Hurricane Katrina

She speaks for the trees

GULFPORT - When Betty Bittner lost several of her trees during Katrina, she realized nature was vital to her happiness.

Bittner lost her pine, pecan and sweet gum tree to the storm. Seven Live oaks in her side yard are still standing, but the wind stripped every leaf.

Now, Bittner fears some healthy trees may be cut down because they are presumed dead.

As a member of People for the Preservation of Jones Park, a group organized to try to keep the land out of the hands of casino developers, Bittner is turning her attention to saving several oak trees in what was one of the only green spaces near the beach.

A proposal calls for the trees to be moved to afford for an open, unobstructed view of the harbor.

"These oak trees are pretty ratty looking, but they're still alive," says Bittner, 75. "And they survived that storm. They came through the worst that nature could throw at them, and they're alive."

If moved, the trees might not survive, she fears.

"In the overall scheme of things, it may not be too terribly important. We've lost so much. We've lost our town and our memories. But we need to save whatever we can save," she says.

She weathered Hurricane Katrina with five of her friends in a house about a block from her own on Pine Avenue.

Bittner felt the storm surge a half-mile inland. "I walked out on my friend's porch and realized that the spray blowing against my face was salt water," she recalls.

Two days after Katrina, Bittner saw something incredible in her neighbor's front yard.

"On this little tree in front of my friend's house was a single green leaf," she says. "It was as if, in some way, by this leaf, we were being told the worst is over, and now we start again."

Bittner acknowledges the need for a balance between the casinos and condominiums and a small-town Southern atmosphere where the oaks are as vital as the development.

"The Coast as we knew it is dead. But then in life everything sooner or later dies. Everything does. The natural beauty of the Coast is gone, but it will come back," she says.