[StBernard] Biloxi's recovery shows post-storm divide
westley at da-parish.com
Sun Nov 25 19:57:53 EST 2007
Biloxi's recovery shows post-storm divide
While casinos prosper, hurricane's mark lingers in working-class areas
By Peter Whoriskey
The Washington Post
updated 5:17 a.m. CT, Sun., Nov. 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
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
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
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
Louisiana leaders designed a homeowner grant program that is far broader.
Essentially, any homeowner with significant hurricane damage is eligible to
receive as much as $150,000 for rebuilding, less any insurance payouts
received. A special provision for low-income homeowners added as much as
$50,000 to the award if the damage claim was not enough to rebuild.
Mississippi's primary homeowner grant program, by contrast, was much
The program, known as Phase 1, focused only on the relatively narrow group
of homeowners who lived outside the designated flood-prone areas -- and as a
result did not have flood insurance -- but were flooded by Katrina.
It excluded thousands who lived in the flood zone and lacked adequate flood
insurance, as well as anyone who experienced only wind damage.
Bailing them out, the argument went, would encourage homeowners to forgo
insurance coverage in the future. But because low-income households were
more likely to lack insurance or to be underinsured, Mississippi's
exclusions fell most heavily on the poor, advocates said.
"Mississippi had to be pushed every step of the way to a compassionate
position, and it's only partway to the finish line -- that's why losing this
money to the port would be so wrong," said Reilly Morse, a lawyer for the
Mississippi Center for Justice, a legal aid organization that has lobbied
for the housing money. "It's just not compassionate to stop here when so
many people still aren't cared for."
Mississippi did eventually begin compensating low-income homeowners who
lacked insurance. But that program, Phase 2, limited awards to $100,000, and
about 20 percent of the 11,000 applicants for that money have received
checks so far.
Mississippi's program for rebuilding affordable rental properties has lagged
even more. A proposed $262 million program for the owners of small rental
complexes or houses, the primary type of rental on the coast, has yet to
dole out any money. Another program, for low-income housing tax credits, is
supposed to generate about 5,730 affordable rental units, but fewer than
1,100 have been built.
More than 20,000 rental units in Mississippi sustained major or severe
damage in Katrina. The post-storm scarcity of rentals has driven prices up
as much as 30 percent, making it more difficult for families in FEMA
trailers to find new homes.
"Renters -- well, a lot of us sort of fell through the cracks," said Salik,
the former casino housekeeper.
A widow, she quit her job after having a knee replacement years ago but
still works three days a week at a mini-storage facility.
For a month after the storm, Salik lived in a tent. After a few more
temporary living arrangements, she landed a FEMA camper that she has parked
in her son's yard. Her son's camper flanks his house on the other side. He
is still repairing the house, and though Salik had rented a house before
Katrina, she expects to move in with her son when he finishes.
Like many of the residents struggling to rebuild in eastern Biloxi, Salik
said she opposes spending housing aid for the port.
'Lot of people around here who need help'
"Whatever turns their crank," she said when asked about the proposal. "You
know, really, there's still a lot of people around here who need help."
All along the road Salik lives on, Hoxie Street, people are struggling to
get back into their homes. And while city officials have blamed the slow
recovery on new FEMA guidelines that call for elevating houses by as much as
12 feet off the ground -- an expensive and sometimes impractical requirement
-- those rules do not affect everyone, and most said their primary challenge
Daniel Beavers, 52, a surveyor, is rebuilding his house himself because his
insurance payout and a state grant fell well short of what he has needed.
Emily Sponsler, a bartender, and her 11-year-old son are living in a FEMA
trailer while they wait for their landlord to gather enough money to rebuild
the house they once rented for $625 a month.
Earl Parrish, 72, a retired pipe fitter, and his wife, Betty, are still
living in their grandson's home in Ocean Springs, the next town over, trying
to put their Hoxie Street house back together on a limited budget.
They received about $50,000 from the housing grant program, but it was not
nearly enough to complete the job. Katrina flooded their house with about
six feet of water.
They have put in their own savings, and a Lutheran church group handled a
lot of the labor. But their home is not quite ready for them to move in --
it has no furniture.
Like his neighbors, Earl Parrish opposes redirecting the housing aid to the
port. But he seemed to regret making a complaint.
"We're grateful for what we got -- don't misunderstand," he said. "But the
people around here were just working folks who didn't have much. You see all
these empty lots around here? These are people who just can't afford to come
C 2007 The Washington Post Company
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