PEARLINGTON, MISS. — As the water began to rise on the first floor of her house Monday, Connie Danese hurriedly stacked ornaments, photos and other valuables on top of a piano that had been in her husband's family for decades. Other keepsakes were piled onto every available surface on the kitchen counter and table. More belongings were hauled upstairs.
Connie and Sam Danese refused to evacuate when Hurricane Gustav approached their two-story house in the Oak Harbor subdivision of this small coastal Mississippi town. Three years ago, they had stayed home during Hurricane Katrina and ended up trapped by 14 feet of floodwater before being rescued by boat. By the time they were able to return they had lost everything.
This time around, they decided to chance it and stay behind again, figuring the storm wouldn't be as bad and they wouldn't be deluged. More pressing was the anxiety of leaving their belongings. "If you're here, you can salvage some things," said Sam Danese, 69, a retired auditor. "And if you can salvage something, it's easier to restart your life."
Pearlington, a tiny community surrounded by pine forests and marshland just across the border from Louisiana, was all but destroyed by Katrina. The town's population shrank from 2,400 before Katrina to less than 1,800, said Tim Kellar, a spokesman for Hancock County's Emergency Management Agency.
When Gustav approached, some families had just finished rebuilding; others were not yet done. Many couldn't face the prospect of abandoning their homes, he said. "There's a real concern for their personal property that so many of them lost three years ago," Kellar said.
The majority of residents in Hancock, the Mississippi county hit hardest by Gustav, heeded the evacuation order, Kellar said, despite the favorable projection that the storm probably would hit west of the area. As it was, about 500 homes across the county were flooded, including at least 100 in Pearlington, county officials said.
On Tuesday, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour requested federal disaster assistance for 16 counties that experienced hurricane-force winds and power outages. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 90,000 households were without power, mainly in the six southernmost Mississippi counties. About 12,700 evacuees were in registered shelters statewide.
The Daneses were among several families in Pearlington that decided not to join the evacuation. The couple, whose son Jonathan and daughter Mary Lee stayed with them, took refuge upstairs as the water rose to about a foot inside their home.
The water receded late Monday, and by early Tuesday the cleanup had begun. "The piano got wet, but it's still standing," said Connie Danese as she mopped the tiles covering the home's lower level. She sighed as she explained that they hadn't finished repairing the stairs that still bear Katrina's scars, and that their new kitchen counters arrived only six weeks ago.
On a neighboring street, Racquel Barnhart was mopping and scrubbing the garage of her two-story wooden home, where at least a foot of water had flowed in.
"We didn't expect to get water," said Barnhart, 38, who remained at home with her husband, Gerald, and four visiting relatives, plus 11 dogs and three cats. Barnhart acknowledged that she was "terrified" but said she didn't regret the decision to stay.
As the water approached, "I started running and taking stuff out of the cabinets," she said.
The Barnharts, who lost everything during Katrina and were still putting the finishing touches on their new home, were able to save several items this time, including a sofa, a love seat and some generators, Barnhart said. But their white Mazda and Chevy pickup were dead in the water.
Around the corner from the Barnharts in Oak Harbor, Daniel Spaulding rushed back to his house Monday as Gustav was still pounding the coast.
A neighbor who stayed behind in a home elevated on stilts called to tell Spaulding that the subdivision was taking on water.
"I wanted to save my stuff," said the 25-year-old plastics plant worker who moved to Pearlington after his home in nearby Waveland, Miss., was swallowed by Katrina. "I was just 30 minutes away."
He waded through knee-high water to get to his house, where he carried most of the furniture upstairs, Spaulding said.
"I saved about $5,000 worth of stuff."