Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Hope, One House At A Time

Pearlington Mississippi was never much to look at, as far as towns go. Even before Katrina it had barely 1,600 citizens. It doesn't have a main street, or a town square. It doesn't have a mayor or a city council. Since Katrina, it doesn't have a post office, a library, or an elementary school. It's a collection of winding country roads, of mossy trees and swamps, dotted with a patchwork constellation of homes, most quite humble even before the storm sank them under twenty feet of muddy water.

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.

Donate/Paypal - One House At A Time


Heather Jane said...

Clayton - It seems everyone has moved on from Katrina, I don't understand it at all.
I hate to bring attention to it, but it is evident even in the number of comments you receive.
A co-worker went to Miss. to donate her time and she said that although she worked non-stop she felt as though she accomplished very little. There is so much work to be done, and the rest of us here simply cannot comprehend the size of the destruction because it is no longer the topic of discussion or on the evening news when we return home from work. When it is no longer talked about, we presume it is no longer an issue and carry on.
We really have NO IDEA.
Thank you for continuing to take photos of the people still waiting for help to arrive.

clayton cubitt said...

Thanks, Jane. You said it. Katrina was the near-death blow to a group of people who had already been on the ropes for years. Fixing them is a task measured in a time-frame much longer than an election cycle or television sweeps week. I'm deeply concerned that Americans might not be able to cope with a time frame that long.

But if people like you can keep it alive, we might still be able to salvage hope for this country.

The Stute Fish said...

I've gone ahead and donated a chunk to them; thank you for posting this. You really nailed my reaction to Katrina, in that I meant to donate at the time, but the events of Katrina (and the second trimester of my pregnancy) kicked off a deep depression that had me doing nothing but crying and staring blankly at my computer screen for months - and once I got a bit better, not only was I dealing with new parenthood, I didn't know where to donate or who to donate to! This was an excellent reminder and pointer for where I could still make a difference. Thank you.

Judy Thorne said...

Thanks, Clayton. Donated $ and posted a link to your post from my website.

ixxidust said...

Well that explains why I couldn't find Pearlington! I drove through the area this past weekend on my way from Gulfport (where I'd been doing Katrina volunteering last week) to New Orleans (to see how the city is doing -- I volunteered there most of last October). I kept seeing signs for Pearlington but never exactly found the place. But that's okay. I grew up in a little rural patch of land in southern Michigan called Somerset that was a crossroads and nothing more. I have a deep fondness for such places where only the locals really understand the boundaries of the town and who lives within them and who doesn't.

It's so sad that so little attention in the rest of the country is being paid to the ongoing struggle to recover from Katrina. The size and scale of destruction is unimaginable. You have to see it to even begin to comprehend. People in both Mississippi and Louisiana were telling me that it would take 5, 10, 20 years to recover and I believe them. I've seen most of the coast along the 100 miles from Biloxi to New Orleans and the only word that comes to mind is endless.

Still people are trying to help. There were 11 of us in my group and the church I was staying at had a steady stream of groups like mine coming in and out.

So don't despair just yet and keep writing your blog. I've been reading it for almost a year now and that's what sent me driving through the bayous on US 90 looking for a little place called Pearlington.


Anonymous said...

To help answer the question you pose, "what happens to the FEMA trailers after February?", we have been collaborating over at a wiki web site www.FEMAanswers.org. The agency changes the story regularly about what assistance will be available, and the web site attempts to help answer your question. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the update on Pearlington. I went with a small group to Pearlington back in March to help out One House at a Time and we actually worked on Mr. Keys' house! I'm so glad to see that he is finally home. Many blessings to him and to those still struggling from Katrina and those still working to offer relief.

reilly said...

Dear Clayton,

Thanks for incredible photos and excellent writing about this situation.

I work for Mississippi Center for Justice in its Biloxi office. We hold free legal clinics across the coast, and held one in Pearlington a few months ago. There is a regular Friday workshop in BSL put on by an affiliate, MS Center for Legal Services, details contact Jesse Lawson 228-234-2821.

We also are having some success recently in geting the state to devote more of the recovery money to low income households, homeonwers and renters alike, and to help applicants overcome the bureaucracy. We also do community lawyering, which is pro bono help for non-profits working on Katrina relief.

If you get word about problems or know of people needing help, put them in touch with us. We are the Deep South affiliate of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. If you make it down here soon, let me know.

Reilly Morse
MS Center for Justice
974 Division St.
Biloxi MS



Anonymous said...


I spoke recently with Eugene Keys' nephew, Joseph, and he told me that Eugene was committed to the hospital recently after he began coughing up blood. It's yet another incident of hardship in a region of the country definied by suffering. I've been trying to find out more about Mr. Keys' condition, but so far I can only find out information about the situation in the town as a whole. Tensions are running high again, and even the good-hearted volunteers are seemingly losing focus. It falls on our shoulders, we who have a comfortable distance from the disaster region, to remember the devastation still faced daily by everyone in the Gulf Coast... Glenn Locklin, the coordinator for One House at a Time, is singlehandedly trying to finish several houses before Winter really sets in. Thank you for continuing to show the plight of Pearlington and supporting those trying to change it.

Clayton, we all need you to keep showing us what's going on. Too many have forgotten several times over, and you remain one of the last credible advocates for the area...

For those looking to help, I'll be heading down to volunteer in December, and I invite anyone to come along, but for those who can't go down themselves, please, try to donate money. That $25 could buy the final set of plumbing to finish an old man's house.

We all need to remember.

Thank you from a brother and a friend,

Leslie said...


Hey Clayton. Long time no hear! Sorry about that. I've been busy with all my efforts that I just don't find time or energy to read your work. For that, I apologize.

On to the OHAAT project.

Here's what I know...
Yes, Glenn is working like a dog to get things done. But what needs to be known is that after many misunderstandings, New Hope Construction felt they couldn't take the project on - for reasons I can't discuss.
So, that was just another obstacle in the OHAAT project, after at least a dozen previously.
Glenn's church has apparently taken the project over, but I have tried my best to contact them and help get volunteers flowing again - to no avail.
I got 1 email back in the summer and nothing since. A press release was supposed to be issued at least a month ago - it hasn't.
I have volunteers who want to come down and I have to direct them to other places because I have no way of assuring them a place to stay, a place to work, or the umbrella insurance of volunteering for another organization.
You have no clue how frustrating this has been for me. You might get further than I with phone calls or emails.
But considering the number of volunteers I helped attract to the effort who want to repeat their experience, you would think they'd be trying to get hold of me.
They aren't. So - I place my energy elsewhere. There's nothing else I can do.
I know when I'm beating my head against a brick wall, and that's what this has become.

To everyone - I have started a new relief blog that I would like help with - both for those in need and those wanting to help but can't go down. www.RealPeopleRelief.blogspot.com. It has families affected by The Storms of '05 listed, and I'll list as many as email me, along with information for them to help themselves as much as possible.
Please check it out.
I have only one entry from Pearlington, and would like more. It needs the attention.

I also suggest everyone interested in rebuilding Pearlington to PLEASE check out the link at the top of my comment and try contacting that church yourself and ask why they aren't yelling it from the rooftops that they need help!


Anonymous said...

I just came across this site. I spent time volunteering in MS and LA. Quite a bit of that time visiting Pearlington. It definitely is a challange to find, but hard to forget. I remember the person in the picture, as well as several other residents I encountered. I remember those I met at the school, the residents who had an incredible amount of faith, strength and hope that all will be okay. At the time (about 1 1/2 months after the hurricane)those who stayed on there property were in tents. I am assuming after reading this, many have forgotten this little town. I would love to hear more. I have heard from others in other areas I worked. It is disheartening to hear the television reports that all is well in the gulf coast, knowing that it has an increadibly long journey. Thank you for all you do!

Anonymous said...

Hi James

I didn't know about your work on Katrina and its damage. I just knew about your artistic works that I love very much.
So thank you for this work, thank you for helping people like you do.
I'm French. Writting in English is not so easy to me, sorry.


Anonymous said...

Hello Clayton This Glenn T. Locklin writing to say that we are still here and still building. The note from Leslie is true but she never tried to contact me if she had she would know that we never left. Enough about the old news lets move on to the new news. We are pleased to say that we have gotten a donation from a group that will allow us to build 6 full size homes we have found our famlies and our pulling permits now.
we need help building them so if any one reading this feels inclined to help these great people please contact me @ 615-496-6981. I am pleading with you to help I can not do this on my own.
I have bunkhouses with a/c and many other conforts to make your stay memoriable please feel free to post at any and all web sites.

Anonymous said...

Hi Clayton, I was in Pearlington working with Glen the first week in Oct. 2007. We made good progress for only 2 guys working on 3 projects. Glen hopes to get the families in by Christmas. I plan on going back maybe the first week in March if it can be worked out. I am a descendent of the Weston family that owned the lumber mill in Logtown. I was in Pearlington in March, 2005 doing family research. I was able to connect with Glen through the Christian Science Monitor article about Pearlington. I encourage anybody that can to go and help out. There just isn't enough manpower in that small town to get it done.