Bay St. Louis Moves Forward
On Aug. 29, 2005, the sky grew dark. The storm came, and the water rose.
Many remember seeing the indelible scenes of a ravaged New Orleans in newspapers and on television in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
The hurricane displaced 1 million people, killed almost 1,800 in five states and decimated any sense of everyday life for the residents of the Gulf Coast region.
However, as Moore County residents remember the devastation wrought by Katrina, thoughts lie 60 miles east of New Orleans in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
There, five years after volunteers in Moore County extended relief efforts to the small resort area, the city celebrates its resilience as it continues to overcome struggles.
A relationship with the city began when Steve Bouser, editor of The Pilot, wrote a column urging Moore County residents to adopt Bay St. Louis.
After seeing so much media coverage focused on the plight of New Orleans, Bouser worried that other areas in the Gulf would be overlooked by charities and relief efforts. He made attempts to contact cities along the coast but he was unable to reach anyone.
In the storm’s aftermath, phone lines were down and cell phone service was either spotty or overwhelmed by the magnitude of calls coming into the area.
Late one night, Bouser received a call from then-Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre, who was standing in front of a washed-out bridge to neighboring Pass Christian.
Out of that conversation came Moore Friends for Bay St. Louis.
Residents from all over Moore County donated their time and resources toward relief efforts.
Local students collected money and held fundraisers. Churches held food drives. FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital, under the guidance of Bob Boone, donated furniture and old medical equipment to the local hospital.
“We purchased all kinds of things — from tents to copy paper,” says former South-ern Pines mayor Frank Quis, a member of Moore Friends.
One of the first things the group did was to buy uniforms and equipment for the Bay St. Louis High School football team.
Pam Partis and her husband, Tom Fioretti, had lived in Southern Pines only a few months before joining the cause.
Partis, who had moved to the area from California, was no stranger to natural disasters. She jumped at the opportunity to get involved. She says she was also pleasantly surprised to see everyone in the community also rise to the occasion.
Looking back on the experience, Partis says the outpouring of generosity in the community left a lasting impression on her as a new resident to the area.
“It was just wonderful to see everyone pull together,” she says.
Building a ‘Refuge’
The new organization’s mission was to meet needs that were not being met by other agencies.
Kelly Miller, president and CEO of Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club and Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, offered to fly local volunteers to Bay St. Louis, where they could meet with officials and brainstorm potential projects for the community.
“It was a shock to go there approximately two weeks after Katrina hit,” Quis says. “We had no idea how that community was going to rebuild. They have quite a bit of resilience, and we were happy to play a small part in helping.”
Jerry Lefton, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, made several trips to Hancock County in the months after the storm.
He spent a lot of time talking to residents about what the community needed while sleeping on an air mattress in the local fire station each night. He heard stories of loss and quickly realized the long struggle ahead for residents.
“Suddenly, within one night, it’s all gone,” he says. “It was a very trying time for them, and of course, it caused a lot of family problems.”
Lefton came back to Moore County with a proposal to rebuild a neighborhood park on 7th Street.
Trees had fallen on top of mangled playground equipment. Piles of debris were everywhere.
Partis says the project was a way to give the community something permanent that would remain long after the recovery.
“We could give them back a piece of the way it used to be — a refuge to go to, and a place to gather,” Partis says. “They could walk down the street to this park and, for a minute, escape it.”
With the financial support of the Bucks-Mont Katrina Relief Project, an organization from Pennsylvania, Moore Friends Park was dedicated a year later on the first anniversary of Katrina.
According to R.J. Pierce, of the Bay St. Louis beautification department, the park is still being put to good use five years later.
“It’s a great little neighborhood community park,” she said. “All the kids in the neighborhood come, and their moms push them on the swings.”
Pierce adds that residents have been so grateful for the support they have received from all over the country. She personally remembers receiving aid after surviving the storm.
“It changes your perception of humanity,” she says. “I was so grateful to know that somebody thought of us, that we had not been forgotten.”
Five Years Forward
As many remember the losses of Hurricane Katrina today, Bay St. Louis has no intention of looking back.
The city is marking the fifth anniversary with a celebration of recovery — the Five Years Forward Festival at the city’s historic train depot, which has been restored in the years since the hurricane.
Katie Stewart, beautification administrator for the city, says the event will be a chance to celebrate the area’s resilience despite ongoing struggles.
“It’s more of a community celebration because everybody has been through such trying times over the last few years,” Stewart says. “We’re celebrating where we are, not the bad that has happened. We are going to try to move forward.”
For Stewart, the concept of “back to normal” in Bay St. Louis is a relative term, but residents go about their daily lives as they watch the city rebuild.
She doesn’t think the city will ever be like it was before the hurricane, but she says residents’ love and dedication to the city is at the heart of progress.
“It’s really just the community,” Stewart says. “We couldn’t have done it without our citizens, and everyone from Bay St. Louis is loyal to Bay St. Louis.”
Though paperwork and red tape have made progress painstakingly slow, underground utilities have been installed, and main roads have been paved since last winter.
The city anticipates the completion of its new community center, and the new fire station was recently dedicated.
This past year, the Arbor Day Foundation named the city a Tree City USA — a huge milestone since Katrina flattened the area’s venerable trees.
Stewart says Bay St. Louis, like many small cities in the Gulf, has had a harder time recovering because it has a smaller tax base and is not as economically diverse as larger cities, like New Orleans or Biloxi.
The current economic recession and the debilitating Gulf oil spill haven’t helped with development either.
Stewart says tourism is down this year and local restaurants have specifically suffered because of the spill, but the city’s beaches are clean. She thinks the impact is more psychological.
“You run into roadblock after roadblock,” she says. “A lot of people have been very hesitant to come back here. What else can you go through?”
Stewart remembers Katrina as a big blur, but as August comes and goes each year, she begins to wonder if the wounds of Katrina will ever heal.
“Every year around this time, you have to keep busy because you can’t sit there and dwell on what happened,” Stewart said.
Thoughts for ‘the Bay’
Though Moore Friends ultimately dissolved as an organization in 2007, strong feelings still resonate for “the Bay,” as locals call it.
Partis has mixed emotions when she thinks about the anniversary paired with the Gulf’s current struggles.
“It’s just a long, long battle,” she said. “I guess [recovery] just takes much longer than you’d hope it would. My heart just goes out to everybody there.”
Lefton stops by the city once a year on his way home from an annual trip to Arizona.
Each year, he has noted progress, but he knows that the city has a long way to go.
“I give it another three to four years,” Lefton said. “It’s going to be an amazing place again.”
Contact Hannah Sharpe at email@example.com.
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