Putting the pieces back together on the Coast

Volunteers lend their time to build a new Habitat for Humanity home.

Volunteers lend their time to build a new Habitat for Humanity home.

On May 5, a group of approximately 40 volunteers – all women – turned out to help build one home and renovate another in Bay St. Louis for the Bay-Waveland Area Habitat for Humanity.

These projects represented yet another step toward recovery for the town that was "ground zero" for Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"You just have to push on," said Susan Daigre, director of resource development for the Habitat chapter. "Here’s what we have. Now, let’s build on that. That’s all you can do."

The new-build will be the home of Tammy Sigsworth and her three children. She had been forced to stay with family, and now can look forward to a home of her own.

"It just means so much," said Sigsworth, tears streaming down her face. "This town has such a sense of community. I can’t describe how I feel right now."

The two Habitat projects bring the chapter’s total to 140 new housing units. Helping to rebuild homes – and lives – came easy for many of the volunteers, who suffered catastrophic losses of their own.

Daigre is one of those victims. She owned a small, independent bookstore in Bay St. Louis before Katrina.

"It went away with the storm," she said without emotion. Asked if the five years since the storm had eased the pain of the loss, she said with a dismissive wave of her hand, "Oh, you move on."

Nancy Moynan, a Habitat volunteer, lost everything to the storm, as well. She opened Maggie May’s, an art gallery featuring local and regional artists in 2003. Katrina gutted the place.

However, Moynan found an opportunity to not only rebuild her business and life, but also those of her neighbors. Moynan built a larger facility that now houses Maggie May’s as well as eight tenants – five businesses and three art studios.

"It feels great to be here and help," Moynan said. "The amount of rebuilding that has occurred just over the last year is incredible."

Moynan’s business partner, Cindy Mirambell, was also helping with the Habitat projects. Mirambell operates Lulu’s, a gourmet shop/restaurant. She reports business has been good lately in the historic downtown.

Sherri Bevis, executive director of the Bay-Waveland Main Street Association, said Hancock County’s decision to leave the seat of government and the courthouse downtown was huge for merchants. Retail follows people, and she said if the courthouse had closed, it would have been a crippling blow to downtown business owners.

Still, there is much to be done. A drive down Beach Boulevard reveals just how far recovery has come – or not. Beach Boulevard, from U.S. 90 south to St. Stanislaus College, sports new pavement, neat sidewalks and rebuilt homes and businesses, though some structures remain shuttered.

Then, the pavement ends, and Beach Boulevard turns into a pitted, sand-covered "road." Whole blocks are lined with nothing but driveways leading to slabs.

Still, there were a number of people out on the beaches, walking, fishing and sunbathing. The pedestrian walkway on the new Bay St. Louis U.S. 90 bridge was busy with walkers, joggers and cyclists.

No one seemed to be overly concerned with the Gulf oil spill that literally looms on the area’s horizon. The week before, residents reported the smell of oil in the air. But other than oil-skimming booms stretched across the Bay of St. Louis at the railroad bridge just south of U.S. 90, there were no signs that a disaster was imminent.

Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) maintains an office next door to the Habitat headquarters in Bay St. Louis. Chris Lagarde, a member of Taylor’s staff, was manning the office, and said he had been busy trying to allay fears.

"As Congressman Taylor said after flying over the oil spill May 1, this is not Armageddon; it’s not Katrina," Lagarde said. "There’s no reason to panic."

That seemed to be the mood of the Habitat volunteers, too.

"We can handle it," Daigre said.

Beavis echoed Daigre, and then adjusted her hardhat. "I’ve never hammered a nail in my life," she said, laughed and went to work.

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