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Monday, September 19, 2005

Report from Pascagoula: It Should Never Happen to Westport

By Dan Goodgame

Special to WestportNow

(Editor’s note: Westport resident Dan Goodgame recently returned from his native Pascagoula, Miss., and provided this first-person account of his experiences there following Hurricane Katrina.)WestportNow.com Image
Nothing left: Pascagoula suffered catastrophic losses from Hurricane Katrina. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Gene Jennings Jr. for WestportNow.com

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On the face of things, Westport would seem to have little in common with Pascagoula, Miss., the hurricane-wrecked coastal town that it just agreed to informally adopt and aid.

One is an enclave of prosperous professionals and business owners; the other a home to blue-collar workers in shipyards, seafood packers and an oil refinery, appended to the nation’s poorest state. Yet the two towns share some important traits. They’re about the same size, and are blessed with picturesque locations where a river meets a sound.

Both take great pride in their football teams and in public schools that rank among the best in their states. And both towns encourage a high level of citizen involvement: in charitable work through religious groups, the PTA, youth sports coaching, and so forth.

I am fortunate both to live in Westport and to have grown up in Pascagoula, from which I just returned after two weeks of hurricane cleanup work at my mother’s home and those of friends and relatives.

WestportNow.com Image
Surveying the damage: Very little is left in Pascagoula. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Gene Jennings Jr. for WestportNow.com
My wife, Marcia, and I have been gratified by the scores of old friends and brand new ones in Westport who have sent us money and supplies for Pascagoula, and by the efforts of [Westport First Selectwoman] Diane Farrell and [Representative Town Meeting Moderator and WestportNow Editor] Gordon Joseloff to organize even more aid to a town that has suffered terrible destruction, without getting much national attention.

For several blocks up from the beach in Pascagoula, stately old homes, some dating back to the early 1800s, have been flattened or gutted, as have more modest houses and businesses along the bayous that meander through town. A 20-foot storm surge filled almost every building in Pascagoula with several feet of muddy, sewage-laden water.

There are more than 8,000 dead cars in carports and along curbs, and it’s common to see adults carrying cleanup supplies on children’s bikes. Just up the block from my mother, the kindergarten and pre-K of Resurrection Catholic Schools lost almost everything to the flood. WestportNow.com Image
Rubble everywhere: Not much is recognizable in Pascagoula. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Gene Jennings Jr. for WestportNow.com

But neighbors of many faiths,including my cousin and her husband and their six kids, who had lost their own home, began immediately to clean the place up. The whole town echoes with the sounds of hammers and chainsaws and Shop-Vacs. Pascagoula needs help, but it’s also helping itself, as it always has.

Gordon has asked me to write a bit about my hometown, and there’s no better place to start than with its name, (pronounced Pass-ca-GOO-lah), which it takes from an extinct local Indian tribe.

The Pascagoulas, legend has it, were hopelessly outnumbered during an attack by a neighboring tribe and, rather than be forced into slavery, they joined hands and chanted their death song as they marched into the river. The town has had a complicated relationship with water ever since.

As the first Europeans arrived in the area, mostly from France, they found that the Pascagoula River offered a deep-water port protected by barrier islands. The Gulf teemed with fish and shrimp and crabs. The river provided access to tall pines and hardy cypresses that eventually were used as masts and hull timbers for sailing ships from around the world. WestportNow.com Image
Makeshift street sign: It’s hard to tell one street from another in Pascagoula. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Gene Jennings Jr. for WestportNow.com

A seafood industry developed and the packing houses attracted immigrants, French, Italians, Croatians, Lebanese, Vietnamese. Skilled shipbuilders also migrated to Pascagoula to assemble everything from menhaden trawlers and tugs and oil rigs to the cruisers and assault ships assembled by the Northrop Grumman yard for the U.S. Navy.

My grandfather and father worked at the big shipyard as machinists, and my mother as a secretary and personnel manager. Our family is linked by marriage to one of the old-settler clans, named Delmas, who had come from France via Haiti, and whose name graces major streets in both Port-au-Prince and Pascagoula.

They and their neighbors enjoyed Pascagoula’s moss-draped ambience, and in modern times spent weekends skiing and fishing on the river, or enjoying the sugary beaches and Caribbean-clear waters of the uninhabited, dune-swept barrier islands a few miles offshore. But they lived with the knowledge that their homes and lives were at risk nearly every August and September, when hurricanes seem drawn to the central Gulf coast.WestportNow.com Image
After Katrina: a 20-foot storm surge filled almost every building in Pascagoula. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Gene Jennings Jr. for WestportNow.com

I was 14 in 1969 when Hurricane Camille, packing 200-mph winds, destroyed much of neighboring Biloxi, killed 250 on the coast and as far inland as West Virginia, and smacked Pascagoula hard, leaving us without water or power for weeks. It was widely described as the storm of the century. We thought we’d never see anything like it again. Then came Katrina.

As Katrina approached, my mother took refuge with relatives who live on high ground about 20 miles north of the coast. We’re lucky that no one in our family was badly hurt by the storm, nor were any of our friends. But many lost their homes entirely, including a cousin who lives just a few blocks south of my mother. They lived on a bayou and had flood insurance, but 90 percent of the town carried only standard homeowners,  policies that don’t pay for water damage. After all, if Camille didn’t flood them, what storm would?

After Katrina had passed, I flew into Birmingham, the nearest open airport, and was met by by my cousin and her husband, Gene, who had generously rounded up portable generators, gasoline, propane bottles, food, water and box fans and loaded them onto a trailer behind his pickup.

A supervisor for Alabama Power who can fix just about anything, Gene traveled with me to Pascagoula and helped me patch my mother’s roof and saw up her downed trees and begin the stinking, back-breaking work of pulling out the soggy, moldy interior walls and contents of her home.

(After Katrina, as after most hurricanes, it’s almost impossible for months to find a reputable contractor to do any kind of construction work. Many residents of the Florida Panhandle are still waiting for roofers and drywallers a year after Hurricane Ivan smacked them this time last year. So folks in Pascagoula have learned to get their own homes free of leaks, moisture and mold until the pros can get around to them.)

As we toured harder-hit areas of town, they were difficult for me to recognize as the places where I had fished and swam and picnicked as a child. The scenes of rubble-strewn foundations reminded me more than anything of Beirut, which I covered as a journalist during the 1982 siege. But everywhere friends were already working to reclaim photo albums and heirlooms, taking time to reminisce, cry—and laugh.

One day as we carted away a prized handmade cradle, rescued from under my cousin’s flattened house, I saw an attractive young blonde in shorts and flip-flops jump a fetid puddle and then spot a bathroom scale washed up beside a curb. She looked around sheepishly, then stepped on board, smiling at what must have been a few pounds shed on the standard post-hurricane diet of Vienna sausage and bottled water.

At an impromptu picnic over Army-issued Meals Ready to Eat, veteran MRE consumers passed along their tips: i.e., ask for the jambalaya flavor, mainly because it comes with peanut M&Ms. A new acquaintance, his home flooded out, praised the courtesy of the M-16-toting soldiers who manned a nearby checkpoint, and deadpanned that “I always wanted to live in one of those gated communities with armed response.”

In the days after the storm, the first help came from local business owners, church groups and individuals from towns to the east that had received similar aid from Pascagoula after last year’s Hurricane Ivan.

A woman and her daughters from Leland, Fla., drove through handing out sandwiches and juice boxes, telling us they remembered what our town had done for theirs.

Dick Scruggs, the wealthy trial lawyer who led the landmark litigation against the tobacco companies, lost his beachfront home (where part of the movie “The Insider” was filmed) but he and his wife focused on helping worse-off friends by handing out truckloads of portable generators and box lunches. Church groups—Methodists to Mormons, from South Carolina to Oklahoma, materialized bearing chain saws, power tools and generators.

Friends in Westport have asked me about FEMA; I reply that in Pascagoula, at least so far, FEMA is little more than a rumor, a busy signal on an 800 number. Most Pascagoulans are too busy to wait on line or in line.

My childhood buddy Perry Wayne Lee suffered roof damage to his Wayne Lee’s Grocery but, with the help of neighbors, had the place patched up, mopped out and open for business within 48 hours of the storm, giving away ice and water and extending credit to regular customers.

My friends Richard Chenoweth and Jack Pickett had their restaurant and bar, Scranton’s, flooded out, but were quickly giving away homemade vegetable soup and pork shoulder and jerk chicken at tables set up in the street outside. Along major roads and highways, lawns bore signs that read “Our Home is Open to All,” “Free Home-Cooked Meals,“and “Free Kids Clothes.”

The Mississippi coast has been blessed with fine weather in the wake of Katrina, and at the end of 12-hour workdays, neighbors gather in lawn chairs on driveways to share beers and potluck meals of venison, gumbo and red beans with sausage. Hummingbird feeders are especially popular now, swarming with the tiny birds whose natural food source has been blown away. For neighborhoods without power, the silver lining has been a brilliant starscape at night.

By now, most parts of Pascagoula have water and power. There is enough bottled water to last into the next century, and enough ice to build a hocky rink. Free hot meals are available at many churches, and the fast food places are opening up one by one out on the highway. The lines for gasoline are getting shorter, and car dealers are receiving new vehicles that sell before they can roll down from the delivery trucks.

The local building-supply stores are beginning to get more inventory, but there are still shortages of air mattresses, sleeping bags and tents; large (40x30) tarps, rolls of tar paper and Visqueen for covering damaged roofs; Shop-Vacs for vacuuming up sludge and debris; and cleaning supplies of all sorts: sponge mops and refills, bleach, ammonia, Mr. Clean, Fantastic, jumbo trash bags.

Especially hard hit are those who lack both flood insurance and cash savings, who could rebuild their homes and businesses with the help of gift cards to Lowes, WalMart or Sears. Anyone who knows how to lay a roof or hang and tape sheetrock, and could volunteer for even a few days, would be warmly welcomed.

I mentioned earlier the kindergarten and pre-K at Resurrection Catholic Schools, where I (reared as a Baptist) and generations of children of many backgrounds have been well-prepared for public school. RCS runs on a shoestring at the best of times, and was devastated by the tidal surge.

The kindergarten and pre-K need children’s books, small chairs and tables, mats for playtime and naps, crayons, coloring books, construction paper—you name it. Their Website is rcseagles.com. Marcia and I are glad to forward checks and material donations.

The Town of Westport is organizing a truck for donations aimed more generally at the distribution center for aid in Pascagoula. Marcia and I and many Pascagoulans are grateful to the Westporters who have already contributed. God forbid that Westport should ever suffer any calamity comparable to Katrina. But if it ever does, it has friends in a town with lots of experience in digging out.

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Posted 09/19/05 at 03:17 AM



Comments

Comment Policy

Dan, I can’t imagine the destruction you witnessed. New Orleans gets most of the media coverage but so many other communities were also devastated and we share their grief. Over the last few weeks throughout Fairfield county trucks wait to receive supplies to aid Katrina’s victims. Westport has been generous and so have thousands of towns across America. Last week my son’s middle school collected used backpacks stuffed with school supplies for the children along the Gulf Coast. Your account of the strength to survive and neighbors helping neighbors is encouraging and gives all of us hope. Thank you for your story and God bless the victims and everyone who has offered a supporting hand, aid or a prayer.

Posted by Jeffrey Burns on September 19, 2005 at 11:54 AM | #
 

Dan, that was an excellent correspondent piece. Thanks for writing it.

As a matter of fact, I just highlighted it on “I, Reporter” (a resource site for citizen journalism) as a strong example of a correspondent report by a citizen journalist.

See: http://www.ireporter.org/2005/09/westport_now_ci.html

Good work!

- Amy Gahran
I, Reporter: http://ireporter.org
Contentious: http://contentious.com

Posted by Amy Gahran on September 19, 2005 at 03:08 PM | #
 

Dan - What a beautifully rich account of the history, tragedy and hope. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

Posted by Betsey Lebow on September 19, 2005 at 03:57 PM | #
 

I just wanted to say thank you Dan for your story. I have about 20 cousins that have lived in Pascagola for many years. My Uncle S.G. Stewart lived in a water front home on the gulf for over 30 years until he passed away a few months ago. I hope we can here more stories about the smaller Towns that do not have the resources that the bigger cities have. Again Thank You

Posted by Shelton Stewart on September 19, 2005 at 07:30 PM | #
 

Well done, Daniel,

Your account was rich with pride and empathy for our Pascagoula. It is important for others to know that many “victims” are the middle class that live from paycheck to paycheck - paying our bills, paying taxes, paying employees - but striving to persist, if not prevail.

I wish that we could adequately thank every friend, relative and stranger that has responded to our bout with some really inclement weather. On my way here from Jackson, following the storm, I passed convoys of Georgia Power & Light, Tennessee Bureau of Wildlife, Indiana firefighters, Florida Highway Patrol - the list is endless - volunteers flocking to the Coast to assist. Each and every one of them, and the people who have sent supplies, money and moral support deserve more but all I have right now is a heartfelt “Thank You”.

Alan Bush

Posted by Alan L. Bush on September 21, 2005 at 04:13 AM | #
 

Dan,
Great but sad pictures. I still get speechless seeing it all. Went to Biloxi yesterday and cried.
Anyway, the picture above of the double staircase leading to nothing, well, that house had an interesting little story behind it.

Thetre was another house there before Camille in ‘69 and Camille demolished it. So, the owner rebuilt as is the norm here. Well, 10 years later Frederic came in and demolished that house. Not to be chagrined, the man who owned it said, well I’ll just build me a hurricane proof house. So he built the one that used to be the one in your picture. Notice the metal I-beams and the posts I believe are concrete with reinforcements. Anyway Elena came and didn’t touch it so he felt vindicated. He sold it I think in the late 80’s. I wonder if he has seen your photo. Just an interesting little side note I thought might be interesting.

Posted by John Richards on September 24, 2005 at 01:56 AM | #
 

Thanks for writing that. I’m from Pascagoula… the house that I grew up in (and my parents have been in for 32 years) was destroyed by the surge. I’ll be going down there myself soon. It’s hard to find good info on my home town (as understandably New Orleans and the Biloxi-Gulport area are getting more press)

Thanks again.

Posted by J. Walter Hawkes on September 24, 2005 at 02:50 AM | #
 

Dan,
My first thought…it is a small world…
You see, I, too, once lived in Pascagoula, but only for a short time. You may not recall, but we were friends at Colmer Junior High School. I was there for 7th grade and part of 8th grade, missing Camille the following year. Those years in Pascagoula are some of my favorite memories. So much so, that even after 30 plus years, I still wanted to go back and visit. So, two years ago, I finally made my way back to visit Pascagoula and Colmer. Now after Katrina, I hope to return again. In the meantime, as middle school teacher in Rochester, MN, I am in the process of putting together a fundraiser called “Hurricane Heroes-Linking Lives” which I hope will link our students at Kellogg Middle School to students at Colmer Middle School throughout the school year. Our first $ campaign kicks off next week. I will be using pictures from my Colmer yearbooks to help tell the story. I will use part of this story as well.
Thanks for such a touching story. It’s nice to know that so many others who have ties to Pascagoula are pitching in to help.
Barbara (Kitzmiller) Kinczel

Posted by Barb (Kitzmiller) Kinczel on September 24, 2005 at 07:19 PM | #
 

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