BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- Our story begins and ends with a friendship and a life-long bond.
We first met Doug Niolet, Kevin Guillory and Nikki Moon in Bay St. Louis, Miss., six years ago. They were already friends, but Hurricane Katrina brought them closer than ever.
Guillory and Niolet were helping Moon at her Bay Town Inn bed and breakfast on Aug. 29 when the storm surge of 30 to 40 feet ripped the building apart and washed it away.
The three ended up clinging to a huge oak tree in the back yard, holding onto that tree with every finger for four hours as Katrina unleashed her fury.
'And with the water coming over and surrounding you, you're gripping for life. Truly gripping for life,' Moon said.
After the storm the tree died, but owing their lives to it they vowed to honor it and hired an artist who carved the limbs into angels, creating what locals call 'The Angel Tree.'
They then set out to rebuild their lives and Old Town Bay St. Louis.
'We're not back fully, but we're well on our way to recovery,' Niolet said.
Niolet used to be an Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter and flew in Katrina. Now retired, he and Guillory oversee the Hurricane Hunter Bar and a restaurant called 200 North Beach. It was the first to open on Beach Boulevard since the storm, and they're about to celebrate their third anniversary.
That's pretty amazing when you consider the building they needed to renovate needed extensive repairs, and neither had ever run a restaurant before.
'The way I tell it, is we looked in the mirror and said we don't have that much sense, let's just open our first restaurant, and we took a chance on it and it's been very good since then,' Niolet said.
They helped lead what is the rebirth of Bay St. Louis with a huge new marina, antique shops and art galleries. Retail, restaurants and bars now dot the beach front, and more are on the way.
'It is exciting,' Guillory said. 'It really is. You see the people here, and we are seeing the numbers that we were seeing pre-Katrina.'
And in that number is the new neighbor of 200 North Beach Restaurant, as Moon and the Bay Town Inn have returned as well.
'I get people now that stayed with me pre storm, and they come back and they said it's even better. You guys are rebuilding, and you're doing it better,' Moon said.
There was a problem in the recovery. The footprint of the new Bay Town Inn was right where The Angel Tree sat, and The Angel Tree had to go.
But don't worry, it didn't go far. Nikki moved it to the waterfront and now everyone can see it.
'Indeed, I think it is in exactly the right spot. It's much more visible. I love seeing it every day. It's very special tree obviously to me.'
'It's still amazing to me the number of people that stop and take pictures of it and stand in front of it,' Guillory said. 'It's like a monument.'
That monument, which they can see from their front porch, is a daily reminder of where there were, where they are and who their friends are.
'And I think when we hug to say goodbye, our hugs are a little different than with somebody else, because we did go through so much,' Moon said. 'We'll be friends forever.'