Since Camille Tate returned home four days after Hurricane Katrina and saw the kind of mess 4 to 5 feet of floodwater leave behind, she has been locked in an internal debate: sell her Bay St. Louis house and move away, or fix it and stay.
“The mud that was still in the house was a lot of sewage,” the 69-year-old real estate agent and art collector recalled as she took a break from cleaning the pool behind her Main Street bungalow. “(The house) was uninhabitable and also it had to be sanitized. This was really the terrible part of it. … This was just a terrible stench … (and) we had to wear our masks around our faces and always gloves when we were inside.”
Her other big frustration has been dealing with her insurance company, which has refused to pay for much of the damage to her house, ruling that it was caused by flooding not covered by the hurricane portion of her homeowners policy. Tate, a native of the Cajun country town of Ville Platte, La., has flood insurance through FEMA, but hasn’t yet found the time to begin the laborious process of documenting the value of the contents of the house, virtually all of which were ruined by the flood.
“It’s a hassle with flood (insurance) ... because it’s with the federal government,” she said. “For every piece of furniture you have to have a receipt or something. … They make you work for your money.”
Tate, who spent 20 years working and living in New Orleans as a school speech pathologist before moving to Bay St. Louis in 1983, fled from Hurricane Katrina and waited out the storm in Hattiesburg, about 70 miles to the north.
“I had experienced Betsy in New Orleans and swore I would never sit through another hurricane – nor have I since that time,” she said.
But five of her neighbors and friends, including a 92-year-old woman, decided to stay behind. Tate's house had held up well during Hurricane Camille in 1969, so they asked if they could ride out the storm there. They got the fright of their lives when between 4 and 5 feet of water poured in under the doors.
“They pulled down the stairs to the attic and they were trying to figure out how to get this 92-year-old lady up the stairs without breaking her bones when the water began to recede,” Tate said.
She said the three days after the storm, when she was stuck in Hattiesburg with no word about what had transpired in her home and town, were the worst part of the Katrina experience.
“The unknown is worse than the known, and not knowing whether I had five dead people in my house -- and friends, all good friends -- it was just the most nerve-wracking part of it, not what happened to me or what happened to my house,” she said.
Since returning home, Tate has been doing little besides scrubbing. She hired professional cleaners to remove the water-damaged sheetrock and remove the furniture and other furnishings that were serving as breeding grounds for toxic black mold. But she’s supplied much of the elbow grease herself.
Tate said she began the cleanup with the idea that she would get the house in to condition to sell and then find a buyer willing to run the risk that another Katrina might come a-calling. But a funny thing happened somewhere along the way.
“When I first came I thought … ‘Should I stay or shouldn’t I stay? Should I really work at this?’” she said. “… And then, I don’t know, slowly but surely I’m cleaning up this place and all of a sudden I find I’m going to have sheetrock in it and things just start looking like I’m going to be staying a while. … I’m still on the fence, but this is starting to look like a house again and that pool is starting to get cleaner.”