally saw Mr. Mollere from the window and let him in.
Indeed, acts of kindness have been plentiful. Mr. Guenard, who himself survived hurricane Camille 35 years ago, has been driving around Waveland with ice chests, gas, and food packed into a U-Haul. And some of the compassionate deeds he's witnessed have brought him to tears: He saw one man who lost everything wandering the streets with a wheelbarrow to care for abandoned pets.
But there is a dark underbelly in the aftermath of Katrina. A curfew is in effect in Waveland after nightfall. Officers have been working around the clock, says Brent Anderson, an investigator with the Waveland Police Department, to catch looters.
Residents are also arming themselves. "Everybody has a gun," says Mary Brooks, Bart's wife. "These are some of the most peaceful, God-loving people around, but people are desperate. Most people have nothing left."
Waveland's town center, for example, is unrecognizable. Only a mural of a beach scene stands where City Hall once was.
Still, they have their humor. "Brian, you need anything?" yelled an officer from the sheriff's department, as Mollere set up a tarp to keep the sun from where he and a neighbor now call home. "You have a million dollars?" Mollere asked. "Tell everyone in the US to send me a dollar."
Visitors continued to stream by his encampment throughout the day. Each time, he offered a cold beverage or something to eat from his ice chest.
It's a typical gesture. At the Brooks household, a yellow home with a traditional Southern porch and a huge front lawn where Mollere ended up, Judi Brooks offers lemonade to visitors, even though mud has covered most of the house. She also rushes to show photos of her son Bart's wedding. "It's the Southern way," says Mollere.
For now, the company keeps his mind off things. He lost his mother in this storm and knows that soon he will grieve when the shock dissipates. "See how everyone pulls together?" he says. "Everyone lost something, or someone, or everything," he says.
Normalcy will not come soon. Many residents, like the Janssens, are moving away until they can rebuild. Some might never return.
But residents hope they do. Eric Stock and Jane Eisenhardt didn't know what they'd be driving back to, but no matter how bad it was, they wanted to face it. With the same kind of washable paint used to write "Just Married" on the back of newlyweds' cars, they wrote on their truck: "Waveland, MS :) Going home!"
And now that they're back? Says Ms. Eisenhardt: "It's good to be home."