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.
"The response of the federal government is bewildering and deplorable," said Bruce Katz, director of metropolitan policy at the Brookings Institution, who has written two studies of the Katrina response. "We know how to deliver quality affordable housing in the United States -- we just need the will and leadership to do it."
Public housing authorities along the Mississippi coast lost 2,000 apartments and suffered $155 million in damages. But the federal government, which expects to spend close to $2 billion on temporary trailers, has not offered a dime to rebuild public housing. A spokeswoman with the Department of Housing and Urban Development said the agency's budget could remain just as tight next year.
Roy Necaise, chief operating officer of a regional Mississippi housing authority, said: "We have no federal funds, absolutely none, to rebuild. There's absolutely nothing standing on the coast right now, and it's going to be a long time before we're able to bring folks home.
"Washington has totally let us down, and it's a disgrace."
The lack of federal flood insurance is an even greater problem. When 30-foot walls of water crashed into coastal towns, thousands who lived outside official flood zones lost their homes.
Ross Stanley, who rebuilds old boats, stands in alligator cowboy boots, jeans and reflector shades, cradling a Bud Light. He is hosing down his patio and a lawn chair, which are all that's left of his house. D'Iberville was a roiling lake for eight hours on Aug. 29, and Stanley says about three-quarters of his neighbors had no flood insurance.
"You figure it ain't happening to me," he said. "Well, time to cowboy up. That's all you can do because you sure as hell ain't rebuilding. It's like a nightmare you can't wake up from."
Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has asked FEMA to let Gulf Coast area residents buy flood insurance retroactively if they pay 10 years of premiums, or about $3,000. But FEMA lacks the money even to pay existing claims. It is waiting for Congress to appropriate more.
Two weeks ago, FEMA officials began releasing guidelines that will require most coastal houses to be built on stilts. That is perhaps advisable in a hurricane zone, but it will add tens of thousands of dollars per house to construction costs.
Not all the news is grim. Workers in Biloxi have carted away 1 million cubic yards of debris. They have stretched blue tarps over tens of thousands of damaged roofs. Every town along the Gulf Coast has an operating school -- the last one opened in Bay St. Louis on Nov. 6, albeit with only 100 of its original 300 students.
But this politically conservative state has a threadbare safety net. Two weeks ago, county officials lifted an informal moratorium on evictions. Tenants cannot claim rent breaks for water-damaged apartments. One can sit now in housing courts in Gulfport and Biloxi and watch judges order the evictions of hundreds of tenants, often with a speed that startles the tenants.
"There's a hanging judge mentality and, my God, it's going to create a social crisis," said John C. Jopling, a lawyer with the Mississippi Center for Justice, which represented a few tenants.
The mayor of Gulfport, Mississippi's second largest city, recently removed a tent city of contract workers from a golf course. And under pressure from developers, he balked at signing off on emergency trailer parks, even though the inhabitants would be displaced city residents. "It creates an environment people don't want to live around," Gulfport developer Don Hall told the Harrison County Board of Supervisors recently, according to news reports.
Katrina left behind a great swell of land speculation. Signs reading "Cash for Homes" and "We Pay Top $ for Waterfront Property" are ubiquitous, as are developers hanging around city planning offices. It's urban renewal by hurricane, clearing land for a new Mississippi of upscale condominium towers and parks and many casinos. The many working-class residents who live within view of the coast could be outward bound.
"It's possible you're going to see a demographic shift because a lot of people are going to like the opportunities," Robert Latham, executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said on a recent tour of Gulfport. "We're going to clear a lot of land. . . . You're going to see such a great economic boom down here, you won't believe it."
Keith Burton is a longtime Biloxian, a certified dice dealer and editor of the much-read Gulf Coast News online service. With local officials concerned there are still bodies buried in homes and casino ships lying like beached whales along the highway, he advised slowing down a bit.
"Maybe this is a future boomtown -- it's super-prime land," he said of Biloxi. "But if that kind of rebirth happens, it will be on the backs of the lives of a lot of Biloxians. It's like talking bad about somebody at their funeral."A Little Kingdom
There are twin devastations in Mississippi, and it would take Solomon to pick the worse of the two. There are the coastal cities and there are such places as tiny Pearlington, deep in the woods and marshlands along the Louisiana border. Here a 35-foot-high storm surge roared up the Pearl River.
The Rev. James O'Bryan fled hours before the storm, and afterward he asked a neighbor: How far can you get into town?
Until you get to St. Joseph's church, the neighbor replied.
"My heart danced," O'Bryan recalled. "I said, 'Well, that's far enough for me.' "
The neighbor shook his head. Father, he said, your church is sitting on top of three cars in the middle of the road.
Almost three months later, O'Bryan, 79, sits in a shaft of sunlight on the site of his former church, in a white wicker chair atop a four-foot-wide swatch of orange carpet. This is a self-reliant corner of the state, and his neighbors sawed and hauled debris -- one even shot a 12-foot alligator lolling in a living room. But the local school remains shredded, its roof a spaghetti of metal beams. Everyone lost cars and trucks, and there's no money for replacements. Many people sleep in tents or shacks that have been roughly thrown together.
The county's only supermarket is gone. Six shrimp boats still sit on the river bottom. There's a good bit of drug smuggling, but that isn't really a sustaining industry.
Two weeks ago, the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi informed O'Bryan that it won't rebuild the church.
"The bishop tells me we were insured for Camille [a 1969 hurricane] but not for Katrina," O'Bryan said. "I remember going for a walk just before the storm and saying to myself, 'Lord, you aren't going to take my little kingdom from me, are you?' I realized now that he was."Point Cadet
Point Cadet was the soul of the steamy port city of Biloxi, a place where generations of blacks and whites grew up, joined by Yugoslav and Vietnamese immigrants. It was much beloved and nothing fancy, and it's gone.
On Fourth Street, a row of old wood houses still lies in the street like toppled dominoes. At night, no lights shine. Councilman Bill Stallworth, who represents a poor black neighborhood, points to the gleaming casino towers that edge Point Cadet on three sides. Developers, he said, already talk of the condo towers and green parks in between.
"Without some quick federal money, we're going to look up and see nothing but high-rises in a few years without everyone pressured out," Stallworth said. "If we lose these people who made this city, that would be a lowdown dirty shame."
The anxiety about what was lost and what might come exacts a psychological toll. Before Katrina, county officials said ambulances made about eight calls per month on mental health emergencies. In October, ambulances transported 167 people for psychiatric treatment, many suffering from post-traumatic stress and some talking of suicide.
Rosie Alexander, a woman around age 50 with a fast smile, grew up in Point Cadet and lives in a nearby apartment. She has a master's degree in nursing and worked in a casino. She's out of work, and this state pays the lowest unemployment premium in the nation. Her old casino sent a letter stating that if she's rehired, she must accept an entry-level wage.
Her home stinks of mold, and FEMA hasn't delivered a trailer. She rode out the hurricane in Biloxi and was stunned by what she saw. Bodies in drainage canals, children's dresses and dolls in trees, her best friend's house collapsed and destroyed, along with her friend.
She keeps trying to pack up her possessions. She wrote to Oprah Winfrey and asked for help, but she knows that's foolishness. In her darkest moments, she worries that bridges will be repaired and freight trains will rumble through Biloxi again -- and too many desperate people will seek their end on those tracks.
"I have nightmares, I have flashbacks." She shakes her head; she has talked for an hour with many tears. "I get so upset with all these rich people who say Biloxi will come back bigger and better. Not for us. No, no, no. Nobody I know is getting better."