On the Mississippi Coast

The Region Starts to Stagger Back

Karen Tyson bathes her 13-month-old daughter, Darlene, in a bucket at a parking-lot campsite in Waveland, Miss.
Karen Tyson bathes her 13-month-old daughter, Darlene, in a bucket at a parking-lot campsite in Waveland, Miss. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 14, 2005

WIGGINS, Miss., Sept. 13 -- Once the local television station announced that hurricane money was finally coming to Stone County, word spread fast.

People began showing up in front of Stone High School just after 10 p.m. Monday. By 8 the next morning, when the Red Cross opened for business, the line was 4 1/2 blocks long.

This line was just to get a number for an appointment later in the week that could land a cash voucher. "We've been waiting 15 days, so I guess we can wait some more," said Waymon Parker, whose trailer was wrecked.

As relief agencies are starting to get around to the last coastal towns left on their lists, assessments of Hurricane Katrina's devastation to 80 miles of coast and reaching 150 miles inland are just getting underway. State officials could offer no figures for damage to the Gulf Coast, but they say that Mississippi will take years, if not decades, to rebuild.

More than 115,000 evacuees remain in Red Cross shelters or temporary housing, and tens of thousands of others are staying with relatives or in other temporary housing. Debris is virtually all that is left of some smaller coastal towns. The Federal Emergency Management Agency remains swamped with cries for help. The agency has identified more than 154,000 people in need of assistance so far, said a spokesman, Gene Romano. It anticipates perhaps hundreds of thousands more as hurricane victims who have been trying to reach FEMA finally get through.

At the same time, life has noticeably improved in the five coastal counties where Katrina unleashed the brunt of her fury -- Stone, Hancock, Harrison, Jackson and Pearl River, where about 435,000 people lived and the death toll has reached 218, with 600 people reported missing. More businesses open every day, power is back to 80 percent of the buildings that could receive power and lines for gasoline are back to normal.

The Gulf Coast has a future; on that, most agree. But whether it can re-create a culture that took more than 200 years to build, return with its blend of residents, black and white, rich and poor, old money and new immigrant, or will become an entirely new and unfamiliar version of itself -- that is another story.

Even as the immediate mop-up of Katrina has brought in thousands of National Guard crews and relief workers from all over the country, some in once-booming Mississippi coast towns are worrying about what will come afterward.

Mayor A.J. Holloway of Biloxi (population 55,000) is among them. Biloxi, home to 10 casinos and most of the Mississippi coast's shrimp industry, was devastated from its waterfront to well inland, with more than 5,000 structures destroyed and uncounted others too damaged to fix.

"We've lost our history, all of our landmarks," Holloway said. "We have some completely devastated areas, especially along the east end." Those included the city's old, working-class and poor neighborhoods, which casinos had coveted for years as prime real estate.

The Gulf Coast was the heart of Mississippi's floating casino industry, accounting for nearly half of the state's nearly $2.93 billion a year in gambling revenue. With the coast's 13 casinos destroyed by the hurricane, Mississippi, already the poorest state in the nation, is losing $500,000 in gambling taxes every day. Now the casino industry is lobbying for land-based alternatives to their former barges, and some fear the coast will look like a cut-rate Las Vegas, with slablike condominiums, cinder-block subdivisions and gaudy hotels.

The $700 million-a-year shrimping industry lost not only much of its fleet but also the processing plants needed to bring the shellfish to market, at the peak of the season.

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