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'Obliterated' town coming back to life

By Tom Foreman, CNN
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Waveland bounces back
  • Five years after Hurricane Katrina, Waveland, Mississippi, regains what it lost
  • Mayor: "We were wiped off the face of the earth"
  • Town has recovered about 65 percent of lost businesses since the storm
  • About two-thirds of the town's residents have returned

Waveland, Mississippi (CNN) -- Tommy Longo has had a rough year: both hips, a femur and a knee replaced. When he hobbles out of his truck to see how the new City Hall construction is going, he looks with every step like he just needs to sit down.

His face is covered with perspiration in the afternoon heat, and he always seems to be headed to the next appointment. You might think the mayor of a town that disappeared would have little to do, and yet Longo seems to never stop.

"We lost our residential structures, lost our commercial structures, lost our governmental structures," he says. "Every city building was gone. Our town was obliterated. We were wiped off the face of the earth."

For all the attention focused on New Orleans each time the anniversary of Katrina rolls around, it would be easy to forget that the epicenter of the storm was over on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

And no town was hit harder than Waveland.

Ninety-five percent of its homes were taken by the storm; 100 percent of the town's businesses. With virtually every road either broken up or piled with mountains of debris, it was difficult for recovery teams to find a starting place.

And yet, Mayor Longo and a core of dedicated residents began rebuilding almost as soon as the storm passed, and for the past five years they have remained steadily at it.

With $100 million in federal disaster aid as a launching pad, they've repaired utilities, roads, schools, community centers and parks, and recovered 65 percent of the businesses they lost.

Temporary churches, often erected on the ruins of their original houses of worship, proved crucial as meeting spots and places to organize volunteers. Now some of those congregations are finally moving into new, permanent sanctuaries.

Most importantly, the people are coming back. Like the businesses, about two-thirds of the population has returned.

The Kearney family, Charles, his wife Germain and their two small children, lost everything. In the immediate wake of the storm, Germain Kearney kneeled in the wreckage of her house, plucking ruined photographs from the wreckage.

"It's just blowing me away," she told CNN back then. "It really is. But this has happened to other people and they've come back from it, so we're going to come back from it too."

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They have done just that -- rebuilding, resettling not far from the empty lot where they used to live. Germain Kearney knows that remaining here means accepting challenges, maybe for many more years. "I'm not complaining, but it is harder to do what we have to do. School is not around the block, school is 10 miles away."

The nearest grocery store is every farther.

Charles Kearney says they talked about leaving, "But where were we going to go? This is home."

Back downtown, Longo stops walking long enough to answer a basic question that he's heard many times. With nothing left of the town, did it ever occur to you to give up, move away? "It never crossed my mind that we were finished. That we were done. Never crossed my mind."

It's more than just a commitment to a job. He is the father of seven children, all still living here. And they'll all be on hand this fall, when for the first time since the storm, his town holds a popular festival it used to enjoy every year before the storm.

In the high grass at their old lot, one of the Kearney kids calls out. "I found something!" Even now, they discover bits of detritus tossed by the storm. His father takes a look and tells him it's just part of an old yard trimmer. "But it is still something," the kids say.

And this town had saved itself on the simple belief, that you can build something from nothing. They've done it.