Biloxi's Recovery Shows Divide

"At night, you can see the casino lights up in the sky," said Shirley Salik, 72, who lives in a FEMA camper. "But that's another world." (By Peter Whoriskey -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2007

BILOXI, Miss. -- Nowhere has the rebound from Hurricane Katrina been gaudier than along Mississippi's casino-studded coast.

Even as the storm's debris was being cleared, this city's night sky was lighted up with the high-wattage brilliance of the Imperial Palace, then the Isle of Capri, then the Grand Casino. More followed, and so did vacation-condo developers.

Yet in the wrecked and darkened working-class neighborhoods just blocks from the waterfront glitter, those lights cast their colorful glare over an apocalyptic vision of empty lots and scattered trailers that is as forlorn as anywhere in Katrina's strike zone.

"At night, you can see the casino lights up in the sky," Shirley Salik, 72, a former housekeeper at one of the casinos, said this month while standing outside her FEMA camper with her two dogs. "But that's another world."

More than two years after the storm, the highly touted recovery of the Mississippi coast remains a starkly divided phenomenon.

While Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has hailed the casino openings as a harbinger of Mississippi's resurgence and developers have proposed more than $1 billion in beachfront condos and hotels for tourists, fewer than one in 10 of the thousands of single-family houses destroyed in Biloxi are being rebuilt, according to city permit records. More than 10,000 displaced families still live in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Now, long-standing resentment over the way the state has treated displaced residents has deepened over a proposal by the Barbour administration to divert $600 million in federal housing aid to fund an expansion plan at the Port of Gulfport. The port's recently approved master plan calls for increasing maritime capacity and creating an "upscale tourist village" with hotel rooms, condos, restaurants and gambling.

"We fear that this recent decision . . . is part of a disturbing trend by the Governor's office to overlook the needs of lower and moderate income people in favor of economic development," 24 ministers on the Mississippi coast wrote in September in a letter to state leaders. "Sadly we must now bear witness to the reality that our Recovery Effort has failed to include a place at the table . . . for our poor and vulnerable."

State leaders rejected the complaints. Gray Swoope, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, which is leading the state's recovery efforts, called the port expansion a "key piece" of the state's economic recovery and said that already-funded programs will be enough to address the state's housing needs.

"The people at this table are very compassionate about the people on the coast," he said. "We feel housing has been addressed, and it's in our plans."

Swoope said that because storm-displaced Mississippians are being accommodated by the state's housing programs, the state is comfortable asking the Department of Housing and Urban Development for permission to redirect the housing aid to the port project.

Exactly how much help residents should receive for rebuilding has been a flashpoint from the beginning of the recovery, when Louisiana and Mississippi adopted starkly divergent approaches to dispensing federal housing aid.

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