It takes resilience to survive a disaster and power through to the one-year anniversary. Millions in New York and New Jersey marked that milestone Tuesday. But disaster veterans like those in Bay St. Louis, Miss., my Gulf Coast hometown, know that those still struggling should brace for the second year, when the adrenaline rush is over and reality sets in.
Eight years have passed since Hurricane Katrina shredded Bay St. Louis, at 10,000, a town similar in size and character to many of those destroyed on the Jersey Shore. But it has come back strong, and some of those who have shepherded the city through its remarkable recovery were eager to share what they have learned with Superstorm Sandy survivors.
Patience is the watchword from Eddie Favre, mayor for 16 years when the storm hit. "It's not going to happen overnight – unfortunately. To think that it is and maybe even that to think that it should is not reasonable," says Favre. "You need to be patient and take it one step at a time. Do it right the first time so you don't have things to worry about down the road."
Seventy-five percent of Bay St. Louis's businesses and homes – including Favre's house – were heavily damaged or destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. He lived in a trailer for four years.
Favre found frustration can peak after the one-year anniversary when progress hasn't kept pace with residents' expectations. He cautions officials against overreacting. "Just in order to get anything done, they start rushing and sometimes don't make the best decisions. They don't do what's best for individuals or communities, just with the idea that they want to get something done."
Rick Brooks, then-pastor of Main Street United Methodist Church, explains year two is when the enormity of the disaster finally hits home. "You weren't so intensely busy just trying to take care of what you had to take care of – getting your life back in place, homes re-established and all that. Then you had a chance to kind of look around, and say ‘Damn.'"
Brooks' home was swamped with seven feet of water, while his church suffered wind damage and lost its steeple. He says he mourned the towns' destruction early on, but for some who didn't year two was a reality check. Suicides and divorces went up, as did domestic violence and substance abuse.
"If you lose your home and your community, it's a huge, huge thing. It rocks your world. Just be up front about that," he advises. "It really enables you to take stock of what is and celebrate what is and what can be and what will be to come."
Former Rep. Gene Taylor whose waterfront home was destroyed acknowledged that embracing post-disaster change is hard. "Not everything is as good as it was. But a lot of things are actually better."
Bay St. Louis's infrastructure was entirely rebuilt and most of its roads replaced. A marina is under construction at the end of Main Street and residents last weekend held a festival celebrating the soaring, modern four-lane span across St. Louis Bay that replaced the 50-year-old draw bridge.
Taylor says he hopes Sandy survivors who must now elevate their homes will learn to appreciate the "new normal" as he and other Gulf Coast residents have. "I've come to really like it. My house is twenty steps off the ground. I'm literally looking into birds' nests. I have a phenomenal view of the bay. And I've got a place to park my cars underneath that I never had before."
The executive director of the town's Habitat for Humanity chapter says it's more important than ever in year two to acknowledge every victory. "Celebrate every single milestone that happens. Make it be a milestone," advises Wendy McDonald. "You celebrate the little steps on the way to recovery and it keeps people hanging on. ‘OK. Something good happened. I can stay another year.'"