South Mississippians remember Katrina

Joe Pisarich looks at the Hurricane Katrina Memorial at Biloxi Town Green on Thursday Aug. 29, 2013, in Biloxi, Miss. Thursday marked the eighth anniversary of the storm. (AP Photo/The Sun Herald, John Fitzhugh)

Joe Pisarich looks at the Hurricane Katrina Memorial at Biloxi Town Green on Thursday Aug. 29, 2013, in Biloxi, Miss. Thursday marked the eighth anniversary of the storm. (AP Photo/The Sun Herald, John Fitzhugh)

The Associated Press

GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) — Residents of coastal Mississippi will hold events in remembrance of Hurricane Katrina, the massive storm that struck on Aug. 29, 2005.

The observances began Thursday on the Biloxi Town Green on U.S. Highway 90 followed by the opening of the Ground Zero Museum in Waveland. The city of Pass Christian was holding a memorial service. The University of Southern Mississippi held a service at the Katrina Research Center on its campus in Long Beach.

Katrina smashed into coastal Mississippi with a force that destroyed hundreds of homes and business and blew casinos from their moorings. Damage in Mississippi was reported as far inland as areas north of Jackson.

At least 231 people died in Mississippi, a low number that officials say resulted from coastal residents heeding storm warnings and evacuating.

“By far the most important lesson Mississippi has learned is the value of preparedness,” Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement.

“While we will never forget the tremendous pain this storm caused and the tragedy of so many lives lost, our state has become stronger because of Katrina.

“The vast majority of public repair and rebuilding projects are complete, our housing stock is restored, almost all of our pre-Katrina population has returned to our lower six counties, and we are moving forward with the recovery vision set by Gulf Coast leaders after the storm. I am proud of the resilience and strength our state has shown,” Bryant said.

The storm left more than 45 million cubic yards of debris in its wake. All 82 Mississippi counties and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians were declared federal disaster areas, and 74 counties received full federal assistance, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

“All of the memories of Katrina still haunt me today, but with every trip to the coast I am amazed at the progress that has been made. Even though the recovery has been long and hard and continues today, the leadership of local officials and the resilience and persistence of our citizens and their refusal to accept defeat makes me proud to be a Mississippian,” MEMA director Robert Latham said in a statement.

In Waveland Thursday, the names of those who lost their lives in Katrina were being read by community leaders from Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Hancock County and Diamondhead.

The Waveland’s Ground Zero Hurricane Museum will feature its first exhibit. It was the only building on Coleman Avenue in Waveland that survived Hurricane Katrina.

This exhibit features a pictorial history of the Old Waveland School, the renovation of the building by a grant from Mississippi Archives and History after Hurricane Katrina and renovations of St. Clare Catholic Church.

Billions of dollars in federal aid and donations poured into Mississippi and Louisiana. Some of money is still being used for storm recovery.

Officials said Katrina taught the people of South Mississippi lessons others would do well to study if they’re hit by a natural disaster. One word emerged from the rubble, and it was used again and again to describe South Mississippi — resilient.

“We learned a lot of lessons from Katrina,” said Bay St. Louis Mayor Les Fillingame. “I don’t think there’s anything that we could have done that wasn’t done. When you have a chance to completely start over, there are some great things you can do.”

By December 2007, in fact, FEMA estimated almost $500 million that was supposed to go to victims of Katrina and Rita already had been lost to fraud at the hands of 134,000 scammers.

FEMA paid more than $7 billion in individual assistance claims to victims of the storms, it reported in 2011. About 10 percent of that, it estimated, went to those who were ineligible.

The Government Accountability Office estimated FEMA paid $20 million to people who made claims on the same property for both Katrina and Rita, which followed about two weeks later.

Scars remain. Eight years after the storm, Seacliff Boulevard in the Gulf Park Estates community of Jackson County looks much the same as it did right after the Katrina hit.

Lonely pilings reaching into the sky, driveways that lead to nowhere and for sale signs.

Seacliff Boulevard was once a thriving road with more than 30 homes. All were washed away by Katrina. Only four families have rebuilt. Muriel Swint is one of them.

“I love it out here. It’s beautiful, the nature. I love it, this is my home.” Swint said.

That view also convinced Don and Martha Wade to come back. Their home was gone after Katrina. Now it’s back. Don has a theory about why others haven’t done the same.

“A lot of factors why they don’t want to reinvest down here. Of course, insurance is a big factor and rebuilding in a storm prone area,” Wade said. “We had a lot of friends on the street. We developed a lot of friends and a lot of good people here. Some of them moved back, most of them haven’t.”

The four homes that have been rebuilt on Seacliff Boulevard meet or exceed the new FEMA elevation requirements that were instituted after the storm. All are more than 23 feet above sea level.

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Some information from WLOX-TV, http://www.wlox.com ; The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com ; Seat Coast Echo, http://www.seacoast echo.com