President Blows By Waveland's Katrina Survivors
by Keith Burton - GCN Filed 1/13/06
About a hundred hardy Waveland residents were lining Coleman Avenue and the beach road Thursday morning hoping to see President George Bush.
Waveland, which was ground zero for Hurricane Katrina, was totally wiped out by the hurricane.
The president is popular in the conservative town, a village actually of warm souls and strong personalities. While no one actually knew about the president's specific schedule, they felt that the president would drive through the town's once vibrant downtown, which is now a street of slabs and trailers.
The president arrived around noon at Buccaneer State Park, which has been closed since the storm. The park was ringed by well-armed security personnel. About forty minutes after president's helicopter touched down, the motorcade was spotted on the beach road approaching.
Some parents had brought their children to see. It isn't everyday that a president visits Waveland. One child was going to hold up a sign that read "Bush, I need daycare school" that his parents had made.
As everyone's cameras were raised, the motorcade whizzed by, not slowing at all. In a flash, it was over.
"At least we saw the motorcade, said one Waveland resident."
The president continued to nearby Bay St. Louis where he met with local and state officials in the St. Stanislaus Catholic school auditorium. A small crowd of residents were there as well. As the president's itinerary was largely unknown, even to many in the news media, local residents didn't really have an opportunity to see or hear Bush. But the area's governmental leaders, including Governor Haley Barbour, had a chance to meet with Bush. The event was tightly controlled.
News reports said Bush praised Barbour for his success in getting help from Washington for Mississippi. Bush also acknowledged that the debris removal, run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA, was going slower than anticipated. But he praised residents and spoke of the future.
But it isn't the future that residents think about. Its the present.
Waveland and Bay. St. Louis remain a devastated and bleak area. Both were once charming towns that had rich and vibrant life. For residents, these were ideal communities. But four months after the hurricane, only 33 percent of the debris has been removed and every street, particularly in the hardest hit areas, look much as they did shortly after the hurricane. It is an ugly look made more so by winter's gray.
Residents have also been poorly treated in the recovery. Area stores have not reopened. There are no grocery stores, only three pharmacies and three gas stations are open. The area once had numerous restaurants, some as good as anywhere in the country. But now only four restaurants, two chinese, one mexican and a Sonic are available. The large charity food distribution centers that appeared after the hurricane have been closed. FEMA officials wanted to get people buying in stores, but hardly any are open in the area. Residents have to go to Gulfport to shop. There are remaining only a few smaller distribution sites run by churches where people can get a few supplies.
Ground is being cleared for a Lowe's store on highway 603. Residents planning to rebuild will need it. But many people we talked to said folks are moving.
There are still people with no transportation that are getting by with help from relatives and a few families living in tents. There are many FEMA trailers. But the neighborhoods and downtowns remain in very bad shape. Coleman Avenue, that was Waveland's downtown, is nothing but a street of concrete slabs, The city lost all of its government buildings. A flagpole is all that marks what was City Hall. The current city halls is now just north in a series of trailers.
Across from what was once City Hall is a slab that was once a store where Waveland residents would sit out front and talk. A table is there now, so people still sit and talk. In front of the table, at the sidewalk, are two newspaper boxes, just like what were there before the hurricane. It's a strange scene.
What is very real is that the people in Waveland and Bay St. Louis are tough. But the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina is wearing them. There is this sense when you talk to residents that they are still in a strange form of shock. Their emotions are right on the edge. They are not handling it.
Several people GCN talked to spoke about how people are struggling with depression and there is very little medical help. But these are proud people. They are not prone to complaining. One person noted that they haven't even complained about the lack of a bridge. The Bay St. Louis highway 90 bridge is one of two major bridges that were destroyed by Katrina. That bridge ties Hancock County to the equally destroyed Pass Christian in Harrison County. The Mississippi Department of Transportation has yet to begin work to repair the bridge.
News reports said Bush recalled seeing a "sense of desperation'' in the bloodshot eyes of the hurricane-weary residents he met during his last visit to the Gulf Coast.
"I'm sure there's still concern about the future, but the eyes have cleared up. There's a sense of optimism. There's a hope. There's a little bounce in people's step,'' Bush reportedly said to the crowd of 300 at the school.
That was clearly wishful thinking. Bush didn't spend enough time, or talk to the local people to know. There is no bounce in people's step. And you don't want to look into their eyes unless you want to cry.
As one resident said, "We know Waveland will be back. But everyday, I wake up to the same day I had the day before. Things are not getting better."