Backstory: After Katrina, football rallies a town
Pass Christian, Miss., struggles to regain its footing, one touchdown at a time.
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Friday night's game allows residents a chance to get away, but no one forgets. Approximately 236 people died in Mississippi, 95 in Harrison County. Seventeen of those people were pulled from the muddy waters of this field, where the Pirates are now battling Poplarville. Rather than being sacrilegious, it seems appropriate – football is a fiercely loved pastime here, and there's never been a better place to be, even before Katrina made the Pirates the only show in town.Skip to next paragraph
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They only won one game last season, the first. After Katrina, they suffered two cancellations and seven losses. They're headed toward 1-3 Friday night, but no one minds, least of all Sammie Barnes, who has lived here since retiring from the Army 42 years ago. Dressed in the Pirates' traditional red, white, and blue, and with his gold teeth flashing in the stadium lights, Mr. Barnes laughs when asked why a single man without kids spends his Friday nights watching high school football.
"I come to see my friends," he says, gesturing to the thousand or so fans scattered in the stands.
People take pleasure in simple things now, a hot shower at the end of the day, the bright stars newly visible thanks to less light pollution. At the concession stand, Stephen Dupree and his wife Tina sell bottled drinks to an orderly line of students. "They aren't real cold," Mr. Dupree tells a girl asking for a Sprite. She hands her dollar bill to Tina and smiles as she takes the tepid beverage.
"Everybody's so easy to please," he says, wiping sweat from his face. Like the rest of the town, the Duprees and their four children have grown accustomed to doing without. A three-hour wait for a hot meal served in an even hotter tent isn't unusual. Neither is taking a FEMA trailer "military shower," turning the water on just long enough to lather and rinse. Six gallons of hot water doesn't last long – even when there aren't multiple people jockeying for the luxury.
Mrs. Dupree says being able to have the football games at home again means a lot. "The Pass was a beautiful, quaint little community," she recalls. "The kids would walk to school, stop at grandma's for breakfast, walk home, stop at grandma's for an afternoon snack..." Her voice trails off. The elementary school is gone, the middle school is gone, grandma's house is gone, and the high school won't reopen until November. Meanwhile, the cost of living has tripled, and two bedroom "cottages" rent for as much as $1,800 per month. "But we're still here," she says.
Standing with other police officers guarding the entrance to the stadium, Mr. Dedeaux says he plans to stay as well. "We had 20 officers, and now we have eight," he says. "Every department is looking to hire, but nobody wants to come here. I had an opportunity to go to California, but that's not home. I've lived here 38 years. If everybody leaves, there'll be no Pass."
A murmur of excitement washes through the concessions as the Pirates make their first touchdown late in the third quarter. "We got six!" a student says appreciatively. No one mentions the turn-overs or the lackluster defense. When the players limp off the field, the fans reach out to shake hands, pat shoulders, thank them for their effort.
And as the scoreboard goes dim on the 14-44 loss, there's no doubt where everyone will be next Friday. From Bay St. Louis to Biloxi, from Gulfport to Pass Christian, the consensus is loud and clear: Katrina may have knocked Mississippi down, but she will not win. Slowly but surely, life is getting back to normal.