After The Storm: A Fight For Recognition, Housing
Pamela Landry didn't get any storm-surge damage during Hurricane Katrina, but the wrath of the storm's wind proved furious. She lives far away from the ocean in Picayune, Miss., in Pearl River County, about 45 miles from New Orleans and from Gulfport.
Like many low-income residents in Mississippi, Landry lived in a 1960s mobile home when the hurricane hit on Aug. 29, 2005. Katrina was not kind to her trailer, and her county got little help from the state.
"We are on the west side of Hancock County and so far away from Bay St. Louis and Waveland that we basically just about not exist out here," Landry says.
Hancock County is where Hurricane Katrina unleashed most of its fury.
In 2009, housing activists in Mississippi filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in an attempt to pressure Gov. Haley Barbour to help residents who still had unmet housing needs years after the hurricane hit. Landry was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
After Katrina, Landry lived in a FEMA trailer for a little more than two years. "It was rough," she says.
Landry received $25,000 from the agency for housing — not enough to buy or build a house, not even a mobile home, unless she bought a used one.
A Makeshift Home
Then one day she saw a big shed in a parking lot near her work in Bay St. Louis, and she said, "That's it."
But one shed wouldn't be big enough. So she came up with the idea to put two sheds together and make a house.
"I'm tickled with what I've done. I'm really proud of what I have accomplished," Landry says.
She put together a shotgun house. The utility shed is her bedroom. The bigger shed makes the front of her house and it includes a porch, a small living room, a kitchen and, she says, "a full-size bathroom with a full-size tub, which I didn't have in my mobile home."
"This was the cheapest way I could go, and I'm still making some payments on it," Landry says.
Her monthly payment is about $200. The sheds alone, without plumbing or electricity, cost about $30,000.
Landry has had a series of jobs over the years. At 19 she enlisted in the Air Force and worked as a diet therapy supervisor — "basically a cook" — for eight years. Until last year, she was a records supervisor with the Picayune Police Department. She's currently a part-time cashier at Walmart, and she's having trouble paying her bills.
She gives visitors a tour of her home and apologizes constantly because her place is hot and dark. She couldn't make her electricity payments and temporarily moved in next door with her younger sister and brother-in-law. Still, she's optimistic she'll find a full-time job soon and be able to "move back into her shotgun."
Like Landry, many in Mississippi turned to charitable organizations for help. She says she couldn't have rebuilt without Catholic Charities of Biloxi.
"They did wonders," she says. "They did the Sheetrock work, the painting; they put the tiles down, gave me the cabinets and the fixtures."
It never crossed Landry's mind to relocate. The area is filled with water oak and mimosa trees, and she has deep roots in this land.
"It's all family around here, my niece back there, my sister around the corner," she says.
Landry's grandfather owned 40 acres, which were divided into 13 lots for his children. Landry's mom divided hers into five 1-acre lots for each of her children.
Fifty-year-old Landry has never been married, and she doesn't have children. But her 5-year-old grandnephew, Jason, keeps her company. He comes over for sleepovers and bubble gum, and they enjoy working in Landry's garden, picking tomatoes and other vegetables.
She says she's convinced the lawsuit was the right way to go. "We would have never seen anything if we hadn't sued, if we hadn't spoken up," she says.
Landry says it would be nice to be able to finish the work needed in her home — it lacks insulation, it needs a heating system, the joints need reinforcement. "You can hear the wind whistling through when it's strong," she says.
Landry is still waiting for state inspectors to come in and assess what her home needs.
She says she feels somewhat vindicated. Back in 2005 officials put the blame on her because she didn't have insurance.
"I didn't have insurance because I had to make a choice. I could either buy insurance or buy food, gas, electricity, things like that — the luxuries of life," she says.
Landry says she's mad at the governor for his treatment of low-income working residents like her. "I want to be acknowledged," she says.
The Neighborhood Home program is the state's begrudging acknowledgment, Landry says.
She's tickled by her creativity and grateful to the volunteers who helped her build her home, but the anger remains.
"I'm upset with Gov. Barbour for ignoring the people. I'm upset at the governor for his treatment of us," Landry says. "If you weren't rich enough to live on the coast, then you don't exist."