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Katrina, Plus Two Years
Bay St Louis survived, but at what cost?

By Mark Proulx - Special to GCN      Filed 8/29/07

As always, I can count on “Miss Mike” to give her unadulterated views of how life is in The Bay. I thought it only right and necessary that she be featured prominently on this a most auspicious and memorable day in our lives.

Ms. Mike Cuevas is the Director of Cultural Affairs, working out of the Bay St. Louis Mayor's Office and has been a resident of BSL her whole life - 57 years. She has see just about every storm that has hit the MS Gulf Coast, including Camille in 1969. Her home, just north of Hwy 95, was badly damaged in Hurricane Katrina and she is actively recruiting skilled volunteers for continued reconstruction of the Bay-Waveland area to this day.

Two years after Katrina was about the time most “experts” stated that life would be “normalizing” for us.  Guess those experts ought to do more “on the ground” research before giving any more opinions on the subject of devastation and how good, strong people handle near annihilation. Best to just hear it from someone who’s living it day to day, like everyone else along the Gulf Coast.

From Miss Mike:

“We are quickly coming up on our two year Katrina anniversary and I know you want to “hear all about it”!  Let me get some personal information out of the way first and then I hope you will find the information on our recovery helpful to your efforts, because God knows your help has been essential to any daily successes we have.

I have been out of touch for several personal reasons that include, but are not limited to, my health and my own rebuilding of my home.  It puts me in the position of truly understanding what my fellow citizens are going through.  I was moving a piece of furniture at the depot, fell into it and injured my neck, compressing a nerve that led to several long Mississippi weeks of ignoring it, because there were too many other things to do resulting in losing the use of my left arm and not being able to drive any distance or type for more than two minutes without being in pain or having any use of the arm and especially my hand. 

I know, you don’t have to tell me how stupid it was to ignore something wrong, but it’s what you do since the big K, if you aren’t bleeding you ignore it and go on.  I’m 57 in age, but still 20 in how I think of myself – that leads to making stupid decisions when you think you can still do what you’ve always done.  I’m 57 and unloading thousands of pounds of freight by hand after the storm because you had to and all that catches up to you in ways you never thought it would.  You move furniture that you shouldn’t be moving because you’re it and if you wait for help it may be months down the road.

Finally I could take some time off to get my house finished.  I was being selfish and after 18 months putting my needs to recover my space at the top of the list.  I could get all the therapy available to me (which I finally did do) but if my living conditions continued to be so primitive and sheetrock and saw dust so overwhelming, contractors so irresponsible without oversight, I knew I would just reach total despair if I didn’t get a handle on things.  To date it has cost me more than I paid for my home five years ago to repair it.  Thanks to my late husband and our governor’s assistance program I am almost finished.  I’m down to having the windows replaced and the kitchen counters installed.  That should all be finished in another two months.  That means for the first Christmas in three years I’m going to put up a tree, drag out the remains of my Christmas dishes and celebrate this holiday with family and friends and have a clean home in which to invite Santa for my dog.

My circumstances put me miles ahead of many in recovery and miles behind some.  My losses weren’t total, but I firmly believe that recovery would have been easier if I could have started from scratch, except for a mortgage that I had to continue to pay, even though I had a shell of a home.  It would have helped to have a spouse to share the decision making with, but it just wasn’t to be and I had to deal with the issues of the day alone.  I never knew how many widows and single women were dealing with the same issues.  One good thing was that I didn’t have to worry about anyone else, just Mr. Pickles, so I could effectively function at work and be in a position to help others, because of your generosity.

Our sister cities have helped in so many measurable ways, but more importantly to our recovery in ways that can’t be indicated on a graft or other visual.  Post traumatic stress syndrome always applied to veterans of our wars, then after the Oklahoma City bombings it was used to explain what was happening to the survivors and their families, then 9/11 came and went and we saw it on a much grander scale, then Katrina.  It’s a real mental disease, causing children to act out in ways you can’t imagine, reasonable adults, accustomed to the stress of jobs and families, completely lose their grip and hurt the ones they love the most, anger at the least little thing that doesn’t go right, crying jags that last for days and weeks not just a few hours.  This was not a disease we understood or understand today.  Today is when it is really coming to the forefront and I’m seeing behavior that I never thought possible from my co-workers, my neighbors, my friends and even my grandson. 

I’m daily watching the news of the mid-west floods and my heart breaks for these survivors, knowing what they will have to go through to find a peace again in their lives after what has happened to their homes and hometowns.  One of the Kansas communities that suffered in the tornado’s last spring has decided to not rebuild their town because there is nothing left and the rebuilding task too daunting and too expensive.  Mother Nature has an ever-surfacing cruel streak striking out more and more.  There must be a million reasons why and that’s a discussion for another day.

The PTSS has surfaced in every facet of rebuilding.  Government officials on every level are exhausted and unsure in their decision-making and the spin off still gives us an uncertain future. They are intolerant of the time it takes to get through even their own bureaucracy.   Patience pills need to be distributed to every resident because their lives are still going to be interrupted while the infrastructure of the city is being rebuilt; they are still going to be inconvenienced by detour signs and construction dust.  It’s so hard to see a bright future that in my heart I know will come, but there is so very, very much work still to do.  Getting the lights back on and the water running was just the beginning.

Our sister cities have been our comfort and our salvation.  Monetary and supply donations are so helpful, and all of your aid was and is being spread as fairly as possible throughout Bay Saint Louis, to individuals, groups and our own city government.

  • As much as possible was used with gift certificates to local vendors as possible to help stimulate the local economy and help citizens repair and replace their homes.
  • If a gift certificate was not enough to finish a project a check was made directly to the vendor so that we were all insured against any mismanagement of funds.
  • Supply donations were distributed through our local distribution center that was managed by City Team Ministries (who are still here two years later and committed for at least another year) or in the early days through our Fire Department.
  • Furniture sent by Nutley, NJ, replaced office furniture for city offices, local churches and doctor’s offices.  For many of our city employees this was the nicest furniture they’ve ever had.
  • Target gift cards from Wayzata, IL were distributed to families moving into Habitat for Humanities built homes for bed and bath linens.  Home Depot cards were distributed in sufficient amount to finish a project, buying the ceiling fan/light fixtures for bedrooms.  (We got lots of those!)
  • Office supplies donated has kept our city offices going without any need for a supply budget for almost two years.
  • Gas cards and monetary donations paid our fuel bills for public works and most of the needs of the fire department.
  • Telephone cards were distributed for use by citizens contacting families and for the mayor.
  • Your contributions paid for the total renovation of the Seventh Street Park, now known as the Moore Friends Park (Moore County, NC).
  • Our local football team and other athletic teams have uniforms because you all helped.
  • Monteray, CA gave us new city signs that were up when we re-opened the Bay Bridge and have paid for a new website under development.
  • Port Townsend has made sure that everyone who needed or wanted a bike has one.
  • The list would take pages and pages, and each of you knows what you’ve done and it is certainly more than I have listed.

On the economic front –

Hancock Bank, our oldest bank, re-opened last Thursday, bringing more traffic and exposure to the small downtown business community, which now includes a bookstore, two art galleries, specialty food store, jewelry designer, and a fabulous garden store, an artsy interior furnishing store, a massage therapist opened The Sanctuary, a neighborhood bar, and a few others tucked in corners of the bigger businesses, all on the first block of Main Street.

The second block of Main is recovering a bit more slowly, but boasts a family clothing store that sells school uniforms, scout uniforms and those must have Levi’s, going back to its roots of retail; the re-opening of The Sycamore House a splendid restaurant, a gift boutique, a pest control office and, of course, The Artists of 219 Main.

Second Street now has two delightful coffee shops, The Mockingbird, (which has doubled it’s size and built a big brick oven to make homemade breads and pizza) which is a great meeting place for everyone and The Buttercup, where many of us gather for breakfast when they are open; and a great antique mall which is becoming quite a tourist stop.

The Depot District is full with three restaurants, a meat market/deli, a beignet shop, monogram shop, and a major new addition to one end that will offer retail below and housing above.

The Highway District is frankly slower to come back.  We still don’t have a full service grocery, but all the chains are coming back.

Hollywood Casino is now complete and is helping in the return of our tourism business, giving us the overnight accommodations we need.  Unfortunately the local B & B’s aren’t reopening because of the outrageous insurance costs.  Pre-K we had four, post-K, zero, even though the houses are rehabilitated.

Hancock Medical Center continues to rebuild its services, but we still have to leave the area if we have a chronic condition that needs treatment, such as cancer or heart problems.  Many doctors have returned and we do have a walk-in for pay clinic that has opened.  Meeting medical needs seems to be our most critical area of recovery.

City schools, both public and private are steadily recovering.  Taxes to fund the public schools and our library have taken a huge decline with all the destruction, and we still have lots and lots of trailer classrooms, but we’re open and every effort is being made through the school system to meet the many, many needs of our students, particularly mental health needs.

Many of our community leaders have retired from their positions for a variety of reasons, but they are gone just the same – the director of library services, the police and fire chiefs, the city attorney, the city clerk, hospital marketing director, to name a few.  These people are missed greatly as is their experience, but new leaders are being groomed each day.

Many of our senior citizens continue to pass on a daily basis and we seem to stay in a constant state of grief about the loss of community members to death.  In the last six months my last aunt passed away and one of my cousins, both with serious illnesses that had to be treated out of the area.  I know it may have been their time, but I wished we could have kept them home and not have them suffer the dislocation at their end.

On the government front:

The city has a new city hall, purchasing the Coast Electric site giving us enough space to consolidate all of our services in one area.  The FD is getting a new state of the art station being built with CDBG and state grant funds.  However, Miss Mike remains at the depot, separated from the mix and quite happy to be out of the daily fray!

Our employee level is still below pre-K, but everyone is pitching in to carry the extra load.  This is one area where volunteers who have come to the Bay have been a huge help, especially with cutting grass.

Beach Blvd. engineering plans have been approved, a contractor selected and work is scheduled to begin shortly (now that could mean the first of the year!).  Engineering plans have been approved and the contractor selected to begin the process of replacing our underground utilities.  (This will be a long, long project and will require the most patience from our citizens.)

I know I haven’t covered everything, but you now have a picture that is truthful.  What do we still need – any help you can continue to give us.  Citizens still need skilled volunteers to help in new or re-construction.  All of the charitable groups that continue their work, Lagniappe and 1st Presbyterian Churches, City Team Ministries, Catholic Charities, First Baptist Church, Habitat for Humanities need monetary assistance and labor.  Each has their own list of needs.

The next big project, which is to be launched October 1 is “Save Our Landmarks” to raise supplemental funds for the restoration of our historic City Hall and Depot.  Insurance and FEMA financial assistance is settled and we have about a quarter of the funds we need for the restorations.  I will send each of you our package and perhaps your communities would like to assist in these important projects.  If you have a manufacturer in your community that makes a product that we could use in the restoration please let me know the contact information.  I will ask for letters of support from you as we may need them.

I hope that everything finds you well.  Please recommit to staying in touch and in help with your friends in Bay Saint Louis.  Sooner than later I hope that we can develop a more formal sister city relationship, based not on our needs, but our desire to better understand each other and share our similarities and cultures.

I keep each city in my prayers every day, giving thanks for your generosity and care and especially for your safety.  Take care and God bless each and every one of you.

Mike Cuevas”

Well said, Miss Mike. It’s people like you that give us all hope that The Bay will eventually come back, regardless of the hiccups, bumps in the road and outright obstacles. GCN and I won’t let the world simply forget about the sacrifices that have been made.

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