Slabbed remembers Katrina Plus 5: Determination Billows Along Mississippi Road. By Ben Montgomery of the Tampa

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

KILN, Miss. – Along Highway 603, Bruno’s Bar, with the spray-painted rebel flag on the concrete-block wall out front, is closed. So is the Cajun Connection, the Broke Spoke and just about every other dive on this stretch of sleepy Mississippi country road touched and tangled by Hurricane Katrina.

Even the catfish are belly-up in the farm ponds.

But rising above cattle fields and swampland and this ruined, rugged little town is Roddie Bilbo’s bedsheet tribute to the spirit of the people of Kiln. The effortless homage hangs from power lines, stretched taught with two bottles of spring water, for all of Highway 603 to see.

They do. Folks honk or whistle when they pass, a half-dozen of them by the hour. There goes a family in a Chevrolet Suburban stopping to take a picture. There’s a “woo-hoo!” from a pickup window.

“See, that’s what it does to people,” says Bilbo, eating jambalaya and green beans in his driveway a few nights ago. “It’s been like that since I put it up.”

“BY THE GRACE OF GOD,” says the sign, “THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN!”

While most other gas stations in the area are closed, Dolly’s Quick Stop had its beat back a few days after the storm.

A flashlight was needed for the restroom, there were no crawfish po’ boys, and the daily Sea Coast Echo newspaper in the honor box by the door still said, “Katrina on its way.”

But the Bud Light truck showed up, and the jar of Hannah’s Pigs Feet wasn’t ruined by the storm, so business was brisk.

“Can’t get gasoline,” says a man carrying two 12-packs of Bud Light toward the counter, “but you can get all the beer you can drink.”

It didn’t take long after the storm for the hardscrabble folks of Kiln to get back to work, chasing cows, stretching barbed-wire fences and hammering shingles onto roofs, nails clenched in their teeth.

“We’ll build back,” says Glenn Bonane, 44, on a break from working on his house. “The people down here are really strong.”

The reason?

“Cause we, we just the South,” Bonane says, “and the South’s gonna do it again.”

In the middle of so much loss, and even as rescuers continue counting the dead, folks are knocking mud off their work boots.

“Far as being tough,” says Terrell Frazier, sitting tattooed, shirtless and holding a 40-ounce bottle of beer in the passenger seat of his nephew’s car outside Dolly’s, “I don’t know. We just is.”

This is the “Keep It Flying” hometown of Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre.

The north wall of Dolly’s is painted with a Packers helmet and the words “Kiln Mississippi Packers.”

Favre’s family rode out the hurricane in a house on nearby Rotten Bayou, according to the South Mississippi Sun Herald.

Favre is perhaps the most resilient quarterback to clutch a helmet, the kind who dives for yards when others are sliding feet first That’s easy to understand if you’ve been to Kiln, population 2040, where corn, cotton and wooden fishing reels are the major exports.

“I had no lights before, you know, ’cause we poor,” Frazier says. “So we kinda used to this.”

Resiliency, he says, is in their bones.

“I feel like you’ve got to be this way,” says Frazier’s nephew, Jonathan. “It was drilled into my head when I was little.”

“Seems like we always been tough, down to the last breath,” Frazier says. “I guess it goes back to the day. We just always been scratching to survive, that’s all, and we’ll keep on scratching.”

Roddie Bilbo is a simple man. The retired heavy-equipment operator wears a Pop’s Trucking cap and likes jambalaya and deer sausage with grits and hunting wild hogs with his buddies from Missouri.

What he came up with in the middle of the night has inspired all sorts of folks in a place broken but not bowed.

“It really picks people up,” says Rick Hartline, a Vietnam veteran who lives in a trailer down a dirt road nearby. “It makes them happy.”

“That’s my husband,” Lyndall Bilbo says. “You never know what he’s gonna come up with.”

Bilbo might cry if you ask him about the sign, so please be patient.

See, his son, Darren Douglas Bilbo, was electrocuted by a welding machine in 1992, and his birthday was Aug. 29, the same day Katrina hit here, and that made this storm more than a little strange.

So after the strange storm, and after the saltwater and adrenaline subsided, Bilbo went to sleep.

That’s when it hit him. He shot up in the middle of the night with the phrase in his head.

“I couldn’t shake it,” he says.

In the morning, he told his daughter to fetch a bedsheet. “I figured, if that’s the only thing I lose, then I can do that,” Rhonda Duprey says of her sacrifice.

She works at the elementary school and, “She’s good with paints,” Bilbo says, so he provided the inspired idiom, and she did the rest. Up went the sign, riding power lines into the Mississippi blue.

We will, it shouted to Dixie.

Without a doubt, the South replied.

Copyright © 2005, The Tampa Tribune and may not be republished without permission.

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