In Miss., Hope of Going Home Dwindles
Most Still Waiting for Federal Aid to Help Rebuild Houses Along Gulf Coast

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

BILOXI, Miss. -- He doesn't seem the type to rattle easily. A gravel-voiced retired seaman with piratical swagger, Jim DeSilvey survived Katrina's 25-foot storm surge here by tying one end of an electrical cord around his waist and the other around a utility pole.

But these days when light winds begin to blow around his FEMA trailer, he springs to the window.

"I just want to make sure the water isn't coming up," he says.

Then he seems embarrassed.

"You would, too, if you'd been through what I've been through," he adds.

As people on the Gulf Coast mark the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Tuesday, there are public memorial ceremonies and stoic promises to rebuild. President Bush toured neighborhoods here Monday. But many here say any remembrances of that day -- many of which remain appallingly clear despite the passage of time -- still largely instill private flashes of nervousness, or guilt, or depression.

For the tens of thousands of people who are still displaced by the storm, moreover, the possibilities of getting back home may now seem more remote than ever.

Fewer than 5 percent of the thousands of destroyed homes are being rebuilt, local officials said. Most of the affected homeowners in Mississippi and Louisiana have yet to see any of the billions in federal money approved to help them get back home.

"For the people who've been able to get back to their homes, there's a sigh of relief," said Biloxi City Council member Bill Stallworth. "But for those who haven't -- and that's the vast majority here -- there's a real panic.

"People recognize that it's been a year and they're still where they were the day after the storm. Now the volunteer groups are drying up. The money to assist families is drying up. People don't know what they're going to do."

Across a roughly 40-mile stretch of the Mississippi Gulf Coast from Waveland to Biloxi, the storm pushed ashore a wall of water 20 feet or higher, according to Mississippi State University researchers.

Along that portion of the Gulf, the fast-moving water "slabbed" countless homes -- that is, left nothing but the slab behind -- and obliterated most stores and office buildings.

Unlike the devastation of New Orleans, which resulted from the failure of man-made flood walls and levees, the devastation here is viewed more purely as a natural disaster.

So while in New Orleans many vilify the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies responsible for flood control, many here simply blame themselves for not evacuating.

Counselors at relief organizations say they have dealt with parents who feel guilty for not having evacuated children or other loved ones in the face of the storm.

Now the anniversary is dredging up recollections.

"It's unsettling," said Julian Blunt, the executive director of an arts group here. "You're just remembering everything that happened."

Blunt had persuaded his wife not to evacuate from their home just a few blocks from the Gulf, telling her everything would be fine.

Then in the height of the storm, the columns on the front of their Biloxi home fell down.

"I thought we were done for," he said. "I told my wife, 'Baby, get your shoes on,' because I thought we had to go under the house.

"She looked up at me, and I'll never forget her face. She said, 'I thought you said we would be all right.' "

The event and its effect are now just now finding a place in the local culture and in the things the disaster tourists buy here.

Bay St. Louis artist Vicki Niolet has put together a book of photos of the wreckage with punning captions. A wrecked movie theater is titled "Box Office Hit," while refrigerators beside the side of the road are "White Trash." Niolet is selling copies locally.

Another resident, Solveig Wells, 62, a retiree, has put together quilts made from fabric that was washed out of her home and that she found on the beach months later, faded and marred by Katrina's effects. They are on display at the library.

"There's lots of people who feel there are bits and pieces of their lives floating around all over the place," she said of the quilts.

Whether or not the experience of Katrina will better prepare everyone for the next storm is unclear.

Stallworth said many people are rebuilding homes at the same elevation -- beating the deadline under new flood insurance guidelines -- to save money. He said they cannot afford to raise their homes a dozen feet in the air, as is required in parts.

Others, even those who narrowly evaded drowning, say they may not evacuate next time. Others said the searing experience had no lasting effects.

Doug Niolet, 55, Vicki's husband, said he survived the storm by swimming to a towering live oak, climbing up and saying the rosary. Still, he struck a stoic stance.

"People ask do I have nightmares, but it never really affected me," he said.

Vicki disagreed.

"He goes to church a lot more." she said.

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