Invisible Coast | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Invisible Coast

Photos by Chris Davis

A half-year after their world changed forever, lots of people on the Gulf Coast are thinking about desolation. They wake up to it every morning. They live through it every day.

From Hattiesburg to Gulfport, trees not snapped into twigs are bent like straws. In Biloxi, empty, bombed-out neighborhoods are strewn with broken lamps and muddy toys. The ravaged beaches are a mess of gutted mansions and twisted metal skeletons where fast-food restaurants used to be. There are three operating casinos where once there were 13.

Pass Christian is a jumble; Bay St. Louis is a disaster; and Waveland looks like a sprawling landfill, where demolished cars are piled atop each other, and sofas dangle from the branches of uprooted oaks.

On Dec. 14, the Biloxi Sun Herald devoted its cover to an editorial called "The Invisible Coast," which documented known atrocities and begged the national media not to turn Mississippi's Katrina ordeal into a footnote to New Orleans.

"If I had 1,000 reporters and all the newsprint in the world, I couldn't tell all the stories that need to be told here," Sun Herald executive editor Stan Tiner wrote.

It's been half a year since Hurricane Katrina carved a deadly 200-mile gash across the Magnolia State, killing 236 people, destroying 65,380 houses and causing an estimated $125 billion in damage. To anyone who hasn't witnessed the digging-out process firsthand, it looks like Katrina hit yesterday.

World Turned Upside Down
Hazel Raley is in a foul mood.

"I don't feel good mentally, physically, or anything else," she says, emerging from the Biloxi Community Center on Howard Street, a few blocks away from where she once lived. Raley, a housekeeper at Keesler Air Force Base, evacuated upstate before Katrina hit. When she came back to Biloxi, everything she had was gone.

"Everything but my car," she croaks, puffing on the butt of a bargain-brand cigarette. "I've lived in three different shelters since I got back. I finally got a FEMA trailer on the day before Thanksgiving, and believe me, I'm grateful for that."

You don't have to spend much time on the Coast to discover that every victim's story is essentially the same, with subtle differences—depending on how much they had, how much they lost, and how much more they stand to lose. Raley didn't have much to begin with: a plot of land where she's lived for 19 years and a trailer that was grandfathered in when Biloxi passed an ordinance banning mobile homes.

"(The city says) I can't put a trailer back on my property," she says glumly. "I'm supposed to get $15,000 in insurance, but I haven't seen a dime, and even if Ihad the money it's not enough to build (with), so I'm essentially homeless."

Raley was housed at Biloxi High School until classes resumed, and she was moved into the civic center. When the city reclaimed the center, she was moved into a military "hut." Now, she lives in a FEMA trailer on a community baseball field in D'Iberville. No matter how hard she tries to be optimistic, Raley can't escape the suspicion that, come springtime, somebody's going to want to play ball.

"I guess the worst part of it all is a feeling of uncertainty," she says. "The FEMA people are always coming around and reminding us to tell them when we move. I know you have to tell them when you move, but when they keep telling you over and over, it makes you feel unwelcome.

"I've asked (a city representative) if I can't afford to build a house on my property, what am I supposed to do? He said, 'I don't know. Sell it?'" The situation makes Raley feel helpless. "I feel like I've been lied to and pushed around," she fumes. "It's not like I want to be homeless. I've got a job. It's not like I'm too lazy to work.

"My whole world," she says, "has turned upside down."

Not In My War Zone
When asked what advice he might give to a person in Hazel Raley's situation, Biloxi's mayor, A.J. Holloway, is nothing if not honest.

"I don't know what to tell you," he says. "The oldest and the poorest section of Biloxi is a mixed-race community. The shotgun houses there were built on small lots before we had zoning or codes."

Holloway describes the situation as "difficult" and says neither the city nor the state can help these people rebuild. He floats the possibility of financing, tax credits and HUD assistance, but he's uncertain about details.

"It's going to take the private sector to help us get through this," Holloway says. "If you accumulate land at a reasonable price and build multifamily housing, you'll fill it up."

In a destroyed city dotted with tents, trailers and other makeshift housing, Raley's story is particularly resonant. At a recent Biloxi City Council meeting, Ward 6 Councilman Ed Gemmill said some of his constituents were worried about the possibility of 120 FEMA trailers moving to a site near Water's View Drive, where some houses are worth more than $1 million. According to the Sun Herald, Gemmill didn't want to see those property values go down. Ward 1 Councilman George Lawrence opposed the trailer park because some of the residents would "not necessarily be local."

"It's the old 'not in my backyard' thing," says Vincent Creel, public affairs manager for the city of Biloxi. "But you also have to ask, 'How temporary is temporary?' There are still pockets where we have 'temporary' housing from Camille. And if (you're going to put a trailer park) somewhere, you have to make sure there's infrastructure to support it, including water and sewer lines."

The land in question was already under consideration for a medium-density subdivision. The councilmen opposing the FEMA trailer park still approve of the original development plan.

No Room at the Inn
The Biloxi Community Center on Howard Street is a busy place. It used to host dances, wedding parties and recreational events. Now it's the local FEMA headquarters and the temporary home of an organization called Midwest Help. Founded by former Biloxi resident David Romero, Midwest Help provides food, water, new clothes, diapers and medical aid to the area's displaced citizens.

The group also boasts a 56-computer network—set up with help from Dartmouth College and the U.S. Department of Labor—that helps those who have lost jobs prepare resumes and find work. On a slow day, Romero says 400 to 600 people come through the door. On a busy day, up to 1,000 people come in.

Now Midwest Help is in danger of losing its home. According to Romero, the city has issued its third and final eviction notice.

"They said they don't think these people need our services anymore," he says. "The people who come here have lost everything, but apparently the city thinks otherwise. I've offered to pay (the city) more in rent than FEMA pays, but they won't take it. They just want us gone."

Romero is originally from Biloxi but was living in Indiana when Katrina hit. He immediately set up a donation station and began collecting food, clothes and water. The owner of an Indiana trucking company offered Romero a truck and two drivers to haul his load to Mississippi. Three days after Katrina hit, Romero rolled into Biloxi with 15 tons of relief supplies.

Other trucks were coming in with supplies, and nobody knew what to do with them, Romero discovered. With the help of his crew and a local SWAT team, he set up a warehouse to receive donations, organized the relief trucks pouring into the area, and drove around the city handing out supplies

Romero saw things he can't forget. "I watched this one kid climb over a pile of rubble trying to get to us. I saw a nail go through his hand, and I couldn't take it anymore," he says. "I broke down."

At one point, Romero drove his truck to the national media's staging area at the Biloxi lighthouse, turned on his siren and started shouting, "I've got breaking news." He caught the attention of CBS News and told reporters he had 95 tractor-trailer loads of supplies in a warehouse that needed to get to people who were hurting.

'Bad, Dirty Politics'

"When you have a natural disaster, you have to make sure you don't have a second disaster with the relief effort," says Vincent Creel. After the storm, he said, all of the city's communications were down; thus, nobody knew what to do with the stuff being trucked in. "So they would just dump all the clothes on a street corner or in a parking lot. When it rained, all those clothes were ruined, and it just became more we had to clean up."

When asked if the city told Romero his services "weren't needed," Creel balks and praises the man behind Midwest Help. But his answer is a qualified yes.

"We need to make repairs on the community center," Creel says, adding that the center needs to be reclaimed for recreational programming.

"There's a Salvation Army providing the same services two blocks away," Creel explains. He also says that, unlike Romero, the Salvation Army has a "great" tracking system.

"(The Salvation Army) is capable of serving 5,000 prepared meals a day. They have a drive-through, and they are offering financial services," Creel says. "Why have two (relief) locations in a two-block area?"

Creel's comments baffle Romero, whose database contains 3,000 addresses and tracks people both by their address before the storm and by their FEMA identification number.

"One box a day for one person from every address in the database," he says. "We gave away 25,000 new toys through our Christmas program, and I can give the city the name of every child who received a toy."

Exasperated by what he sees as Creel's unfair comparison to the Salvation Army, Romero says: "It's not like we're in competition. (The Salvation Army) does good things, but they don't do what we do. You can drive through the Salvation Army and get a peanut-butter sandwich in a box, but we've got food and brand-new clothes. We've got a clinic and computers. I don't think the Salvation Army has any of that.

Romero says he has offered the city rent, and asked about buying the property, or a city-owned building across the street. "But they aren't selling," Romero says. "The mayor won't return my calls. I've asked over and over why they want me out, and I've been given every excuse in the world and no reason." He has his own theory about the city's reluctance to work with his group: "The reason is the developers," he says, particularly of condos and casinos.

New elevation standards and building codes will prevent many homeowners in his neighborhood from rebuilding, he says, adding that the mayor is looking at plans that involve leveling his neighborhood. "This is all bad, dirty politics," he says.

The mayor disagrees. "I think the biggest misconception … is that people think we're trying to move them out of their neighborhoods, that (we want to) force buyouts, turn the land over to the casino and condo developers, and chase people out. A lot of people say we're catering to the casinos, but that's not true. The casino industry is the tide that will lift all boats and put 17,000 people to work. It's the tax base for the city. One of the rumors going around is that people are trying to buy up land to build golf courses. If they are, I don't know anything about it."

Romero and Midwest Help were evicted earlier this month.

The Children of Camille
"I was helping rescue people during the storm until I heard they were finding dead people, and I had to stop," says a goateed college student at Chili's in D'Iberville.

"I can't believe somebody hasn't shot an insurance adjustor, yet," says a man on the street in Ocean Springs.

"I'm really just sick of talking about the storm," says a blackjack dealer in Biloxi.

You can't pump gas, check into a hotel or drink a beer on the Coast without hearing a story about Katrina. The only genuinely upbeat people around seem to be the casino managers.

"People need an outlet for all their pent-up frustration," says Jon Lucas, general manager of the Imperial Palace. "They demand entertainment."

Lucas says revenues are up and that his casino now employs 700 more people than before the storm. He thinks Biloxi will be a $2 billion casino market in 10 years.

Mayor Holloway echoes the enthusiasm. He says the city has set aside 19 acres for new casino development. "The new casinos coming into Biloxi think it's a strong market," he says. "There will be 20 casinos in Biloxi in the next five to 10 years."

"The Coast was right on the cusp of a huge boom when Katrina hit," says Hannah Silkman, media relations director for the Gulfport Convention and Visitors Bureau. "That boom's still going to happen. We have $2 billion in confirmed tourist-related development."

Bobby Weaver, Harrison County Sand Beach director, says some of Biloxi's beaches will re-open this spring. "It's a lot of work, and we're doing it in stages. The first stage is to remove the top layer of debris, and we're still in the midst of that phase. We use root-rakes to capture most of the large stuff. (Then) we use specialized equipment to screen the top 12 inches of sand."

But there is also the issue of water cleanliness. "There could be areas where there are vehicles or trees,"Weaver said. "(Cleaning the water) is a project involving the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard. It will be a two-year period at least before 100 percent recovery. A lot of issues—insurance, zoning, etc.—aren't finalized yet, and people are sitting idle with so much at stake. I suspect you'll see a lot more progress in the next six months."

Sun Herald editor Tiner agrees. "There's a lot of uncertainty right now. People can't just deal with all these unanswered questions and get back to their lives," he says. "But you have to understand, these are all the children and grandchildren of Camille. They either lived through it or grew up hearing about how badly we were hurt. But we rebuilt. That's our legacy. Pride is an endearing characteristic of these people who have had the hell kicked out of them. They are very strong."

Previous Comments


The City needs to look at creating a permanent mobile home subdivision with infrastructure, streets, and other amenties. This does not necessarily fit into the plans of most cities, but it is a very difficult time for people like Raley. This is racism at worst and lack of compassion for lower income citizens at best.


Anybody know where the TENT CITY that Lisa Ling showcased on Oprah is? I know its on the MS Gulf but I'd like to know exactly where. Thanks!


Found it. In Pass Christian. Wish me luck, I'm headed there tomorrow...


Pearlington still has tents, too (but it's not a tent city - they are in front of now unuseable houses). Some of those folks were left with houses that could be gutted and they have a shell to rebuilt from, others were not so lucky. Their houses are mostly still there, but are ruined. They were in 8 ft of water and had various and sundry items in many of them (vaults that floated up out of the cemetary, stray boats, cars, etc.) Insurance - well, same story as everywhere else. As of last weekend the Corps had only been thru once to pick up debris - it's still piled head high on the sides of the narrow roads. This is an area that was poor as dirt before - you can imagine what it's like now. Just wanted to lift this area up for attention as well as the others mentioned (it's across from Slidell, on this side of the river).


I'd like to thank you for running this story about my organization Midwest Help. It was a 6 month adventure that I will never forget. We received our final eviction notice and were told to leave the Biloxi Community Center or face the Biloxi Police Department. I know they have their reasons so I packed up and found a new warehouse. I'm no longer offering free medical services, computer classes, or individual distribution, but I am still receiving donations from all over the country. I use the food and water to support all the volunteer agencies that are in town. The rest I turn over to a local church that distributes the donations to the public. I'll stay there for 2 more months then I'll look at things and see if I'm still needed. Keep up to date by visiting our site at

David Romero

Thanks for the update, David. I wonder if you have time to post updates for us on things going on there that aren't making the mainstream from time to time? Or, if you know someone there who would be a good, straightforward blogger? I would happily provide special blog space in order to keep people here abreast of how we can help, and what we need to know about.


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