(April 24, 2006) — First come the trees. Driving south from Jackson, Miss., the first signs of Katrina are the downed trees visible along the roadside north of Hattiesburg.
Then comes the first blue-tarped roof at a damaged church.
Head farther south and there are more trees down, empty stumps in the highway median. There are dents in the guardrail along the highway south of Hattiesburg and sections where the aging metal has been replaced with a newer, shinier section. White trailers sit at federal staging sites along the freeway, waiting to be deployed as temporary housing.
When I returned to Michigan after spending four days in Mississippi and Louisiana in March, friends asked me what it was like. Even seeing it more than six months after Hurricane Katrina roared in from the Gulf of Mexico, it is difficult to understand just how much damage it caused.
For blocks along the beach, streets were wiped clean of their buildings. Other than hand-painted signs, it is hard to imagine how things must have been.
“I think that was the Burger King,” Oreck's Mike Ross said as he drove me through what remains of Gulfport's business district along U.S. 90. “No wait. That was Taco Bell.”
I was in the same area three years ago to do a report on the growth of the plastics industry in Mississippi. The hotel where I stayed in Gulfport, overlooking the quiet water, remains shuttered. There is a hole through the middle of the casino that once housed concerts.
The fish restaurant next door has a sign promising it will reopen.
At Bay St. Louis, Miss., the damage is worse. Stores remain closed. There is a campground of Federal Emergency Management trailers crammed into a vacant lot. Blue tarps cover nearly every roof.
The railroad bridge over St. Louis Bay just reopened in February. The bridge that used to carry U.S. 90 across the bay still is a wreck, nothing more than pilings dotting the horizon.
It will take months yet to clear the debris — and years to rebuild.
Yet, people are staying put. There are signs of life. Unlike portions of New Orleans — where neighborhoods still are abandoned because no one can agree on how to fix the levee system — southern Mississippi is moving forward.
People have put FEMA trailers on the concrete slabs that once held their houses and are adjusting to the new world. There are wooden decks outside the trailers, and there's lawn furniture spread across the lots.
There are hand-painted signs, the names of streets in spray paint on curbs or pieces of plywood. Obviously people still are trying to figure out what they should do in the wake of Katrina. At one damaged house in Waveland, Miss., there is a hand-painted sign noting: “Demolition canceled by order of property owner.” Across the street is another sign in front of another damaged house: “Please demolish.”
In the midst of the debris, though, plastics companies and other manufacturers have been an important part of that move forward, providing a stable economic and emotional base for their communities.
“People were dying for something normal in their life to be going on, and in a lot of ways, work became something you could count on,” said Jesse Hearin, business operations manager for Solvay Advanced Polymers near Bay St. Louis. “You couldn't go to the store or to a restaurant, but you could go to work.”
Oreck began making vacuums again two weeks after the storm, even though about 35 percent of its workforce remained in temporary housing. At Ocean Springs, Miss., First American Plastic Molding Enterprise is turning out fast-food eating utensils and just launched its first post-Katrina product: a housing for garage door openers.
Take a look at conditions surrounding waterfront towns and it is easy to become discouraged. But life — and business — are continuing. In Bay St. Louis, pharmacies and banks are operating in mobile homes. Damaged shops have signs announcing plans to reopen.
At Los Tres Amigos, one of the few operating restaurants, staff members proudly note that they reopened at the end of October. There is still visible damage on the outside of the building, and ceiling tiles do not match, but at lunch time there is a crowd of residents and construction workers.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by what is no longer there, but the plastics industry and its workers are showing that it is possible to recover — and that in a time of utter destruction, employers can become a source of comfort and a steady base upon which to build a new life.
Rhoda Miel is Plastics News' Detroit-based reporter covering the automotive, mold-making and design industries.