Learning From Katrina: Pearlington, Miss., Struggles to Rebuild

A small town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast must revamp its water system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina

PHOTO: Connie Hoe

When Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005, it plowed right into Pearlington, a small community nestled in the cypress-and-yellow pinewoods near the coast. The storm surge from Katrina submerged the town beneath 6 meters of water. When aid workers first arrived 10 days later, they found hungry residents living in tents and under tarps, and every house, building, and vehicle in the town had been destroyed.

Now, two years later, Pearlington struggles to rebuild. Last month, two of us (Hoe and Foster) visited Pearlington with a group of 32 students and faculty from the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, as part of a project called the Feldman Initiative, which is dedicated to helping rebuild Mississippi’s Hancock County—a forgotten area of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. In addition to engineers, the group from Penn included nurses, social workers, and dentists, who helped provide basic social and medical services to this hard-pressed community. We were hosted by the Pearlington Recovery & Resource Center, an efficiently run nongovernment organization that operates out of the town’s now-abandoned elementary school.

Poverty and the Environment

Unincorporated, with little political voice, and 20 miles from the county seat of Bay St. Louis, Pearlington is a poor community in a poor region of the country. Before the storm, one-fifth of the community’s 460 families lived below the poverty line; after Katrina, even poorer people moved in from New Orleans. In their house-to-house visits, the Penn team found many residents without health insurance or ready access to health care, and many were suffering from untreated high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and other serious health problems. Such problems, which predated Katrina, were certainly made worse by the aftereffects of the storm.

Katrina caused immense damage to the environment. According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report[PDF], the storm ”created an estimated 86 million cubic yards of debris; caused the spill of more than 7 million gallons of oil; produced floodwaters that deposited fuel oils, gasoline, bacteria, and metals in sediments; and passed over 18 Superfund…hazardous waste sites and more than 400 industrial facilities that store or manage hazardous materials.” The EPA picked up more than 2.5 million containers of hazardous waste, including propane tanks, containers of swimming pool disinfectant, and drums of chemicals.

Adding to the residents’ concerns has been a swirl of rumors about environmental hazards caused by the storm. The storm left a residue of bad-smelling deposit throughout the region, causing stories about a ”witches’ brew” to circulate in the population. In retrospect, this was almost certainly sediment that had previously been submerged, whose decaying organic matter was odorous but not a health threat.

Another rumor concerns high levels of arsenic in the region. An independent investigator, Wilma Subra, found arsenic levels in the soil of the region that exceeded some previous EPA cleanup thresholds, a finding that fueled rumors about arsenic-induced illness in the population. However, the levels that she reported were generally similar to background levels of arsenic in the region due to natural geochemical processes (which, according to the state, range from 1 to 15 parts per million). Neither the EPA nor the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) has expressed alarm about health hazards from these sources.

Whatever the risks may be from such exposures, it seems that they were present before Katrina. To detect health effects from environmental levels of arsenic at the levels being discussed would require a sophisticated epidemiology study—not an easy matter in the highly stressed population in this region. Nevertheless, we talked to people who knew of a doctor who thought that the skin rashes reported in some people after Katrina looked like they might have been caused by arsenic exposure.

Formaldehyde in trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a real issue. Perhaps the larger question is why many Pearlington residents still have to live in trailers in the first place.

Bad Water

Pearlington, with about 1600 residents, is one of the few communities in the state without water or sewer service. The high water table in the region has led many homeowners to install shallow wells; many septic tanks are deficient. Poor management of sewage and the frequent flooding of wells during heavy rains have caused many home wells to be contaminated with fecal bacteria or other bacteria, posing a major health threat to the community.

Katrina led to massive flooding of wells with contaminated storm water. Three weeks after the storm, one of us (Johnson) took part in a survey by MDEQ of home wells in the Pearlington area. Tests showed that one-third of the wells were contaminated with coliform bacteria. Last month, the Penn team led by Foster found that nearly one-fifth of the 48 wells it tested were bacteriologically contaminated, still an unacceptable finding.

Numerous efforts have been made over the past decade to provide safe water and sewer service to the community. These efforts have been complicated by the effects of Katrina. Since Katrina, the cost of installing water and sewer service has more than doubled, due partly to the passage of time and increases in the cost of materials. The need to implement new flood-plain elevations will require many parts of the water and sewer system to be elevated or weatherproofed, adding several million dollars to the cost of the projects. Nevertheless, plans for water and sewer lines have been approved and funded. Water service is expected to be installed within two years, with sewage lines a few years after that.

What Is the Future of Pearlington?

Improvements to the water and sewer systems are badly needed but will come at a cost to the residents. While the county will pay for installing these systems, the cost of insuring and maintaining them will be assessed to the residents, a difficult burden for many. The houses now being rebuilt by volunteers, which are elevated 3 meters or more aboveground as required by new building codes, will have higher assessments and, consequently, higher property taxes. Perversely, Pearlington may become too expensive for the poorest of its present inhabitants.

Nearly at sea level and unprotected from the nearby gulf and Pearl River by levees, Pearlington remains vulnerable to another Katrina. Perhaps the higher elevations of the rebuilt houses will protect them against future storms, and perhaps the government will be better prepared next time. But the residents’ wishes are clear. Pearlington is their home, and few seem ready to leave.

About the Authors

Kenneth R. Foster is a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania (kfoster@seas.upenn.edu).

Connie Hoe is project coordinator, Feldman Initiative—Hancock County, in the School of Social Policy & Practice, University of Pennsylvania (conniehh@sp2.upenn.edu).

Tom Johnson is a senior operations management specialist, Community Resource Group, a consultant to the Pearlington Water and Sewer District (tjohnson@crc.org). He has worked with Pearlington, Miss., for many years to help address its water and sewage issues.

To Probe Further

See our original article, "Learning from Katrina."

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