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Reminders of Katrina Linger on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast

August 25, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Looking at the coast today — peaceful, calm and inviting — it’s hard to imagine that a year ago, spurred on by 130-mile-an-hour winds, the water rose up with unrelenting force and practically wrecked the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Just across the highway, reminders of Katrina area easy to find: 65,000 homes along the Gulf Coast were completely destroyed.

We wanted to see what had changed, what’s improved, what hasn’t, and we wanted to see what people were thinking. So we drove along coastal Highway 90, along the Gulf of Mexico. Right after Katrina, you couldn’t drive from New Orleans to Bay St. Louis, to Pass Christian, to Biloxi. This road was just too much of a mess.

The road is passable, and most of the debris has been cleaned up, leaving large areas where weeds have grown up, covering over sites of disappeared homes and stores and offices.

MAYOR TOMMY LONGO, Waveland, Mississippi: This was a steakhouse right here. We had two bed and breakfasts right here.

SPENCER MICHELS: Tommy Longo, mayor of the little coastal town of Waveland — 58 miles east of New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina scored a direct hit — can’t get used to the changed face of the place he grew up in and lived in all his life. The town government is now being run out of trailers. And other than Wal-Mart and this little market, there is no major grocery store nearby.

MAYOR TOMMY LONGO: All of these streets were lined with houses. I mean, these are all…

SPENCER MICHELS: Waveland, with low housing prices, was the fastest-growing town on the Gulf Coast, and its mostly blue-collar population had jumped to 10,000 before the storm. Now, just 2,500 people remain, and all 41 businesses are gone.

MAYOR TOMMY LONGO: We still have 300 demolitions to do. And, you know, when you have 95 percent substantial destruction of every structure in the city, and 60 percent of them was like this, reduced to nothing but a slab, then you just have a lot more work to do.

SPENCER MICHELS: On the street across from where city hall used to be, Brian Mollere, whose mother drowned in the storm, is living in a FEMA-supplied trailer trying to plan for a future that seems far off.

BRIAN MOLLERE, Waveland Resident: Psychologically you go through different stages, you know? If you were to talk to me right after the storm, I probably would have told you, “I never want to build back,” or whatever. You know, it’s just natural progression. This is a beautiful little area. It’s home.

SPENCER MICHELS: You’re not depressed anymore?

BRIAN MOLLERE: Well, you have highs and lows, you know, days, but I want to get back.

"10 years worth of work"

Ruined Building in Mississippi

SPENCER MICHELS: But as they discovered in nearby Pass Christian, 22 miles from Waveland, it is hard to bring back residents without places to live.

JIM SCHMITT, Contractor, Pass Christian: This house has been gutted.

SPENCER MICHELS: Contractor Jim Schmitt showed us one of many homes waiting to be fixed. He has far more work than he can do.

JIM SCHMITT: There is 10 years' worth of work to be done here, and everyone's trying to get it done in six months. A lot of the people that are coming in are not skilled, but to find skilled people is difficult.

You know, this city used to sell about 60 to 70 building permits in a year. They've sold 1,060 so far since the storm this year.

SPENCER MICHELS: While Schmidt could use three times as many workers in order to keep up with the demand, he sees a silver lining in the devastation. Even with lower tax revenues, he sees a chance for Pass Christian to re-plan its community.

JIM SCHMITT: We want to get some commercial back here in town. We had lost all that over the years, the shops, the restaurants, the art galleries. Everything had moved out, and we've just become strictly a bedroom community.

SPENCER MICHELS: For now, Pass Christian has very little commercial activity.

Lee Giac, a Vietnamese-born resident, sells the shrimp his son catches in the Gulf. Since the demand for shrimp is down and large wholesalers say there are not enough restaurants open to buy the shrimp, he parks his truck across from the only functioning gas station and waits for customers.

LEE GIAC, Shrimper, Pass Christian: No, no company buys shrimp right now. And I try to sell raw, because, after work, nobody buys.

SPENCER MICHELS: That's too bad. So are you making any money at all?

LEE GIAC: Not much. Not much.

Tourism industry

Jon Lucas
Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino
What better way to rebuild the economy than to employ 2,600 people? What better way to start rebuilding the economy than to bring back tourism, as we've done? We have over a thousand hotel rooms.

SPENCER MICHELS: Twenty-three miles east, Biloxi has long depended on tourism, and it's hoping visitors are its salvation.

ANNOUNCER: Welcome aboard the Biloxi Tour Train...

SPENCER MICHELS: That was obvious from a trip we took on the Biloxi Tour Train, a former tourist attraction whose operator, Carla Beaugez, has transformed her ride into a short course in devastation and people's courage. We and a handful of tourists passed the sites of homes no longer there...

CARLA BEAUGEZ, Tour Guide, Biloxi: Now, when they come through, it's like, "My god, what these people went through." And it took me a long time to where I didn't cry coming through here. And that pretty much is the underlying message of when tell people, that the essence of this town is not gone. The buildings are gone; some things we appreciated are gone. The people here usually don't give up.

SPENCER MICHELS: Beaugez guided us through downtown and by the casinos, whose recovery, many Biloxians believe, will rescue them. The casinos played that role once before. They were a crucial part of the so-called "Mississippi Miracle," whose revenues bolstered the entire Gulf Coast in the 1990s.

Before Katrina, gambling was allowed only on boats and barges off-shore. After the hurricane tossed those casinos around like matchsticks, the Mississippi legislature voted to allow gambling on-shore up to 800 feet from the water. Jon Lucas runs the Imperial Palace along Biloxi Bay, which was among the first to reopen.

JON LUCAS, GM, IMPERIAL PALACE HOTEL AND CASINO: The rebirth and the re-growth has begun, and the rebuilding has begun, but we've just begun. I mean, yes, it's encouraging. It's nice.

What better way to rebuild the economy than to employ 2,600 people? What better way to start rebuilding the economy than to bring back tourism, as we've done? We have over a thousand hotel rooms. The demand for them has been incredible. I think that that's encouraging, but it's only a start.

SPENCER MICHELS: Allowing gambling on land has spurred a quick revival of the industry and a land rush for properties near the beach, which have quadrupled in value. The crowds, even in the hot and humid summer, have been extraordinary. By July, five casinos were doing as much business as nine had done a year before.

But the "Mississippi Miracle" has yet to reach some Biloxi residents. Demolition is still in full swing in many areas, with little rebuilding going on.

James Lee and Frank Brown, both retired lifelong Biloxi residents, live in FEMA trailers next to their flooded homes. They still have not seen any of the money that many officials say is coming from a $20 billion aid package. They think there's been too much emphasis on the casinos' coming.

JAMES LEE, Biloxi Resident: The mayor, he's saying about getting these boats ready. He ain't saying about these poor class people down here. That's what's happening. They're worried about the casinos. They ain't worried about us.

Volunteers

Pat Thornton
Biloxi resident
We didn't know where we were going to turn to or who we were going to turn to. And she and I sat on the front steps there, and we just looked at one another and cried, hugged one another, and said, "We'll get through it."

SPENCER MICHELS: People who run Biloxi public housing have similar concerns. Practically every public housing unit was damaged or destroyed. This development, Oakwood Village, housed a hundred poor families, now scattered to the winds. Using limited funds, the housing authority is fixing up some units while it waits for federal funds.

Delmar Robinson is chairman of the housing commission.

DELMAR ROBINSON, Chair, Biloxi Housing Authority: We're supposed to get $100 million for the housing authorities that are down here on the coast for initial recovery.

SPENCER MICHELS: So where is that money?

DELMAR ROBINSON: I don't know. I don't know. I know that we do not have it. We have not been able to get our houses rehabbed to give people a place to live. And the spin-off is that the economy of Biloxi, if something is not done, is going to suffer. Housing is a part of any economic equation.

SPENCER MICHELS: Among the bright spots in the housing picture is the success of volunteer agencies, which have descended upon the Gulf Coast to help. Students, young people, and even seniors have made their way to Biloxi to help longtime residents like Pat and Sandra Thornton, whose home half a mile from the beach was uninhabitable.

Volunteers from Hands On Network, an Atlanta-based group, have gutted the Thornton's house and hope to have it livable in a few weeks.

PAT THORNTON, Biloxi Resident: We didn't know where we were going to turn to or who we were going to turn to. And she and I sat on the front steps there, and we just looked at one another and cried, hugged one another, and said, "We'll get through it." And by the grace of God, we are getting through it.

SPENCER MICHELS: How?

SANDRA THORNTON, Biloxi Resident: Volunteers.

PAT THORNTON: Volunteers.

SANDRA THORNTON: Volunteers.

PAT THORNTON: Hands On has been here from start to finish.

Reason for hope

Cheerleaders

SPENCER MICHELS: The music hasn't died at Biloxi High either, where a football jamboree brought together kids from four high schools along the coast. The coach at St. Stanislaus High, whose school suffered $19 million damage and whose football season was cancelled last year, has used the rebuilding theme for his team this year.

Coach Casey Wittmann says being able to put a team on the field is a big step towards recovery.

CASEY WITTMANN, Coach, St. Stanislaus: There's probably more FEMA trailers in this area than there are homes right now. And I live in one, and Erik Rizzo (ph), there's a lot of people on our team living in one. But like I said, this gives us an opportunity to come back and kind of put our lives back together as best we can and then look forward to the future.

SPENCER MICHELS: Between the revival of football, the casino comeback and the volunteers' efforts, the mayor of Biloxi sees reason for hope.

MAYOR A.J. HOLLOWAY, Biloxi, Mississippi: I feel good where we are today in the city of Biloxi. I wish we were further along that what we are. A lot of people still cannot make up their mind what they want to do, if they want to come back or if they want to leave.

SPENCER MICHELS: For some residents and businesses, the recovery is well under way; for others, it remains a long way off. All this week and next, there will be ceremonies, and concerts, and religious services like this one to remember what happened, to mourn what was lost, and to plan and pray for the future.

RAY SUAREZ: On Monday, I'll have a conversation with New Orleanians about the pace of recovery so far and their visions for the city.