Pearlington residents growing weary of hurricanes

Published 1:21 pm Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Charles Russ is a stubborn old cuss.

From the front porch of his house near the banks of the Pearl River, he has watched life, hurricanes and high water pass by for more than 40 years, and he’s still here.

His recollections of violent storms go back to Hurricane Betsy in 1965, followed by Camille four years later.

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“I rode Camille and Betsy out sitting right in this house” with minimal damage, he said.

Hurricane Katrina was different. The 2005 storm ripped off his front porch, damaged the roof and destroyed doors and windows. It also swept away a house across the road that was built on stilts 17 feet above the ground, and dismantled another that had stood next door since 1885.

“I had to rebuild” after that one, Russ said.

He wasn’t alone. Katrina submerged most of the homes in Pearlington, and now, storm-weary residents are again throwing out rotted carpet and ruined drywall after hurricanes Gustav and Ike brought more high water.

Flood levels varied, but an estimated 139 Pearlington homes took on water during Gustav, and a smaller number were hit by Ike. It’s beginning to get old, and people are getting discouraged.

“It gets pretty disgusting after a while,” said Larry Randall. “You think you’re moving forward, and then … here we have high water again within two weeks, back to back.”

Randall, a lifelong Pearlington resident, had nine feet of water in his home during Katrina. Since then, he has volunteered almost daily at a recovery center in the former gymnasium of Charles B. Murphy School, trying to help hold things together. The school’s main building was also destroyed by Katrina.

Things are so discouraging that Lester Dell, another Pearlington resident, feels almost as sorry for the volunteers who come to help rebuild homes after the storms as he does for his neighbors. He said many are repeat visitors who come from other states after helping rebuild here from a previous storm, only to find their efforts in ruins following a new one.

“All their work … the new drywall, the counter tops, the kitchen cabinets they put in last time … they’re gone again,” Dell said.

Some are wondering whether Pearlington — a quiet, wooded riverside hamlet that now has a down-at-the-heels look — will even survive. Residents have left, never to return, taking big chunks of the tax base with them.

No one is sure exactly how many now remain in homes scattered through the community’s wooded byways. Russ, a former county supervisor who now serves on the Hancock County Planning Commission, said Pearlington had 470 homes and about 1,700 residents before Katrina.

“We’ve had a pretty good bit built back,” he said. “Percentage-wise, I think Pearlington is doing as good as anybody, better than some.”

However, others are so heartsick that they dream of leaving. Randall hears it all the time at the recovery center, where he sits behind a desk in a makeshift office.

“We’re trying to get as many to come back as we can,” he said. “But a lot of them have told me they’re going to fix it up as cheaply as possible, and put an for-sale sign on it.”

Aside from a possible exodus, the community has other problems. There is a sense of isolation and children are bused to schools miles away. And even though the county utility authority is planning new water and waste treatment facilities, Pearlington residents still live the way they have for many decades — with wells and septic tanks.

Flooding presents huge problems with such things, including possible floodwater intrusion and contamination. But home is home, and for now, the stubborn and the proud hang on.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Randall said.