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Katrina, time take their toll on Mississippi town

6 months later, Bay St. Louis residents still struggling

By Kathleen Koch
CNN

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CNN correspondent Kathleen Koch surveys her devastated hometown of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

BEHIND THE SCENES

In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news.

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• Rebuilding: Vital signs
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• Storm & Flood: Making history
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Behind the Scenes
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Mississippi
Hurricane Katrina

BAY ST. LOUIS, Mississippi (CNN) -- Growing up on the Gulf Coast in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, I always knew that a hurricane could devastate our town.

Hurricane Camille had done just that in 1969, right before my family moved here. And as a CNN correspondent, part of my job is bringing the nation the story of those who do what my family did many hurricane seasons: board up their windows, pack up their most precious belongings and head inland -- all the while hoping their homes would still be there when they returned.

Still, nothing could prepare me for what I found the day I returned to the place I used to call home days after Hurricane Katrina, nor for the infuriatingly slow response and recovery I would track over the next six months.

Katrina's 125-mile-an-hour winds and 34-foot storm surge put 95 percent of my town underwater. Nearly every business and home was heavily damaged or destroyed. Water surged inland 7 miles, submerging even I-10, the interstate highway. Every span of the two-mile-long bridge connecting Bay St. Louis to the rest of the Mississippi Gulf Coast was ripped apart.

The more fortunate residents had from 2-to 12-feet of water in their homes. The unlucky ones had nothing left but empty slabs. Even "hurricane-proof" homes like the one I'd grown up in, on South Beach Boulevard, were reduced to rubble.

Still, friends and neighbors I met in the street those first days found reason to smile.

"Our homes were destroyed," said my high school classmate, Diane Edwards, as we hugged in the middle of what had been Highway 90. "But we're alive."

Frustrations build

The hurricane erased five-term Mayor Eddie Favre's home. Nonetheless, the Federal Emergency Management Agency turned down his request for a trailer. For months, Favre and his wife slept on an air mattress in the fire house, before deciding to go out and buy their own mobile home.

Yet Favre is more concerned about finding trailers for his citizens.

"The faster we can get the temporary housing situation addressed, the better chances that we're going to have of keeping our people here -- and get(ting) them to come back and rebuild," said the mayor.

Eventually, FEMA-provided trailers did come. Still, as in most places on the Gulf Coast, Bay St. Louis residents say there seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to who got them or when they arrived. Nearly six months after the storm, I have friends who applied for a trailer in September who are still waiting.

Public schools in Bay St. Louis were the last on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to open. Classes began November 7, 2005, a week later than originally planned, because the portable classrooms from FEMA were inexplicably delayed.

'Please help us'

Residents have waged their hardest, most frustrating battles with insurance companies. Even though most people had homeowners' insurance, wind policies and even hurricane coverage, few have received significant post-Katrina payments.

Sustained hurricane winds hit peak force six hours before the storm surge reached its highest point, further inundating homes with water. Insurance companies claim this surge caused the damage -- not the hurricane itself.

start quoteOur concern is that we're being forgotten. Katrina's no longer the topic of conversation, and it needs to be.end quote
-- Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre

One irony is that most Bay St. Louis residents did not have flood insurance, in part because 20-year-old FEMA flood maps showed the majority of the town was safe from storm surges.

Six months after Katrina, there is some progress in the town.

Some salvageable homes are being repaired. Two gas stations have opened up, as have six restaurants.

But no grocery stores have reopened. No destroyed homes have been rebuilt. Seventy percent of the businesses are still closed. And at least 20 percent of the residents are gone.

"Our concern is that we're being forgotten," says Mayor Favre. "Katrina's no longer the topic of conversation, and it needs to be.

"The devastation is here and its obvious. So our plea is, please help us."

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