In Miss., Time Now Stands Still

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By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 25, 2005

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. -- Three months ago, Katrina all but scoured this old beach town of 8,000 off the face of the Earth. To walk its streets today is to see acres of wreckage almost as untouched as the day the hurricane passed.

No new houses are framed out. No lots cleared. There is just devastation and a lingering stench and a tent city in which hundreds of residents huddle against the first chill of winter and wonder where they'll find the money to rebuild their lives.

Billy McDonald, the white-haired mayor whose house was reduced to a concrete slab by 55-foot-high waves, works out of a trailer. He doesn't expect the word "recovery" to roll off his lips for many months.

"Lots of folks don't have flood insurance; lots of folks don't have jobs; lots of folks don't have hope," McDonald said. "We're a hurting place."

This is the other land laid low by Katrina's fury. Like New Orleans to the west, hundreds of square miles of Mississippi coastland look little better than they did in early September, and many people here harbor anger that the federal government has fallen short and that the nation's attention has turned away. At least 200,000 Mississippians remain displaced, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is short at least 13,000 trailers to house them.

Fifty thousand homeowners lack federal flood insurance and cannot rebuild. The casinos, which employed 17,000 people, won't begin to reopen until next year, and the unemployment rate has quadrupled, now topping 23 percent in the coastal counties.

Half a dozen towns, Pass Christian among them, are borrowing millions of dollars to pay bills, and some officials are talking about surrendering charters and becoming wards of the state.

"FEMA continues to be able to mess up a one-car funeral -- we don't begin to have enough money for major reconstruction," said Rep. Gene Taylor (D), who lost his own home in Bay St. Louis. "We're going to have a lot of defaults and bankruptcies.

"The federal response, from highways to housing to trailers, is completely unacceptable."

The personal shock of it all hasn't subsided. Locals say it's not uncommon to hear perfectly rational people talk of suicide.

Developers and casino companies and local politicians have begun to map out a rebuilding plan, but that stirs anxiety, too. In this poorest state in the nation, where nearly 22 percent of residents live in poverty and 40,000 homes lack adequate plumbing, thousands of Mississippians could find themselves unable to afford to return to the land of their birth.

The hurricane pushed tens of thousands of coastal residents north and west, spreading over four states. The longer it takes to rebuild houses and businesses, the more officials worry that the dispossessed, particularly the working class, may never return.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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