Bay St. Louis native finds new home
Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series on Katrina evacuees who have now made their home in Greenville.
It's a weekday afternoon in Greenville, unseasonably warm for December.
“A glorious day,” Karen Davis says approvingly as she stands on the front porch of her little frame house on Lucille St.
Inside, the cozy living room is decked out with tinsel and a small tree that will soon be packed away for another holiday season.
The Camellia City is not the place Davis envisioned she would spend Christmas 2005 with her family.
Hurricane Katrina changed all that.
A change of plans
Davis, who lived in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, left her home last August “with my photos and three changes of clothes – that's all I thought I would need. We thought we would be going back there.”
She had resisted leaving this time around (“every hurricane season you leave home two or three times, just in case one hits”), but Davis' daughter wouldn't take no for an answer.
“Now, I'm sure glad I did leave…some who stayed didn't make it.”
After a few days spent in a relief shelter in Pensacola, Davis and some of her family members decided to see for themselves the destruction caused by Katrina.
The smell of death
As they headed back to Bay Saint Louis, Davis said she and her family were shocked by the devastation along the Gulf Coast.
“We had to weave in and out to avoid all the trees that had fallen on the road…it was awful, it looked like a bomb had dropped or something. So many places weren't there anymore, just rubble.”
At first glance, Davis said her little Bay Saint Louis home appeared to be in “pretty good shape.”
“Then, I saw a portion of the house had just broken off in back…water had risen to two inches from the ceiling. I peeped through one of the windows – after what I saw, I said I didn't ever want to go back in there,” Davis said with a firm shake of her head.
“Everything was gone…my car, home, job. I worked for one of the casinos and, of course, it was gone, too.”
The storm-ravaged town smelled, Davis said, like “death.”
“There were bodies floating here and there that no one had been able to get to yet. This thick, nasty mud was everywhere…we ended up with these awful rashes on our feet from it. The smell was terrible.”
After a few days spent living in a tent on a concrete slab and subsisting on bottled water and MREs trucked into the area, Davis and her family knew they had to move on. “We couldn't keep going on and on like that – there were several babies in the family,” the mother of five and grand- and great-grandmother of 17 (with one on the way), said.
“There was no place to buy anything, no Wal-Mart, no gas stations, no nothing.”
Looking for a safe place
“We packed up and headed east. We really had no idea where we were going, just looking for a campsite where we could put up a tent,” Davis explained.
The Katrina evacuees found a spot at Sherling Lake Park, where they were offered a campsite “and they didn't charge us a penny.”
“We were so glad to know we were safe,” Davis said with a smile.
Staff members at the campground contacted the Butler County Department of Human Resources about Davis and her family.
“DHR came out and got us and took us to the Jameson Inn…we started going to the hurricane relief center (at Southside Baptist Church) and that's where we met my wonderful new friends, (volunteers) Nancy Idland and Marilyn Coker,” Davis said.
‘We have our angels'
According to Davis, it was these and other “local angels” who helped the displaced Mississippians get back on their feet.
“So many people have been good to us here. Nancy and Marilyn knew Jarvis McCoy, who rented me this house. Sarah Jean Atkins at DHR heard this architect place in Montgomery was giving away two cars, and she made sure I got one of them,” Davis laughed.
“With a car, I was able to get a job at the local Wal-Mart.'
Davis also became a media star when she was interviewed in Greenville by CNN for a report that aired across the nation and the globe.
“I couldn't believe how many people called from everywhere – Texas, California – saying how sorry they were, and asking what they could do to help.
I told them, just pray for us, that's all I ask.”
Grim and good reminders
The hurricane evacuee leafed through photos taken by her children and grandchildren post-Katrina, grim reminders of a storm she'd like to forget.
Davis shook her head at the images: a lonely church steeple, the rest of the building missing; a pile of twisted metal and shattered concrete that was once a service station, storm-tossed houses knocked from their foundations, with mud-covered floors and moldy walls.
“I had no idea it would be that bad. They said it was going to hit hard – and it did – but somehow I just couldn't see it, you know, until I actually went there for myself. And it was terrible…the pictures can't really do it justice,” Davis said softly.
It's hard, she said, not to feel some anger with the media for perpetually keeping the spotlight on New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina.
“Yes, it was bad there, but it was bad in Biloxi, Bay Saint Louis, Waveland, Pass Christian and a lot of other communities,” Davis stressed.
“A lot of the damage they suffered in New Orleans was due to those levees breaking – and they had been knowing for a long time those needed fixing.”
‘Tired of running'
Still, Davis is doing her best to look forward, not backward.
Four of her five children and their families were able to share Christmas with her in Greenville, a place that has become home for her.
“People have been so good to us here. I love Greenville and Butler County; I love my little house. I like to tell folks I found my heaven. I do believe God sent us here,” Davis said.
That's not to say she doesn't miss her former home.
“I loved it there in Mississippi, I really did. But I am tired of running from hurricanes. I'm making myself at home here…I don't think I ever want to live that close to the water again,” she said.
“I'm content here. Whatever is thrown at me, I know I can take it.”
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