Thursday, Sept. 6, 2007

Laurel namesake recovers from Hurricane Katrina

Maryland and Mississippi ‘Laurel’ communities establish close ties, partnership

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Two years after Hurricane Katrina unleashed 10 hours of 100-mph winds on Laurel, Miss., the city, adopted by Laurel, Md., the month after the historic storm, is experiencing a building boom.

‘‘On almost every corner you have someone putting up a foundation for a house,” said Mary Edmonson, Laurel, Miss.’s, Housing Development director.

Blue tarps still stand in for roofs on some houses — some homeowners are still waiting on insurance money — but the 19,000-person city, an old lumber town located about 100 miles from the coast, lost relatively few houses to the hurricane, Edmonson said. So, most of the building is new.

Katrina, which caused about $6 million in damage in the city, did destroy hundreds of mature oak and pine trees, however.

‘‘Most have been replaced, especially in the historical district and parks,” said Wanda Benson, a Laurel, Miss., spokeswoman. ‘‘Laurel, Miss., is beginning to look better than it did prior to Katrina.”

The government, businesses and residents of Laurel, Md., have raised more than $20,000 for Laurel, Miss., since the Maryland municipality adopted its southern sister city on Aug. 29, 2005.

Money came from several sources—from a bull roast at a Main Street bar to a Methodist church’s pastor’s 1,000-mile bike ride from Laurel, Md., to Laurel, Miss.

Contributions have helped pay for roof and sidewalk repairs and playground equipment.

Laurel, Md., City Administrator Kristie Mills said the city adopted its Mississippi namesake because Laurel, Md., has a tradition of helping persons affected by disasters from other parts of the country and other parts of the world.

Nearly three years ago the city raised funds for victims of the December 2004 Asian tsunami, she said. When Laurel, Md., officials learned of the devastation in a city with the same name and other similarities — the Laurels are around the same size and were both founded around mills — ‘‘we felt like we wanted to do more than just raise money. We wanted to be involved,” Mills said.

Immediately after Katrina, several hundred people flocked to Laurel, Miss., from harder-hit coastal communities. Most returned home or moved elsewhere, Edmonson said, but some stayed, contributing to an estimated 600-person increase in the city’s population. Revitalization of blighted neighborhoods and a new technology center are expected to bring even more residents, Edmonson said.

‘‘The city is doing very well,” Benson said. ‘‘People who have visited since Katrina cannot believe how far we have come.”

Lula Cooley, Community Development director for Laurel, Miss., said her city is equipping churches to assist in the response to the next possible storm. The city has distributed 20 power generators to churches and asked them to identify persons with special medical needs so the American Red Cross can provide them with the necessary supplies.

Officials from both Laurels have visited each other’s cities and pledged a long-term partnership. In June 2006, Laurel, Miss., Mayor Melvin Mack offered Laurel, Md., his city’s assistance after seeing a Weather Channel report from the flooded American Legion parking lot on Main Street. Local officials were handling the flooding well enough on their own, however, and no assistance was necessary.

The two cities are in contact about once a month, Benson said.

‘‘It’s been wonderful,” said Pat Haag, Laurel, Md.’s, deputy city clerk. ‘‘When you call them you just feel like you’re calling a member of your family.”

E-mail Steve Earley