Bringing back Biloxi

Aman Ali

No shelter from the storm: Survivor struggles to rebuild

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. – George McDonald sat outside his FEMA-issued trailer and watched Kent State and University of Akron students salvage the nursing home across the street for plumbing parts.

He pointed to a spray-painted “X” on one of the nursing home windows indicating that all residents in the center escaped.

He then turned his head to three houses next to his trailer that the hurricane destroyed. They belonged to all his neighbors who are now dead.

“Sometimes I wonder why I wasn’t with them,” McDonald said.

When Hurricane Katrina came, McDonald decided to stay in his home – a decision he now regrets.

“I went through Hurricane Camille just fine when it came in ’69,” McDonald said. “I didn’t think this storm would be any different.”

He estimated 30-feet tidal waves from the storm surged his home. For eight hours, he swam around the flood waters looking for shelter. He finally found a power line to cling onto.

McDonald hung onto the power line for a few days until water levels went down. For the next three months, he lived in his yard, using the bathroom by digging holes in the ground.

He chose to live this way because he wasn’t getting the help he asked for. His insurance company turned him down because they classified the destruction as flood damage. Like many people in the area, McDonald only had hurricane insurance.

“They told me I didn’t need flood insurance because I was within the flood line,” McDonald said.

He applied for FEMA assistance immediately after the storm, but did not receive a trailer until the middle of March.

“FEMA wouldn’t give me a trailer,” McDonald said. “I don’t think they understood that magnitude of what happened. I wonder if they know just yet.”

He plans on rebuilding his home but is unsure how long it will take.

“We’ve lived here our entire lives,” McDonald said. “We don’t know anything else or where to go from here.”

Find the right hook: Former boxer fights back after the hurricane

BILOXI, Miss. – Hurricane Katrina destroyed the ventures Camile Foret owned in Biloxi, but he still sits outside his wrecked crawfish restaurant each day smiling at passersby.

“I’ve been through a lot in my life,” Foret said. “But I’m still clinging.”

At age 84, Foret has clobbered two bypass surgeries, colon cancer, alcohol addiction and a messy divorce in his life. But for this Cajun boxer turned businessman, Foret isn’t going down without a fight.

Foret owns a crawfish shack, beauty salon, Sno-Cone stand and grocery store in Biloxi. After the hurricane hit, the United States Small Business Administration rejected his loan request to rebuild his stores.

“The SBA turned me down because I didn’t file my taxes in 2002 and 2003,” Foret said. “I would have filed, but my CPA (certified public accountant) said I didn’t need to.”

As a result, he’s been rebuilding his businesses using money from his own pocket.

“Sometimes you just have to do it yourself,” Foret said.

Foret grew up in New Orleans, and dropped out of school after third grade.

“I was 11 years of age when I came out of third grade,” Foret said. “I realized I was too big for those guys. But I never regret doing it.”

When he was 16, Foret met a boxing manager named Caveman Taranto who convinced him to start fighting.

Foret moved to Biloxi in 1937 fighting middleweight contenders. Here, he’d win a golden glove boxing title and get married.

Later on in life, Foret grew out of shape to fight and could not find other work. He became an alcoholic and his wife left him shortly thereafter.

“I was at a point where I was drinking a case of beer and one-fifth a bottle of Jack Daniels a day,” Foret said.

He got his life back together and opened a few businesses in Biloxi.

Hurricane Katrina might have knocked him down, but Camile Foret is not out for the count.

An ordinary hero: Texas native volunteering since day one

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. – Texas resident Gary Reid came to Pass Christian four to five hours after Hurricane Katrina hit back in August. He’s been helping here since.

“I fell in love with this town doing search-and-rescue missions,” Reid said. “You get familiar with everything and it just seems like home.”

Hurricane Katrina’s estimated 50-foot wave surges and 200-mph winds dismantled all radio towers in Pass Christian. Entire houses coasted down flooded streets like rubber duckies in a bathtub. Reid said it took almost two weeks for outside help to get into the city.

“Communication and help wasn’t there,” Reid said. “We had to do something.”

Until help came, Reid and others had to improvise their rescue efforts. He set up distribution centers throughout the town, including a makeshift kitchen constructed out of a horse trailer.

“You had to do what you had to do,” Reid said. “There was no water or gas for anyone to use.”

Within a few weeks, Reid created the Pass Christian Community Action Network. The agency coordinates relief efforts from outside agencies such as the Red Cross and the FEMA. Reid was one of Kent State’s main contacts when volunteers came down there for Spring Break last week.

Aside from basic rebuilding efforts, Reid has been working on getting FEMA trailers for those who need them such as disabled victims.

“FEMA declared this city as a flood plane,” Reid said. “Handicapped and disabled trailers can’t get into a flood plane.”

He always has the option of going back home to Texas, but Reid chooses to stay.

“People have problems leaving here because they grow attached to it,” Reid said. “They feel guilt when they leave because the problems are still there.”

Rebuild with spirit: Priest urges Biloxi’s Vietnamese to keep faith

BILOXI, Miss. – The Rev. Dong Phan cheated death more than once. Each time, he grew stronger in faith.

“I should have died many times,” he said. “I’ve lost everything many times. What keeps me going is I enjoy serving God.”

A refugee from Vietnam and a survivor of multiple hurricanes, Phan is an active Catholic priest helping rebuild Biloxi’s Vietnamese community.

Phan said he hid in his church when previous hurricanes hit Biloxi, but God gave him a “deep feeling” that he should not stick around for Hurricane Katrina. He survived the storm by hiding on a fishing boat.

Across the street from Phan’s church is his home, which needs repair after Hurricane Katrina obliterated the interior. Last week, several Kent State United for Biloxi volunteers began repairs to his home.

He now lives in a FEMA provided trailer parked outside his church.

Phan grew up in Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, he was a military chaplain for the South Vietnamese Army. Because of his work, he often found himself maneuvering through mine-infested battlefields and gauntlets of machine guns, escaping death each time.

“I used to drive around in a white Jeep with my headlights off and rescued people from the front lines,” Phan said.

After the South Vietnamese government collapsed in 1975, Phan fled the country with 82 other people to the Philippines.

“Leaving was so dangerous, but we were so blessed,” he said. “We had no compass, no computer and no modern equipment. We just had a sense of direction and prayer.”

After a few relocations, Phan moved to Biloxi in 1985.

“Biloxi didn’t have many priests, and the situation for some was very needed,” Phan said.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Phan encourages the members of his church to have faith in God.

“Sometimes supplies will be here, and one day they’ll be gone,” Phan said. “But faith will never leave. If we have strong faith, God will be taking care of us.”

Contact student affairs reporter Aman Ali at [email protected]