It's primordial America. It's America before mega-malls and exurbs and freeways stitched it up and plasticized it. But this isn't the autumnal village America featured in political ads or Rockwell paintings, either. This is the dirty deep American South, scruffy and proud. Red mud and fried shrimp. Hard work and love of God. Blacks and whites on different sides of town, mingling in the middle. It sits on old Highway 90 midway between the decadent nights of New Orleans and the white beaches of Biloxi. It's a tiny microcosm of Louisiana and Mississippi lost in the bayous on the border between them. It's the old American dream, covered in drifting Spanish moss.
And Eugene Keys has lived there all his 77 years. He lived there back when it was a logging town called, appropriately enough, Logtown. That's how he made his living, hauling logs, one at a time, over his broad shoulders. Until diabetes took his legs and sat him in a wheelchair. The morning Katrina roared up the Pearl River he was having a cup of coffee with his older brother William, and they watched that wall of water wash away all they ever had. They barely survived, clinging to the rafters. Eugene's electric wheelchair shorted out. His prosthetic legs drifted off. But Eugene and William survived, together.
They lay stranded in the house for two days without food or water before family members could reach them. Pearlington itself lay stranded for ten days before the first rescue workers showed up. Like I said, Pearlington has no government, and having no government means having no clout. When aid dollars flow and resources get allocated, having no government means having no voice to call for it. And Pearlington has been clinging to the rafters since the storm hit, with only the aid of big-hearted volunteers from around the country keeping it afloat.
And for months after the storm hit the volunteers flowed, and help came in, and hope started to creep in. Maybe it doesn't matter that all the news covers New Orleans, people started to think. Maybe we won't be forgotten again, small as we are, quiet as we are. And bunkhouses were built on the grounds of the old elementary school to house the volunteers. Tents served meals, trailers housed showers, and for a time it was that old American dream again. An old-fashioned barn raising, writ large.
But it started fading after the first anniversary of Katrina. News coverage that had been dimming for months suddenly flared up and then blinked out. A year is a nice neat package. Let's wrap that mess up and come back next year to see how those poor people are doing. And soon after the volunteers started dwindling. Now they're almost all gone. The bunkhouses remain. Meals are available. Hot showers too. Just add people.
One of those groups volunteering to rebuild Pearlington is called One House At A Time, and I've been donating my photographs to help them since day one. They've been building beautiful little Gulf Coast shacks for poor people left homeless by the Storm. Poor people who lived in tents for months while FEMA had trailers sitting in vast open fields near Hattiesburg. Poor people like Eugene Keys. They'd hoped to help him, and hundreds of his neighbors, but time is running out, and hope is fading again. There are dozens of these little houses under construction in Pearlington. Dozens of lives almost restored. Dozens of futures almost reclaimed. Eugene Keys is just one of them.
One House At A Time Cottage
So here's what I'm saying, what I'm asking. The point of this little story, and I hope I'm not too late saying it. If you never got around to doing anything during the Katrina tragedy, if you were too paralyzed by shock, or disgust, or sadness, and now you feel like you missed it, you missed your chance to help, I want to tell you that you haven't. You can still do something. You can donate something to One House At A Time. You can donate time, or money, or materials. You can spread the word to people who still care. You can help rekindle the hope. You can still save lives.
As I write this winter is almost upon us in the Gulf. Did you know that the FEMA trailers people waited so long to get are being taken away in February? Will the citizens of Pearlington be back to living in tents then? Not if One House At A Time can help it, and you can help them. Like I said, Pearlington was never much to look at. It's no New Orleans. It's no Biloxi. But it's a part of America that's fading fast and deserves to survive. Because if you go far enough back, all our families come from some place like Pearlington.