- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2006

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. — Three white FEMA trailers sag in the mud. Nearby, a thick, brown pool of water, still heavily polluted by what the locals call “Katrina crud,” twists through a landscape of mangled houses along the bayou.

Jacquie and Henry Reynolds, both in their 60s, sit cramped among a pile of salvaged belongings crammed inside one of the trailers sited where their house used to be.

“I’m just glad to get a trailer,” Mr. Reynolds says. “There’s some people that don’t even have them yet.”

Nearly 100,000 of Mississippi’s 2.3 million residents are living like this in about 35,500 temporary trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. According to the American Red Cross, nearly 70,000 dwellings in the state were destroyed and another 65,000 heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina six months ago.

While the scene on the bayou remains bleak, things are a shade brighter for the Reynolds family since the last time a reporter and photographer from The Washington Times visited them in late September.

Back then, Mrs. Reynolds, who has heart disease and diabetes, and Mr. Reynolds, a retired Marine Corps sergeant with brain lesions from exposure to Agent Orange during tours in Vietnam, were eking out an existence in a ragged Army tent pitched outside a destroyed Kmart store down the road.

FEMA provided the three trailers in early November, one for Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds and two for their children and grandchildren for 18 months. Like countless others, the family struggles to move on amid a whirlwind of uncertainties.

Is the water safe to wash in? Will federal assistance be denied to those unable to afford rebuilding to newly established elevation standards? Would it be easier to sell to developers eager to replace destroyed family homes with expensive condos? Will insurance companies acknowledge it was wind, not flooding, that destroyed homes?

Thousands of homeowners remain locked in a battle with insurance companies that maintain wind-and-hail policies won’t cover all of the damage caused by the storm. They say much of the damage was the result of a massive surge of seawater accompanying Katrina.

A lawsuit filed by Mississippi Attorney General James Hood accusing five major insurance companies of trying to trick policyholders out of compensation is pending in the courts. Mr. Hood says unclear policies left hundreds unaware they had no coverage for flood damage.

Mississippi lawmakers are weighing a bill that would force insurance companies to offer a storm-surge waiver so property owners know whether they have such flood coverage in the future.

Insurance industry officials, however, say more than 80 percent of the 3.2 million claims filed after Katrina by residents across Mississippi and Louisiana have been settled without dispute, and that insurance companies are on strong legal ground because their policies clearly do not cover flood damage.

Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds said they are refusing to accept a $57,000 payout from Audubon Insurance, which, they say, has told them most of the damage to their house was caused by a surge of water from the bayou. The couple claims they deserve a $155,000 payout because eyewitnesses watched as Katrina’s winds tore apart their house.

“Everybody’s in the same mess,” Mrs. Reynolds says. “It really makes you mad when you have to start taking your own savings to pay to start rebuilding, especially when you’re old.”

But Mr. Reynolds insists they will rebuild, saying it was excellent fishing that attracted him and other retired Marines to the area.

“You can’t take a Marine away from the water. That’s all we know.”

It’s too early to know how many others will rebuild, especially in communities where rumors swirl of out-of-town developers eager to pounce on waterfront lots.

Aside from casinos and resorts that sprung up in Gulfport and Biloxi in the 10 years before the storm, large portions of the Gulf Coast were “kind of a secret,” says Richard C. Burton, a town official in Long Beach, about five miles east of Gulfport.

“It’s one of the few coasts with residential neighborhoods and small-town charm right up to the coastline,” he said, adding that Long Beach officials are fighting to make it economically feasible for individual homeowners to rebuild.

But with hundreds of houses swept away from the beachfront, “there’s blood in the water and [the developers] are circling,” Mr. Burton said.

Willie Shook, 53, whose own house near the coast was swept clean away by the storm, says she recently turned down a developer’s offer.

“I told him I had thought about it, but it depended on what my neighbors did,” said Miss Shook, adding that she has been persistent in dealing with her insurance companies.

“It’s like pulling teeth, you have to beg for every cent you get,” said Miss Shook, who has received an $87,000 payout from her policy with FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program.

After paying off the outstanding mortgage on her destroyed house, Miss Shook, who lives in a FEMA trailer parked a few miles inland, says she is left with about $30,000. Now she faces the difficult choice of whether to begin building on her existing foundation, or building on pillars so her new house will meet revised federal home-elevation standards.

FEMA has said federal grants for individual homeowners will pay for meeting the new standards, which in many areas call for an increase from 16 feet to 24 feet above sea level. Owners will not be eligible for such grants if they ignore the new standards.

During a recent visit to the spot where her house used to be, Miss Shook gestured toward the landscape where much of the heavy debris has been cleared by bulldozers.

“I’m not bothered by the destruction,” she said.

Noticing a single metal house key lying on the slab where her house used to be, she said: “It was one of the house keys, to a door that no longer exists.”

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