Five years after Hurricane Katrina tore apart the small coastal city of Gautier, Mississippi, life is, mostly, back to normal.
The population has mostly returned, houses have been rebuilt and jobs filled, despite a setback from other circumstances, such as a faltering economy and massive oil spill.
"Our city is resilient. We're back to almost normal," said former Mayor Donald "Pete" Pope. "We don't have as many homes back, but the population is back. Other than the regular recession we're in, I think we've done real well."
Photo courtesy The Mississippi Press
Haley Sanders of Pascagoula, Miss., walks by the Estuarine Education Center at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College campus in Gautier, Miss. The college recorded its highest-ever summer enrollment this year, which was the first semester in which the college surpassed all pre-Katrina enrollments.
At last count, sometime in 2009, the city had nearly 18,000 people, which is down only about 2,000 from the previous Census count, Pope said. When this year's Census is finished, Pope said that number could stay the same, or even jump thanks to a more thorough count by the U.S. government.
The city could use the good news, he said.
Pete would know. He declined to run for re-election because of the stress imposed on him from what should have been a part-time job.
Editor's note: In 2005, reporter Justin McIntosh traveled to Marietta's sister city, Gautier, Miss., with a group Marietta residents who went to the area to help people begin the rebuilding process after Hurricane Katrina.
"It was so time-consuming," he said. "It was confining and the stress it put on my family was too much."
Hurricane Katrina was easily one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. In south Mississippi alone, 65,000 housing unites were destroyed, while another 55,000 homes and housing units were severely damaged, leaving, in all, about 150,000 people homeless.
In addition to Marietta, five other communities across the country adopted Gautier as a sister city in an effort to help the town rebuild.
After the adoption, a local group from the First Presbyterian Church of Marietta drove down to Gautier in a caravan to help the town rebuild. The group was so touched by the residents and the vast need that they made two subsequent trips to the South.
"The last time we went down we checked with a number of people and they were coming along fairly nicely," said Richard Ratzlaff, one of the church members who've gone to Mississippi multiple times. "Things seemed to be coming along much more normally."
Yvette Cooper, who accompanied Ratzlaff on at least two of the trips, said the difference in the town between her first and second visit, spaced two years apart, was amazing.
"There was no comparison," she said. "By the second time we were there you could tell a vast improvement."
Beaches were open for relaxation, shops for shopping, casinos for gambling.
"Everything was up and running," she said. "Everybody's spirit was up and they like they had recovered."
Ratzlaff said the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the group organizing the volunteer effort for the Presbyterian church, has since scaled down their rebuild effort in Mississippi and moved on to Iowa.
In fact, these days, few remnants of the volunteer effort to rebuild Gautier remain, Pope said.
But the volunteer efforts from governments, churches of every denomination, fire and police departments, unions and more, "left a soft spot in (his) heart."
"I stay in contact with some of the people that came in," he said.
He's not the only one.
Revisiting the people whose lives were touched when Marietta adopted the coastal city reveals a tale of hope and optimism, of lives changed there and at home.
Take Gautier resident Sue Hayes, now 83, who was so touched by the team of volunteers from Marietta who worked on her home, that she offered Mayor Michael Mullen a pet turtle as a token of thanks four years ago.
Hayes and Cooper, who met when Cooper's church embarked on the rebuild effort, still talk at least twice a month.
"She calls me or I call her. She won't let me forget her," Cooper said with a laugh. "That's the whole thing, she won't let me forget her."
Through that relationship forged from disaster, Hayes' wayward son returned home to her. Upon meeting the Marietta volunteers, Hayes' main request was to help find her homeless son whom she had not seen or spoken to in quite some time.
Cooper and Gautier officials worked to locate the police in L.A., where Hayes believed her son to be living.
"I didn't really know if it was going to happen," Cooper said this week about finding Hayes' son back then. "But they did find him ? he has been in to visit and ? has recently moved in with her."