State of the Onion in Pearlington - Part I
I arrived back in Canada late Tuesday afternoon and there was, of course, an enormous amount of work waiting for me here in my "other" life.
Although I have six clients yet to see today, I would like to take this time to reflect on my personal and professional observations of the rebuilding effort in Pearlington. Like peeling an onion, as we strip away the layers that Katrina deposited on this small Mississippi town, what then is revealed within this particular Pearl Onion?
The Progress of Recovery:
Some people have moved back into their homes and some are in the process of rebuilding. Some homes have been "abandoned" and there is evidence the owners are not returning. For most, however, this process is just beginning and that is where they need our help. Most people did not get enough money from insurance, FEMA or other sources to do the job. While many can contribute what they did get towards materials, many need the help of volunteers to provide the labor.
Labor has become a different issue. Many of the volunteers, particularly young people, who have come to Pearlington have performed tens of thousands of hours of labor gutting, mudding out and cleaning houses to prepare for rebuilding. While this is important - and while there is still some of this to be done - what is really needed now in Pearlington are skilled tradespeople. All of our efforts now must be bent to this task. These homes have to be rebuilt properly and none of us will ever rest if something unfortunate happens due to unskilled workers performing certain important tasks.
Each tradesperson could be accompanied by unskilled or semi-skilled workers. There is a unique opportunity here to provide young people with considerable on-the-job training while performing valuable community service. Each person now coming to work in Pearlington should be equipped with proper safety equipment. There have been several minor injuries and we cannot afford for there to be any serious ones. This safety equipment should include work boots with steel toes and shanks, eye and ear protection, proper work gloves dependent on the task (leather and rubber), masks for breathing protection (usually available at the Pearl*Mart), etc. All skilled tradespeople should bring safety equipment (harnesses for roofers, knee and leg protection for carpenters and dry wallers), etc. Those in the trades are familiar with the appropriate equipment.
The New Building Codes and Requirements:
As I have posted previously, there are stringent new rules going to apply to rebuilding on the Coast commencing July 1, 2006. This cannot be stressed enough: all residents planning to rebuild, must obtain their permits PRIOR to July 1st. Failure to do so will result in a return to previous code restrictions stringently enforced. This may require four inspections, septic inspections and permits etc. Right now, the cost of permits in Hancock County is FREE. Under a grant program, there are now five clerks hired to issue them. After July 1st, these clerks will be gone and a permit on a 2000 sq. ft. house could cost between $500-1000. My understanding is that you have six months from the issuance of the permit to commence building. Residents must get their site elevation certificates ($200-300) and their building permits NOW to be "grandfathered" under the new rules.
It would appear that all new construction and all rebuilds will have to be 4 feet higher than the zone’s previous elevation. Pearlington is in a 9 ft. zone and so homes will have to be built 13 feet or higher and rebuilt homes will have to be elevated to the same height. After July 1, 2006 that could mean actually having to lift the home. There are many companies showing up on the coast offering to perform this service and often charging exorbitant fees to do so. If you are required to do this, please contact Laurie Spaschak at the Recovery Center. She has access to a short list from FEMA of contractors who can do it for under $10,000. FEMA will also be offering an ICC Grant - Increased Cost of Compliance Grant - of up to $30,000 to perform this task, should it become necessary. I would also personally recommend that residents rebuilding their homes for resale should hire tradespeople licensed in the state of Mississippi to perform skilled tasks and ask for a certificate to prove it.
There have been pirates and charlatans on the Coast since day one - I’ve personally run off a bunch - and residents should double check their credentials carefully - as well as the quoted costs of their work. I am still working on a source of professional assessors who might make that job easier and more honest.
The State of the Volunteer Community:
I was very pleased to observe and to participate in a bonded and cooperative volunteer community in Pearlington on my recent trip. This is a critical element of this recovery. We must all work together, share resources and people power where possible and feed all information as to what we have accomplished to Laurie Spaschak and her staff at the Recovery Center for recording. There is too much to do to send two teams to the same place or to hoard information that could make another volunteer group’s job easier. All new groups coming to town are asked to check in with the Recovery Center upon arrival, for that reason. It is also our desire to ensure that we support you in any way we can.
The decision to separate the Recovery Center from the Pearl*Mart by putting it in one of the new bunkers on the field has been rescinded, for obvious security and safety reasons. It will be segregated from the Pearl*Mart in the same building and kept secure and dry at all times. OK, Putnam, you were right....
It is also my observation that the black community of Pearlington is not asking for as much help, nor as often, as is the white community. Anyone who knows me at all knows where I stand on this. Every effort must be made to invite BOTH communities to come forward, help themselves and help us help them. Katrina herself saw no color bar and nor do we.
Despite inevitable ups and downs, the resident and the visiting community of volunteers in Pearlington are doing an outstanding job in a very challenging and difficult environment. There is never enough of anything and that’s why we must continue to share. There are times when we are fried and burnt out and we need to encourage each other to take a break. As a therapist, I suggest you get away from "resting" in other communities where the evidence of Katrina still exists. My friend Sid Kennedy taught me this. When, in November, I was invited to his home in Bugalosa, I spent a restful day eating real food, having a nap on a real bed and came back to Pearlington recharged and with a whole new perspective.
We have to look out for each other. We must not get so immune to the damage and the tragedy that we forget to take care of ourselves and each other. Some residents expect more than we could ever deliver. Some forget to say thank you. Some are rude and pushy and swear at us when they don’t get what they want. Get used to it. If YOU had lost everything, how would you be? Spend time instead with the many breaths of fresh air in Pearlington: the kids, the old folks and others who are grateful for what we have been able to do. Congratulate each other on your successes and set the bar HIGH for those who follow you. We are the leaders upon whom so much rests. If we fall apart, if we get angry, if we don’t take care of ourselves - despite the circumstances - what hope will there be for the people of Pearlington who lost everything?
And while we toil, our lives unfold without us back home. Bills come in, people make choices, tornadoes rip through our home towns and life goes on. Yet, we were called to do what we do and we have answered. For the time we are in Pearlington - one week or two years - all we have most days is the family of volunteers and our new friends in Pearlington. I write this blog hoping to help the volunteers maintain a healthy perspective and to give feedback and credit where it is due. I know that none of us went there for glory. But, we’re human beings and we need to know the sacrifices we have made - in many cases well beyond what anyone in the community will ever know - are making a difference. As I share our stories, I also know it inspires others to come and help and informs the people of Pearlington that we will NOT give up until they are back on their feet.
OK. ALL VOLUNTEERS. Stand up. Hug another volunteer close to you and tell them what a great job they are doing! Reach over and pat yourself on the back. There. Doesn’t that feel good?
OK, that’s enough. Now get back to work.
TOMORROW: My professional observations of the condition of the residents of Pearlington.
"Canada Jon" White