As residents of Mississippi's Gulf Coast gathered to commemorate the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, they recalled a cataclysmic storm that spared no one, rich or poor, from its destruction. Virtually every structure along the 90-mile stretch of coastline was either wrecked or swept away after Katrina's 140 mph winds and 40-foot storm surge came ashore like a steamroller
from hell. Yet, while the national media focused its attention on New Orleans, it gave relatively little coverage to the hurricane's impact elsewhere, even though the destruction to coastal Mississippi, which bore the full brunt of the storm, was as bad as, and in some places worse than, the calamity that struck New Orleans when the levees there broke.
Two years later, some of these areas are still distressed. One reason for the lack of attention paid to the Gulf Coast may be the massive investments made in the region by casino, hotel and real estate interests. That has created the appearance of a recovery that business promoters say has brought, and will continue to bring, enormous growth to the area. But many locals say that the casino-led development has done little to alleviate post-disaster conditions for most residents, including the 37 percent of the population—approximately a half million people—who earn below what federal guidelines deem low to moderate income. Moreover, maneuvering in Washington by the state's Republican leaders has diverted aid money away from some of the people who need it the most.
Helping the Wealthy Recover
Hurricane Katrina "leveled everybody" on the Gulf Coast, says Reilly Morse, a civil rights lawyer from Biloxi who works for the Mississippi Center for Justice, a statewide organization that provides legal assistance to low-income residents. "For a very short while, everybody had the same experience, and that spawned a sense of community that I don't think ever existed before."
But since the aid money began flowing, Morse said , "there's really been two recoveries here: one that generally favored homeowners with resources, and another one that basically priced the poor out of the housing market."
Katrina's impact is still visible from U.S. Highway 90, which hugs the Coast from New Orleans to the Florida panhandle. The two Mississippi bridges destroyed in the storm have been rebuilt. But a visitor driving east from Gulfport to Pascagoula passes mile after mile of empty lots where homes, motels and retail outlets used to be. The slow pace of reconstruction is evident from the many housing trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency still covering the Coast.
"We've still got a mighty tall mountain in front of us," Gov. Haley Barbour admitted in August after releasing an otherwise upbeat report on Mississippi's recovery. The official story is that Mississippi is back, thanks to nearly $24 billion in federal aid negotiated by Barbour, a former Washington lobbyist. The federal funds, he claims, have benefited all citizens in the stricken area and allowed most people who lost their homes to rebuild.
As a result, only about 17,000 people remain in FEMA trailers today, down from about 36,000 less than one year ago. That is little consolation, however, to those who must still endure the cramped quarters and toxic fumes that permeate the trailers.
The $23.5 billion in federal funding that Mississippi's governor and its two Republican senators managed to obtain was unprecedented in scope for a state recovering from a natural disaster. But the distribution of the $4 billion the state obtained specifi cally to help residents rebuild their housing, thanks to Barbour, has been skewed toward wealthy homeowners.
Under the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant program, 70 percent of the funds are supposed to be allocated to low- and moderate-income people. But the governor successfully lobbied to waive that requirement, undercutting its impact on Katrina survivors. As a result, only 25 percent of the money has reached the poorer segments of the population. Renters, who make up 40 percent of the population in some sections of the Coast, have
Saved by the Casinos?
Meanwhile, Mississippi officials are touting the spectacular return of the casino industry to the Gulf. In November 2005, Barbour called a special session to pass a law allowing casinos, once restricted to barges, to be built on land within 800 feet of the Coast. The new law—which the gaming industry had been seeking for years—sparked a flood of investment from casinos, hotels and condominium developers. Since Katrina, nine casinos have opened for business on the Coast. Eight of them are in Biloxi, whose mayor, A.J. Holloway, has relentlessly promoted the industry.
State officials predict casinos will bring in a record $3 billion in revenue to the state this year, 10 times what it was in 2006, when they earned a little over $300 million. "I hate to think where we would be today in this post-Katrina world were it not for the revenue and jobs created by this industry," Holloway said.
But to many locals, the casinos—and the hotels, malls and condos that accompany them—are hardly the answer to the region's devastation and economic crunch. They believe that the Biloxi model for development has made it diffi cult for many local residents to remain in the area, and they chafe at the idea that the post-Katrina emergency is over.
"We're still a long way to recovery, maybe 30 percent (there)," says Bill Stallworth, the only African American on Biloxi's City Council and the driving force behind the East Biloxi Coordination and Relief Center, an advocacy organization founded after the disaster struck.
Instead of casinos and high-rise condominiums, local organizations are advocating for low-income housing and day-care centers that would make life easier for casino workers and local residents. "There's a shortage of affordable housing, but we see boutiques, stores, rich houses and casinos being built," said Sharon Henshaw, a Biloxi native who launched another group, Coastal Women for Change, after Katrina. "We want the people to understand that we are nowhere near recovery."
During the 19th century, Biloxi was resort town for wealthy white families from New Orleans and beyond, and the center of a booming seafood and canning industry. But the city was strictly segregated until 1963, when Gilbert Mason, a doctor and a longtime member of the state NAACP, organized a series of "wade-ins" to integrate the city's public beaches.
African Americans soon became an important political and economic force in the city. Biloxi's population was further transformed, when the seafood and shrimping industry recruited thousands of Vietnamese who had left their homeland in the wake of the Vietnam War. During the 1990s, Biloxi's economic base expanded with the construction of several casinos, which the state Legislature legalized with the stipulation that they confine their gambling to vessels and barges.
Welcome to 'Little Las Vegas'
But Katrina's wrath wrecked everything within a mile of the coastline and laid waste to much of the city. Television captured much of the devastation, including the casinos thrown crazily across nearby highways. Altogether, 238 people lost their lives in the area, and more than 3,000 homes and commercial structures in Biloxi were wiped out.
Because of its proximity to the water, the area around East Biloxi, the district represented by Stallworth, has become ground zero for the casino and real estate boom. Almost immediately after the storm, developers literally began walking around offering large sums of money to people willing to sell their property; some took the money and left.
The developers "want to make the place so inundated with casinos that Biloxi becomes a little Las Vegas," says Jackie Washington, an East Biloxi resident who lost her home in the storm. "All the way around the water, they're trying to box us in." Like her, many of East Biloxi's other residents have chosen to stay and have banded together with local environmental activists, clergy and Vietnamese citizens' groups to seek a more balanced recovery. They have found a champion in Stallworth.
To keep the casinos at bay, Stallworth and the activists at the East Biloxi Coordination and Relief Center began helping people buy scattered plots of land near their homesteads and organized volunteers to repair and rebuild houses. Once locals created a "checkerboard"
of their properties, Stallworth says, condo developers could no longer come in and buy everything out. The strategy appears to be working; the pressure from the casino interests "is starting to abate," Stallworth says. So far, he says, volunteers have repaired 500 homes and built around 18 new structures.
Local activists say they have been forced take matters into their own hands because the state has made it so diffcult for low-income people to tap into government funds. Many of the initial aid beneficiaries were people who owned palatial homes on the waterfront. Yet even today, thousands of lowincome applicants are still waiting for help.
Washington applied for assistance in May 2006, and first heard from the state two weeks ago. But the notice didn't say how much she might receive or give a date when she might expect a check. "The red tape to get it—that's what really and truly hurts," she said.
Meanwhile, residents of other cities on the coast have watched Biloxi's influx of casinos with a mixture of fear and envy. Most of Biloxi's neighbors, including the city of Gulfport, Mississippi's second largest, adopted "smart growth" plans after the storm, designed to balance business development with the housing needs of residents. They are concerned not only about the economic
impact of casinos but also about the potential environmental effects of development.
In Bay St. Louis, a group of residents has asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to overturn a decision by the Hancock County Council, made before the storm, to rezone 1,100 acres of coastal wetland to permit largescale condominium development, without any height or density restrictions.
Coastal Community Watch, the environmental group behind the lawsuit, is worried that further destruction of wetlands on the Coast can only increase the state's vulnerability to hurricanes. More recently, a commission of citizens recommended a ban on any new construction of casinos in Bay St.
Louis, which has one gaming establishment. In the wake of Katrina, "everybody realizes we
have to change," said Bob Davis, a member of that commission. "But a lot of us don't want
Bay St. Louis to become a little Biloxi."
This story appears courtesy of Salon.com.
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Great article Tim. I love the title on the Cover: "A Matter of Trust" yes, Blind Trust, Barbour's GOLD, Relative's TEA.