State Of The Coast | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

State Of The Coast

Photo by David Rae Morris

Betty Maerker often visits Ocean Springs' shoreline right before a storm, where she watches the waves rise and fall, and gathers her thoughts. But for the past five years, her trips to the beach have reminded her of what her community lost in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"I feel calmer. It sounds strange, but the ocean draws me," she says. "I go to the beach now, and I can't remember where anything is. It's almost like you're in a dream or a nightmare, and you are still waiting to wake up."

For Maerker, 69, the ocean is her home. Her determination to stay in Ocean Springs—the only place she has friends and family—was tested five years ago when Katrina, a category four storm, descended on the Gulf Coast. To demonstrate what the past five years have been like, Maerker extends her hands, revealing her red and frayed fingers, a result of constant nail biting.

"See my nails?" says Maerker, who spent four and a half years living in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer. "They used to be nice and long. That's what happened.

Maerker moved to the Coast in 1957 from Vicksburg, and despite spending a short stint working in Maryland, she claims the Coast as home. Before Katrina, she rented a 1,500 square-foot home in Ocean Springs' Gulf Park Estates subdivision, which she shared with her son and mother. Maerker admits that she hasn't shared her story with anyone and is still so shaken that she hasn't visited her former neighborhood since the day she tried to salvage what was left of her flood and wind-damaged home.

"Had anyone told me this is how bad it's going to be, I would have called them a liar," she says. "But you never underestimate Mother Nature, God and that Gulf of Mexico. It can be a killer."

Maerker is one of tens of thousands of Mississippi residents who lost her home and belongings in the storm. Steps leading to nowhere were the only trace of some homes; remains of Biloxi's casinos were scattered throughout the Mississippi Sound; and the bodies of humans and animals lay among the ruins. In the first few days after the storm, the national media—which heavily focused on New Orleans—drew attention to the federal government's delayed response.

In the months that followed, an outpouring of donations prompted nonprofits and disaster-relief workers to set up shop and help the Coast rebuild.

Today, homes and casinos along U.S. Highway 90 show signs of life on the Coast. But the small gaggles of men and women in bright yellow vests picking up tar balls on the state's beaches are a reminder of a more recent threat to residents and businesses.

When BP announced that oil was seeping into the Gulf of Mexico after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion, local fishermen and charter-boat captains joined with the Mississippi chapter of the Sierra Club to organize press conferences, calling for a full government response to the spill. Last month, The Sun Herald reported "bus-sized" tar mats reached the shores of Long Beach Island.

A University of Southern Mississippi economic report (PDF) released in June investigating the oil spill's impact on business states that the state's coastal restaurants were down 30 percent from last year, while seafood prices are up an average of 30 percent. The charter boat industry took the biggest hit with average 70 percent decline in business.

Then on Aug. 17, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood announced that BP had not paid 63 percent of business and individual claims for financial losses incurred since the disaster.

While Katrina's damage was far more visible, the oil spill is an unprecedented event. Its effects, while still largely unknown, threaten the Coast's entire way of life.

State Sen. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, says it's been hard enough for businesses and communities to recover over the past five years because of a steep cost increase for insurance premiums. After recently reviewing an aerial photograph of the Coast, he noted that many empty spaces remain where businesses and homes once stood.

After the storm, he says, insurance companies required businesses and homes to meet stricter standards, which meant residents had to pay more.

"Insurance continues to be a 500-pound gorilla," he says. "We have new regulations, like building codes and elevation requirements and those kind of things that hamper building, and then you have costs that hampers rebuilding, and then you have insurance cost. All of it goes back to insurance."

Baria says that businesses and residents are dependent on each other. If people aren't moving back into an area, then it's unlikely grocery stores and other retail will follow. The only major grocery store in Bay St. Louis is at Walmart. The local soccer league still hasn't come back, either. Baria now takes his children to Gulfport to play soccer.

Hand Up, Not Handout
A few days after Katrina, Maerker applied for a FEMA trailer while she was temporarily staying in a friend's RV. Six months later, the trailer arrived, and she moved into the 240-square-foot, one-room camping trailer with her 84-year-old mother and son. Maerker had anticipated a short, temporary stay. She had no intention of calling the cramped space her home for the next four and a half years.

"I used to call it my candominium," she says. "It was like living in a can. I'm 5 foot, 8 inches tall, and I could stand up and touch the roof. It beat not having anything; and at the time we didn't, and we needed help."

After the city started to rebuild, Maerker began looking for a permanent place to live. Because she was a renter prior to the storm, she didn't qualify for a homeowners assistance grant. As a senior citizen on a fixed income, she became discouraged to find that the price of the few rental units available had nearly doubled after the storm. She says that a house that was $700 a month before the storm was now about $1,500 a month.

Those who could afford the rent found a place to live.

"I never thought I'd see the day that people on this Gulf Coast would be greedy—as greedy as they were," she says. "We had people living in tents or in their cars. People were just begging for a place to live."

About three years after the hurricane, MEMA officials called Maerker to tell her good news: She had won a lottery to receive a three-bedroom cottage. The state competed for federal funds to build modular cottages for citizens to purchase, lease or receive for free through a lottery. The cottages can withstand 150-mph winds and have turned into permanent homes for approximately 700 families on the coast.

"I was so excited. We were so excited. Oh my God," she says. "These cottages were gorgeous. They were furnished with towels, knives and forks, and dinnerware, everything you needed. All you had to do was buy food."

But when officials asked where she would be putting her new home, that's when Maerker learned she needed to own the land for the 840-square foot cottage. She attempted to apply for a grant to purchase land at a local nonprofit, but learned the next day that all the grant funds had already been allocated.

"I felt like I'd been punched in the gut," she says. "It seemed like I'd made a little leeway, and then I'd have to go back a mile. I didn't want to borrow any money from any one. I have X number of dollars that I have each month. I told (FEMA officials), ‘I'm looking for a hand up, not a handout.'"

Maerker worried about the toll the living conditions and the stress of the storm were taking on her mother. Last year, her mother passed away before the family got a chance to find a permanent home.

Mississippi Center for Justice lawyer Reilly Morse estimates that the 5,000 Coast residents and families who still lack affordable housing have stories similar to Maerker's. Morse, author of the report "Hurricane Katrina: How Will Mississippi Turn the Corner?," (PDF) criticizes the state's spending priorities for recovery. The report says that of the $4 billion the state allocated for housing, the state spent $1 billion for business subsidies and infrastructure and, between 2006 and 2008, reduced its housing allocation by almost $800 million.

In 2006, Gov. Haley Barbour issued a comprehensive plan for housing on the Gulf Coast. In that plan, he proposed allocating federal funds for two phases of homeowners' assistance grants, increasing the supply of rental housing, rebuilding public housing and providing alternative forms of housing such as modular homes.

Last week, Barbour issued a statement championing the state's recovery efforts, stating that only 176 of the 45,000 FEMA housing trailers remained occupied in Mississippi.

Morse, however, claims that the state put more money toward wealthy homeowners than renters and low-income residents, and says that just because FEMA trailers are emptying, it doesn't mean that people don't still need homes.

"The problem is that the state, several years ago, didn't put enough toward housing. But to make matters worse, they spent the money later and more slowly than they did on grants for wealthier homeowners," Morse says. "... I think it's an expression of how the state and Governor Barbour feel toward wealthy homeowners versus the expression of urgency to low-income folks. They moved heaven and earth to get money into wealthy homeowner's pockets."

MEMA Director Mike Womack maintains the state's alternative housing program was never intended to be a permanent housing solution for low-income families. The state received federal funds to build 500 modular homes for people who were transitioning from temporary shelter. He says the models were so successful that they became permanent solutions for those who could purchase them; 2,800 residents lived in the cottages at the peak of the program.

"The purpose of the (cottages) was to see if there was a better use of temporary housing than a FEMA trailer," Womack says, adding that the $2 billion left for the state's Community Development Block Grant program must go to restoring infrastructure and businesses in addition to building affordable housing.

But the cottage program introduced several logistical problems for residents. In addition to supplying their own land for the property, cottage owners must also meet elevation, zoning and neighborhood-covenant requirements. If a person owes back taxes on their property or has ever been convicted of a felony, they do not qualify for ownership. Womack estimates that 700 families are still living in the cottages despite the fact that their leases expired in January.

"There are certainly jurisdictions that have valid codes in place that say that the cottages don't meet minimum square-footage requirements; there are certain flood zones that they can't be placed in because of FEMA and other issues," he says.

Womack added that the program pays for the cottages' insurance for one year for owners. The program will also pay to elevate the homes 5 feet, 7 inches off the ground, but after that, the owner must pick up the tab. The elevation requirements, however, vary by proximity to flood zones.

Morse says the obstacles involved in finding affordable housing can discourage many families who lost everything in the storm.

In 2008, the state established the Mississippi Case Management Consortium, an organization to help assist families still lacking substantial home repairs or housing after Katrina. On Aug. 31, the organization dissolved with 234 cases remaining. While the organization helped to solve 7,000 cases, the rest of those families will be eligible for pipelines such as the consortium's "Adopt A Family," website in which private donors can financially support a family who is trying to find permanent housing.

The MCJ report points out that with billions left in federal funds, the "Adopt A Family" program shouldn't be necessary.

"As well meaning as this online appeal may be, Mississippi cannot be permitted to place further demands upon private charity to house our citizens when the state diverted vast housing resources to other uses that still remain unspent," the report states.

In 2008, Barbour diverted $570 million in federal funds for affordable housing to the Port of Gulfport expansion project. To try and get those funds back, the Mississippi Conference Chapter of the NAACP and the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center filed a lawsuit against the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development for allowing the governor to divert the funds.

In January, federal judge James Robertson dismissed the case for lack of standing, stating: "The plaintiffs have not alleged or offered to show that HUD's diversion of excess funds to the Port Expansion Project has injured or would injure them."

Morse said the organizations are appealing the case.

"I think it's fair to say that outside of the lawsuit, the evidence that surfaced over the past few months clearly shows that we are right. There is a substantial amount of unfinished housing business that is going to require additional money over and above what the state has already committed," he said.

To date, Mississippi has spent $30.27 million for the port expansion project, which is currently undergoing a design phase and environmental review.

Dominos Fall in East Biloxi
Well-kept shotgun houses spaced between empty lots line streets just a few miles from Biloxi's waterfront condos and casinos. The predominately black and Vietnamese community, known as East Biloxi, is a tight-knit neighborhood where neighbors relied heavily on each other after the storm.

Biloxi native Sharon Hanshaw grew up here. Before the storm, she operated a hair salon out of her home. After Katrina transformed her home into a pile of rubble, Hanshaw found herself starting over at age 51. After spending nearly a year sleeping on others' couches, she started speaking out about the lack of affordable housing, child care and jobs for women. She founded the nonprofit Coastal Women For Change in 2006, and has become a representative for Mississippi on international panels about Katrina Recovery. She says several East Biloxi businesses never reopened after the storm and, to support the community, the city needs to focus on helping minority businesses and homes.

"What we are seeing is new development that does not meet the people's criteria," Hanshaw says. "There are no jobs or affordable housing. ... Sometimes you just can't wrap your head around it."

Hanshaw recently took on another fight when the Biloxi Public School Board voted to close East Biloxi's Nicholas Elementary School in July. The board voted to close the school at the same meeting the issue was put on the board's agenda. District Superintendent Paul Tisdale claims that in the face of district's loss of $5.5 million in state education funds, the 248-student school had to be closed to save operational funds.

Located on Division Street, the school opened in 2004 and closed for a year after the storm when it was filled with 8 feet of water. East Biloxi community activists cite the school's successful history, which includes the state's "Star School" rating for high student performance, employing the recipient of state's top teacher award and Biloxi's top parent award.

The district also reportedly discovered they had $10 million in savings, which Hanshaw says is a sign that politics are at play.

After the school board said that they'd close the school, the Kellogg Foundation announced that it would supply the district with a $1.3 million grant for the district to reopen the school. The school board is expected to address the offer at its Sept. 21 meeting.

"It's a new school. You can't make sense out of it," Hanshaw says. "It's scary because what happened was, they didn't let anyone know before they made the decision. They didn't think we would keep fighting. Every time a school board meeting happens, we are there. I try not to think that this is racism, but when you put it all together, it points in that direction. ... Little 6-year-olds can't understand why their school is closing down."

Morse agrees with Hanshaw's assessment, and says that the school's low population is directly related to the lack of housing in the community.

"You can be pushed out, or you can be ignored out of a neighborhood. And (Biloxi) is doing a little of both," Morse says. If you don't allow money into a community to restore itself, then it dies. ... If you don't restore housing, you lose the student population for that school, and a school is like a community anchor. The dominoes are falling in East Biloxi because of this housing neglect, and when they fall, the property is cheaper to buy, and other businesses can come in and get it," he said.

Waiting on the Future
Behind the Hard Rock Casino off Highway 90, a steady line of people gather to fill their large coolers with fresh gulf shrimp. Manh Tran, captain of the Rising Angle, scoops the large, white shrimp from several coolers on the back of his boat and weighs them.

Shrimp season is back in full swing since state waters reopened August 21 after being closed for nearly a month, and local residents are taking advantage. Most people in line buy 20 or 30 pounds of shrimp, and at $3 a pound that's a bargain, they say.

One man asks Tran if the shrimp smell like oil. "I like my BP oil fried," the man jokes. After losing almost a month of fishing and shrimping, Tran is glad to see business picking back up.

David Burrage, marine resources professor at the Mississippi State University's Coastal Research and Extension Center, says that with state waters closing and many shrimpers working for BP's Vessels of Opportunity program, shrimpers only brought in 186,000 pounds of shrimp this past June, compared to 1.5 million pounds in June 2009.

Tran is able to sell his product cheap, he says, because he sells directly to consumers. Last year, he sold shrimp for just $2 a pound but he is trying to make up for lost business. When the state closed waters in June, he filed a claim with BP for $5,000 and says he received payment about two weeks later. Tran, who operates the boat with his family, is happy to be back in business but isn't sure what the future holds for families who depend on shrimp to survive.

"Some of these people, all they know how to do is shrimp," he says. "Most of them came over from their country and didn't have an education. They have kids; and (by running) a shrimp boat they can take care of their families."

Down the street at Point Cadet Marina, rows of charter boats sit idly in their boat slips. There are no fishermen or tourists on this sunny August morning, and the only customers at the marina's fuel station are Vessels of Opportunity contractors transporting workers to the Mississippi Barrier Islands to assist in oil-spill efforts.

Mississippi Charter Boat Captains Association President Tom Becker, who houses his 40-foot boat "Skipper" at the marina, feels the weight of the 57 boat captains that he represents. Becker retired from the U.S. Air Force and started his charter-boat service in 1985. Normally on a summer day like today, Becker says there are usually about 15 charter boats out on trips. But today only three boats are out.

Becker is tired from a long week of meetings with state officials about issues affecting fisherman from the oil spill, but gets energized when he talks about a bit of good news, which he hopes will breathe life into the Coast's charter-boat industry.

On Aug. 20, the National Marine Fisheries Service re-opened red snapper season. While limited to weekends only, Becker said he hopes the extension will entice tourists to take fishing trips. And though the state opened its waters for fishing Aug. 6, Becker says that boats can only fish about three miles offshore because federal waters—which extend further out—are still closed. The farther charter boats go from shore into the Gulf of Mexico, he says, the better the fishing is.

Becker has been working tirelessly to voice the concerns of fisherman on the Coast. This isn't the first time his industry has taken a hit.

"This is our third rebound in five years," he says. "First Katrina. Then last year, the economy was the worst year we have ever had, and then this year we all had high hopes, everything was looking good; we all had bookings. And then, on April 20, that all ended."

One of the biggest obstacles has been getting charter-boat captains employed through BP's Vessels of Opportunity program, Becker says. After the oil spill, a flurry of out-of-state and recreational fisherman—many of whom weren't experiencing financial hardships directly from the oil spill—signed up for the program. Becker alleges that many fishermen were buying $100 commercial fishing licenses to have a better chance of employment, and BP wasn't verifying those claiming they ran charter boats.

With BP paying large boats up to $3,000 a day, Becker fought to get a list of who the company hired. He was outraged when he saw that the majority of workers were posing as commercial and charter-boat fishermen.

"Right off the bat, BP should have come to us and got our captains involved," he says. "Our captains know the waters, they know the regulations, and they've had HAZMAT training. Let them do the work; they know what it is like to go out there during the day."

Even when federal waters open, Becker worries about what lies ahead for the Gulf fishing industry. He opens a photo album on his boat cabin's table, showing pictures of families and friends from years past proudly holding their catches of large amberjack, flounder and red snapper.

"The fish are still good today," he says. "But when I ask a scientist about what these dispersants are going to do to the quality of the fish, and he says, ‘I don't know,' how good does that make you feel?"

Barbour recently appointed Becker to serve as a member of his 34-member Gulf of Mexico Commission to help the state design a long-term oil-spill recovery plan. During the commission's first meeting

Aug. 17, community advocate and Biloxi native Linda St. Martin voiced her opposition to the makeup of the governor's commission, demanding fisherman representation on the panel. Initially, Barbour had not appointed any commercial fishermen.

"I hated having to do that," St. Martin later told the Jackson Free Press. "You don't know how distasteful that was to me. ... But, there is not a single shrimper or work-boat person on that entire 34-member panel, and they are the ones who are going to be the most directly affected."

Becker doesn't agree with St. Martin's approach for getting the governor's attention. But he says the tension on the Coast is high as fishermen and business owners don't know what the future holds. Even Becker isn't sure how much longer he can continue to operate his charter-boat business.

"I think they are scared because they don't know the future," he says. "How long is this going to last? ... I'm 69 years old; how many more years can I sit and wait around?"

Coming Back
While Maerker is by no means a materialistic person, she often thinks about the items she will never see again: her mother's diamond earrings, family antiques and the large trees in the back yard of her former home. In April, Maerker received a rental-assistance grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and she leased a two-bed room apartment, which she shares with her son, who is her caretaker. When she moved in, her apartment contained an air mattress, a love seat and television. She has now added a coffee table, end table and a set of chest of drawers.

"For a while we didn't have anything. We were Japanese-style on the floor," she says. "But it is so great. I can spread out, there is so much room."

Maerker says she is working with a local nonprofit to get furnishings for her new apartment. Since moving out of the FEMA trailer, she says her health has improved, but her nerves are still rattled from the last four years. Despite the Coast's history of hurricanes, she says she will never live anywhere else.

"We are a resilient group of people. We might get kicked down, but we are going to come back," she says. "It might take us five years, it might take us 10 years, but we are going to come back."

The Lingering Effect of Dispersents
A Katrina Story

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