Saving Pearlington

Elizabeth Wilcox writer

Imagine receiving a call from the Selectmen, telling you to leave Weston immediately because you and your family are in grave danger. Imagine being told that you cannot take any of your pets if you plan to stay in the nearest shelter. Envision a twenty-eight foot water surge smashing into town with winds blowing well in excess of one hundred miles per hour. The water breaks through your door and windows, rapidly filling the first floor and the second floor and sometimes the attic, depending on your location and elevation. Upon receiving permission from the Selectmen, visualize returning to your home. You must walk from the outskirts of town because trees, wires, houses, boats and other debris block the roads. Upon arrival, you find trees fallen through your roof, your neighbor’s cars in your backyard, black slimy sludge with the consistency of molasses all over your lawn, shrubs and gardens nowhere in sight…and your pets? And what if you decided not to heed the warning of the Selectmen to leave town?

So begins an update written by Weston resident Lenore Zug Lobel for Weston’s League of Women Voters. She, fellow Weston resident Sally Currier, and Lobel’s daughter Annie, had just returned from Pearlington, Mississippi, some ten months after Hurricane Katrina decimated the small, Southern Mississippi fishing village tucked along the Pearl River about one hour east of New Orleans. The town was wiped out, and Weston Katrina Committee members, Lobel and Currier, were appealing for support.

“Everywhere you looked, it looked like a trash dump,” Currier explains of her visit.

Lobel offers a similar perspective, pointing out that the residents are still suffering, living under extremely difficult conditions and coping with great loss.

“These people are living under enormous stress, even now. They’ve lost their homes, the contents of their homes, some have even lost loved ones,” she says, before proceeding to tell stories of survivors who escaped by climbing trees to avoid rising waters, and of the woman who, having lost her son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren, was so traumatized by the hurricane and the ensuing devastation that she’s been placed in an institution.

These heartbreaking stories are important to Lobel and Currier. They are part of their effort to raise awareness of the Pearlington plight, and to garner support for what is expected be a long road to recovery.

To understand how Lobel and Currier got to Pearlington, one has to rewind ten months from that visit. Katrina had just struck, and like many unaffected by the Hurricane, Lobel and Currier had seen the devastation on television but did not know where or how to begin to help. Then, Lobel visited their friend and fellow Weston resident Robbie Lacritz Deitch. Alarmed at the devastation that Katrina had wrought, Robbie Deitch had begun filling two tandem trucks with supplies to dispatch to Katrina evacuees in Houston, Texas. Having solicited whatever donations she could, her home was filled with everything from baby diapers to clothing that Deitch had meticulously sorted by size. Inspired by Deitch’s goodwill, Lobel decided to write a small note about Deitch’s efforts in the League of Women Voter’s Bulletin. If one person could do that, what else could Weston do?

The answer came shortly after the piece ran. Then Weston town Selectman Anne Leibowitz read the article, and in October 2005 she and other Weston Selectmen officially appointed the Hurricane Katrina Committee, comprised of students and adults, with the charge “to identify a specific municipal loss attributable to Hurricane Katrina where the cost for remedying the loss can be ascertained and where the affected municipality bears some resemblance in size and form of government to Weston, and to raise funds on behalf of the Town of Weston to replace or restore that loss.”

Through Weston residents John and Mary Lord, Committee members eventually got in touch with John’s brother Rob, a former resident of Weston who was living in Louisiana. Rob Lord went in search of a place that met the Committee’s mandate and soon came upon Pearlington. There, in addition to the complete devastation, he found a sole banner for a nonprofit called the Building Goodness Foundation (BGF) which was building small shelters for added living space and was planning to build a community center. Struck by their work, Lord alerted the Committee and volunteered to help the BGF. After researching the Foundation’s efforts in places like Haiti, the Committee decided to support the nonprofit’s work, and the town of Weston set up a section about the project on the Town of Weston web site.

Getting to Work

Still, the once close-to-2,000-resident-strong town has many hurdles to overcome. An unincorporated community, Pearlington has no town government to advocate on behalf of its residents. The school, post office, bank, and general store remain closed. No local bank or convenience store exists, so residents, if they have access to a car, need drive about 20 miles for groceries. Only non-perishable food and other supplies are locally available free at a makeshift supply center dubbed “Pearlmart.”

And even with the BGF’s work, the housing problem is still dire. Katrina destroyed many of Pearlington’s homes. Without their homes, many residents are now living in cramped Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers that are eight feet by 30 feet in size. Come February, even those trailers will no longer be cost-free for many residents, as their 18-month free occupancy period will have expired. Once more, many of those homes that withstood Katrina are still uninhabitable due to the toxic mold. And until the community center is built, Pearlington residents have nowhere to meet as a town or with friends.

Despite the challenges, Currier, Lobel and others involved in Pearlington’s rebuilding remain steadfast in their commitment. They’re also heartened by the goodwill, sense of humanity, and graciousness they’ve encountered, both within and outside the Pearlington community itself.

And while, due to the still difficult conditions, returning Pearlington to a pre-Katrina state is a long way off, small progress is being made. A year after Katrina struck, the Building Goodness Foundation had completed some 120 of the 12 feet by 16 feet shelters and put in motion the construction of the community center.

Weston residents, too, have shown generosity. The Committee has already received donations ranging in size from five dollars to 5,000 dollars, spurred in part by the Town of Weston’s willingness to place an appeal into residents’ real estate tax bills. The Weston Council of Churches is pitching in, having organized a fundraising walk in October with the intention of donating one-half of the proceeds to the construction of the community center. Weston’s youth too are involved, serving on the committee and galvanizing support among peers.

And then there are the people in Pearlington itself.

“I was very moved by the graciousness of the people. Even though they were having a very difficult time, they thanked you. They came up to you. They embraced you,” says Currier of her visit.

Lobel agrees. “I have a mold problem now in my basement, and honestly, as disgusting as it is, it’s nothing compared to what these people are dealing with. There were so many heroes and heroines, survivors and people volunteering their time. People are amazing,” she says.

Among those heroines is Paula Bahr, a Texas-based nurse who was among the first outsiders in Pearlington after Katrina hit. Bahr, a Mississippi native, had loaded her Suburban with supplies and driven to Mississippi Bay Saint Louis immediately after the hurricane struck. Arriving into Pearlington by helicopter, she was shocked by what she found. FEMA had not yet arrived. People were barefooted. No one had medicine, many were suffering, many diabetic, and in shock. Bahr set up a makeshift health center in the fire station. The adjoining supply room still had a roof and she and others made a wall by hanging a sheet from stacked rows of baby food and water containers. “They were so desperate, they tried to snatch the meds out of my hands,” she recounts. Eventually, Bahr and others moved the health center into the school gym, mopping the floor with squeegees and diapers tied onto their feet. “You’d be amazed at how much mud those things hold,” she says.

Another heroine is retired nurse and Virginia resident Barbara Shifflett, who also was early on the scene and was instrumental in getting the BGF first involved. “Progress is shockingly slow,” she says, coughing what many now call the Katrina cough, brought on, most believe, by the high incidence of mold. Undeterred, she keeps returning. “You go down there and people are happy and smiling and grateful. It made me fall in love with humanity again.”

And then there’s Howard Pape, one of the founders of the BGF working tirelessly in Pearlington; Rocky Pullman, an elected member of Hancock County’s Board of Commissioners which oversees Pearlington and other neighboring towns, and who has given up his home and lawn as a camping ground for volunteers; and of course all the members of Weston’s Katrina Commission, which in addition to Lobel and Currier includes Robbie Deitch, Elizabeth Munro, Marybelle Cochran, William Saunders, Katie Fagan, Karin Ott and Beverly Dillaway. Dillaway’s daughter Becky also has been involved, preparing standup poster-board displays of Katrina ravaged areas and of the work of the Building Goodness Foundation. Along with Annie Lobel and Currier’s daughter, Maddie Pannell, Becky Dillaway hopes to get other students informed and involved.

“People are amazing,” concludes Lobel.

The Weston Katrina Committee is holding wine-and-cheese fundraisers in volunteers’ homes and intends to organize groups of residents to head South and help. Donations should be made out to the Building Goodness Foundation: Weston Relief, and mailed to P.O. Box 391, Weston, MA 02493. To volunteer in Pearlington, call 781-893-7320,
ext. 308.

Summer 2023