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(Sep 4, 2005)
Photo by: KATHY MOORE
Tim Jackson of Jackson, Miss., marvels at a crucifix hanging by two thin wires from the ceiling of St. Paul's Catholic Church in Pass Christian.
PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. - When the saltwater receded and the people of this little town came out from attics and down from trees, they began to notice the peculiarities.
Hurricane Katrina, people noticed, had been mysteriously selective.
The storm destroyed nearly every structure built with Mississippi sweat and steel and brick on Davis Street but left the slender, green street sign in the town square that pointed the way to Antiques, Shops, Ball Fields, Plumbing and Mower Svc., like a reminder of where things used to be.
The storm cut a swath through a mobile home park, twisting tin and shredding fiberglass insulation, but left unharmed a Sno Cone stand down the street.
It chomped the front off Lela Weems' old home but safely deposited her two precious rosary beads in her kitchen sink.
Though the metal roof was torn from a storage shed, the Mardi Gras floats inside belonging to the krewes of Boogaloo and Voo-Doo were ready for another Fat Tuesday; the large plywood crawfish atop Boogaloo's float hadn't lost so much as a whisker.
But no peculiarity - or miracle, as some here are saying - was as remarkable, as chilling, as what was found inside St. Paul's Church on Scenic Drive.
------ ``Charlie's truck is under there,'' said Chantal Dessommes, a clinical skin therapist who grew up here, pointing toward the remains of the top half of a house near the Gulf. ``And these trees, he must have been up in one of these trees.''
Charlie is her boyfriend. He's a lawyer, and practically everybody knows him. She thinks he rode the storm out in a live oak and wound up in a hospital in De Lisle, the next town over, though she can't be sure, even if one of the Pass firemen did see him hitch-hiking in that direction the day after the storm.
Dessommes (pronounced de-SOHM) didn't know what to do this day, so she walked toward downtown and wound up with other wide-eyed wanderers who had nothing to do but assess and salvage and wonder about tomorrow.
She hitched a ride and soon found herself along Scenic Drive, gently stepping over items the sea had stolen from individuals, then given back to the whole community: Mardi Gras beads, a car jack, a ceramic clown, Christmas lights, a bottle of Jack Daniels, pictures of a hunter holding a turkey, a spoon.
Up the road, choppers buzzed in twos down the beach, and Dessommes couldn't figure out where she was for a moment in her hometown of 6,500. She finally got her bearings upon noticing a store that looked as if it had vomited thousands of spools of yarn into the street.
``That must be the yarn store,'' she said. ``OK. I see. That was my vet right down there to the right. That's where I paid my power bill. OK. I can't believe nobody's here.''
As if on cue, Mike Scaldina wandered down the street in jean shorts and work boots and mud to his chest. Scaldina said he floated on three mattresses for 2 1/2 hours with his wife and children in the storm, whispering to his kids the whole time.
``Relax. Lay down. We're going for a ride.''
``My stuff is from here to over there,'' he told her. ``I'm just trying to find what I can.''
A man passed carrying four hard drives. Another had a chalice and an offering plate. Dessommes said goodbye, good luck, and walked toward St. Paul's.
------ Hurricane Camille hit here at 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 17, 1969, and the old folks on the front porches remember that storm. It was bad.
The water came up over Highway 90, then Scenic Drive, then through the beachfront homes and businesses, wasting many buildings, giving scare to antebellum waterfront mansions and ruining the original clapboard St. Paul's Catholic Church, which was built in 1874. The remnants of the church - broken pieces of stained glass, a crucifix with a broken arm, battered Stations of the Cross, a cross from the old steeple - were collected and sold to parishioners as keepsakes.
In the months and years that followed, the names of the 78 victims of Camille from Pass Christian were etched into a marble memorial, then erected in Memorial Park. St. Paul's was rebuilt along with the town, this time designed by architects mindful of a hurricane.
The giant cross that was planted out front was made aerodynamic to withstand storm winds. The building itself was constructed much like an A-frame, with one slanted side facing the Gulf to help guide the bulk of the building under hurricane winds.
Perhaps it would have withstood a reasonable storm.
Katrina, however, was not reasonable.
Blocks along Scenic Drive, where the nouveau riche from New Orleans built mansions in the mid-1800s, were now hills of brick and driftwood. The only thing that remained of a waterfront McDonald's was the foundation and a drive-through sign. The huge marble monument for Camille victims was toppled into the dirt of Memorial Park.
``What made Pass Christian Pass Christian is not here anymore,'' said William Jeanes, a former editor in chief of Car and Driver magazine whose Scenic Drive home was ruined. ``It's all gone.''
Two weeks ago, on the 36th anniversary of Hurricane Camille, a good number of the 814 families of St. Paul's dedicated a building to the east called Damascus House. The cottage was donated to the church. When word spread of the donation, it was decided the building would make a fine repository for tattered artifacts recovered after Camille.
The restoration committee mounted the relics on the walls, like in a museum. There was a faulted crucifix, stained glass windows that had been stored in Lolette Wittmann's garage, a 100-year-old confessional door.
``We are pleased about this,'' the Rev. Dennis Carver told the Southern Mississippi Sun Herald, ``because the Damascus House is a connection to the deeper roots of the community.''
Roots of pain, loss, perseverance, rebuilding, newness. Memories of what this church was before the storm and the struggle to be something again.
But no one expected what came next.
------ The church's brick walls had holes big enough to drive a Dodge through. Rebar hung in the front entrance. The pews were gone, the muddy carpet stripped from the cement foundation.
The hurricane-proof building looked like a park pavilion.
Dessommes looked inside, then asked to be alone. She walked to the middle of what was the sanctuary.
Outside, in a room in a school behind the church, Don Watson noticed some visitors and walked to the church.
``I can't quit looking at it,'' said Watson, a dirty man in a sleeveless T-shirt who took shelter with another man in St. Paul's school. ``I lost my house, my truck, everything. But I almost cried when I saw that.''
There in the wasted church, suspended over blocks upon blocks of rubble in all directions, was an untouched statue of Jesus on a cross.
The giant crucifix was attached to the ceiling by two thin wires that were visible up close.
To the left and right were stained-glass windows depicting the Stations of the Cross. None was broken, though half the windows surrounding them were.
Word spread quickly through Pass Christian of the miracle at St. Paul's Catholic Church. The man whose family donated the crucifix rushed over when he heard.
``They've been telling me about this, my brothers have,'' said Tim Taylor, upon seeing the crucifix in memory of his mother, Ruth Provosty Taylor. ``Boy. That's amazing.''
He walked toward the cross and was silent for a while. He began to cry.
``It's overwhelming,'' he said. ``Just tough. Just overwhelming.''
Emergency officials in Pass Christian dragged at least 12 bodies from the ruin by the Wal-Mart down U.S. 90, the Pensacola News Journal reported. Rescue crews expected to find many more in one of the hardest-hit small towns on the coast.
Inside a gutted little church on a hill, Chantal Dessommes looked up at Jesus.
She walked toward the dangling statue, her hand over her mouth. She said a prayer lots of folks here were saying as the choppers buzzed overhead and the sun fell toward another night.
``God help me.''
USA TODAY September 28, 2005
Son's thank-you follows dad's lead
State Rep. Jim Simpson Sr. stood before the Mississippi House in 1969 to thank the state and the nation for helping the Gulf Coast after a horrific hurricane. On Tuesday, his son did the same.
State Rep. Jim Simpson Jr., R-Long Beach, first apologized to his colleagues for breaking the House chamber's coat-and-tie dress code. "The fact is, I don't own a suit and I don't own a coat and I don't own a tie and I don't own a home," he said. "I am no different than 90% of my constituents and my neighbors." He choked back tears as he read the speech his father delivered on Aug. 27, 1969, 10 days after Hurricane Camille flattened the Simpsons' hometown of Pass Christian.
Jim Simpson Sr., a Democrat, served from January 1964 to January 1992. He died in 1994. He said in 1969 that he saw a new light on the Mississippi coast h1 the dark days after Camille.
"'This light comes from the north, the east and the west and every point in this great state and generous nation,'" his son read. " 'This light is called hope.' " Like his father 36 years ago, Jim Simpson Jr. thanked fellow Mississippians and Americans for their help and their prayers. "We call upon you again individually and collectively to help us stand proudly in our communities again," he said, choking back tears.
"We need you to help our fathers to go back to work. We need you to help our mothers return to making our homes proud and places where we can raise our children again. We need you to help our children laugh and have a place to go to school and a place to come home to again."
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