Hurricane Katrina

Friendships lasted past reconstruction spawned by Katrina

Twins Jen, left, and Molly Feltner, volunteers  from Washington D.C.,  with Waveland's LiLi Stahler Murphy during a return visit in 2009.
Twins Jen, left, and Molly Feltner, volunteers from Washington D.C., with Waveland's LiLi Stahler Murphy during a return visit in 2009.

There's a camaraderie that forms when people survive a disaster.

But it usually doesn't last.

The ties fade as people return to their lives.

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, however, some friendships formed in the wake of the storm have survived.

Volunteers stayed and became part of the Coast. Others still check in, year after year, with friends they made for life.

LiLi Stahler Murphy of Waveland met Jen and Molly Feltner, twins from Washington, months after the storm blew through, leaving muck and devastation in its wake.

"When we got our downstairs together, I began housing volunteers," Murphy said. "They were 26. They loved to roof."

The twins came from Holy Trinity Church, which had teamed up with St. Rose de Lima in Bay St. Louis.

To this day, they stay in touch with Murphy. They have come to the Coast for Christmas and Mardi Gras. Jen returns at least every other year. And they call Murphy their Mississippi Mom.

"They're fascinating girls," Murphy told the Sun Herald. She has followed their travels and accomplishments. Molly spent considerable time in Africa volunteering and photographing. She sent Murphy a gorilla calendar. Jen sent Murphy greetings from Peru.

Both were able to visit Murphy for Christmas 2013.

"The last time Jen came, we Skyped Molly in Rwanda," Murphy said. "One is in a relationship right now and the other is just a vagabond."

In a telephone interview earlier this year, Jen said her initial visit to Mississippi and the Katrina-hit area changed her life. She left her job at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, where her emphasis was in Chinese language, and returned to the Coast with AmeriCorps for more than a year in 2006 and 2007. And that experience gave her the courage to do what she'd wanted to do.

In 2011, she went back to school, and at 35, is completing a doctorate in wildlife biology at North Carolina State University.

"My sister and I both enjoy LiLi," she said. "She is a very strong woman. LiLi is a role model of what you would want to be and aspire to.

"She's strong, resilient and has a strong sense of humor."

Jen said she learned from her Mississippi mom "how to make a good time even in a disaster area.

"I thought that was great because I'm from New England and people there can be grim and strict. But here, people can laugh and have a party, even when things are a mess on the exterior."

She considers Murphy one of the most important people in her life, she said. When she had a serious event happen with her own mother, Murphy was one of the first people she called.

She said she came to Mississippi to bring hope, "but I think I got a lot more out of it than I actually contributed."

As for Murphy, she feels she has gained two "almost daughters," carefree and loving, who have added excitement to her life.

"That's one of the pluses out of a tragedy -- the good stuff," she said.

The Coast gained "a lot of good stuff" in friends after the storm, she said.

The rector of Biloxi's historic Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, wiped off its foundation at the beach, asked for help from the Episcopal Diocese in Massachusetts, and the bishop sent Jane Bearden.

She was a new priest, having left a career in the medical field, and she stayed with Redeemer for two years, learning under rector Harold Roberts.

Even though she returned to Massachusetts in 2009, Redeemer is still a part of her life.

She and Faye Jones, the parish administrator, became fast friends. They text and Facebook.

"My grandson thinks she's another grandmother," Jones said. "He was little and couldn't say her name. He called her Dane.

"She baptized our first granddaughter and we went up there when she was installed in her own church," Jones said.

Bearden bought a home in Sunkist and plans to retire here, near her own children in Louisiana someday. She has Louisiana roots. Bearden said she made a lot of friends in Biloxi.

"But not only do you make friends around a disaster, you explore each other's culture," she said. "It's more than a friendship with Faye and Harold, there's a bonding between Mississippi and Massachusetts."

The bond is built around understanding each other and wanting to help. It goes both ways, she said. It's not based on money or education. It's bigger. It's "we're in it together," she said, and that's what forms strong bonds.

She got calls from people in Mississippi this year when she got 8- 1/2 feet of snow in 24 days in her yard.

"What can we do?" they asked.

A storm surge with huge waves and 75 mph winds took houses. Conditions are changing the shape of Cape Cod and Cape Ann. Insurance costs are high and at least one company has refused to insure areas of Massachusetts.

It's not unlike what the Coast has faced, she said.

"There's a lot more in common than we give ourselves credit for," she said. "The common need and the common good, way outweigh the differences."

But in a personal way of bonding, Bearden has introduced King cakes and chicken sausage gumbo to New England.

School children in her area know what Mardi Gras is.

A blizzard canceled the celebration this year, she said, "but maybe by Easter, we can 'second line.'

"One of these days, I'll be back, but I'm sure that my friends in Massachusetts will stay in touch with the Coast. I have no doubt that if we were in trouble in New England, I'm absolutely certain that people from here would respond."

Terry Ottinger lives in East Greenville, Penn., but she checks in with Jane Ulrich in Ocean Springs often.

She will text: "Hey Sis, I just wanted to see how things are going with you."

They aren't kin, but they are the best of friends, brought together by the storm.

Jane Ulrich and her husband, Kurt, have stayed in touch with a lot of the volunteers who came to work on their home in the St. Andrews area -- flooded and gutted by the surge. Kurt kept a legal pad with names and addresses. There were dozens and dozens.

But Terry Ottinger and her husband, Rick, have stayed close. She came down for Christmas in 2014.

"She's like my sister," Ottinger said of Jane. "I can't just not come see her."

Rick comes to fish with Kurt in the bayous and Gulf.

And the Ulrichs have gone to Pennsylvania five times, twice on Independence Day.

"God put us together and keeps us that way," Jane Ulrich said. "It's easy to stay friends. We're about the same age and we made a bond."

Jane Ulrich said, "they're just wonderful, giving people. Terry is good with mailing and emailing and keeping in touch.

"They were a big part of our family through Kurt's two heart attacks, and Rick has had cancer. It's just the everyday life of a wonderful friendship that we've been blessed with. We have brought a lot to each other."

When the Ulrichs went to Pennsylvania, they were treated like celebrities -- given a key to the transit system and a dinner that included 70 volunteers from eight churches that had worked on their house.

"We weren't accustomed to having people fall all over to do for us," Jane Ulrich said. "It was hard for us just to accept someone wanting to give to us. We weren't sure how to handle it in that magnitude.

"Everyone has accepted a birthday gift. But this was just over and over and over," she said. "It was mind-boggling. How do you repay all these people? There's no way. You just have to give forward."

Ottinger, speaking from Pennsylvania, told the Sun Herald, "We probably talk to Kurt and Jane more than we do our own family."

Three mission trips to the Coast have left them grateful for what they have in Pennsylvania, Ottinger said.

"The Ulrichs were just so thankful and loving and wonderful and the way they bounced back was amazing," she said. "They want us to move down. But we have grandchildren."

It's such a long distance.

"We often say, if we could just put a wrinkle in the map, wrinkle the map a little bit," she said. "We'd be closer."