John Brecher  /  MSNBC.com
Aulton Vann Jr. stands in front of his new beachfront home in Pascagoula, Miss.
By Mike Brunker Projects Team editor
msnbc.com
updated 8/29/2007 6:22:58 AM ET 2007-08-29T10:22:58

Aulton Vann Jr. ‘s  infectious laugh wasn’t heard too often during  the long months after Hurricane Katrina, when he struggled to rebuild his insurance business and take care of his clients while simultaneously reassembling the shattered pieces of his own life.

But  since he and his wife moved into their new home on the beachfront in Pascagoula, Miss., in mid-May, Vann is again seldom  able to get through a conversation without erupting at least once or twice.

“ It feels fantastic. It really does,” he says.  “The trailer was home for almost two years, but we were glad to move out.”

The second-generation insurance agent sheepishly admits that he was underinsured, and consequently had to build a somewhat smaller house where his old one stood.

But he says it’s a dream house, nonetheless, built to the specifications of his wife, Mary Linda.

“I just told her build this house like you want it,” he says.

Overall, Vann says, Pascagoula is making good progress in cleaning up Katrina’s mess. Several of his neighbors also have rebuilt their homes on the east end of the city’s Gulf waterfront, and a dozen or so houses also have risen on the west end.  But Vann said the central beach area, where stately mansions once stood facing the water, remains vacant.

“Everybody’s rebuilding, but right in the middle, you can see those big beautiful lots and nobody’s doing anything,” he says. “… Nobody knows why, but we think they were mostly old retired people and they just said the heck with it.”

Vann can appreciate that reluctance to risk another big blow.

He struggled mightily after Katrina stormed ashore, bridling under what he saw as unnecessary government bureaucracy that kept him and other residents from quickly rebuilding and eventually suffering a pair of heart attacks – apparently induced by stress -- that nearly killed him.

“I just took on too many jobs and took on too many people’s problems,” he says in retrospect.

Having survived the rebuilding experience,  Vann now is determined to enjoy his time with his wife, his  son, Aulton III, who is getting married next April, his two grown daughters, Stephanie and Monica, and his two grandchildren.

“I have a lot of friends and family that took care of me, especially when I was down with the health problems,” he says. “ They didn’t want dad to go right then. They got some more bills they want me to pay.”

He waits a beat before dissolving in laughter.

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