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A New Bridge Brings Hope to Bay St. Louis
But for Many Residents, Recovery Remains Far Away

by Keith Burton - GCN   5/24/07

Hope is a powerful force. It gives strength when times are bad and it has a way of mitigating loss. Such it is for many residents in the most devastated areas of the Coast 21 months after Katrina. Travel anywhere along U.S. 90 or around the bays and bayous of the Coast and it clear that hope is still what is keeping people going.

Homes that you would think should be well on their way to reconstruction are still a far-away vision for many families. Block after block of what were once beachfront and near beachfront homes lay waste with only the slabs to remind you of what was once a place where a family  enjoyed life.

Many people are still hanging on and there is progress, of a sort. It is amazing what people will endure for the future of a better life. There is a sprinkling of new homes throughout the area, but it is not like a whole street or neighborhood is under construction. What you see are the people who have found a way to rebuild. Many are those that have finally settled with their insurance company, or have received a grant, or benefited from the outcome of a lawsuit.

GCN visited Bay St. Louis this week to see how the new bridge is being received. Just last week, two lanes of the Bay St. Louis bridge opened to a enthusiastic crowd of several thousand area residents who see the bridge as bringing new hope to the area so hurt by hurricane Katrina. The bridge connects the City of Bay St. Louis and Hancock County to Harrison County near the devastated city of Pass Christian. Since Katrina took out of the old bridge, the area has been isolated, especially Pass Christian, which is on the tip of a peninsula that made the area difficult to get to.

Just over the bridge to the west is Bay St. Louis. Just north is North Beach Boulevard that runs north of U.S. 90 along the shoreline of the Bay of St. Louis. Before the hurricane, the road and nearby interior neighborhoods were filled with beautiful shoreline homes. Many were large and stately, but there was also a mix of middleclass homes. All were destroyed by the hurricane and 21 months later, few have been able to rebuild.

But there is hope here. GCN found few people to talk to in the area, but we did find one. Margaret Taylor and her family live on North Beach Boulevard. Her home is under construction. It towers now on their lot some 25 feet above sea level.

"We placed our new home farther back on our lot and went higher," Taylor said. The new home is nearly two stories above the ground.

Taylor spoke a lot about the hope of residents around her home, that they all planned to rebuild and come back to live. But for now, her home is more like a beacon surrounded by empty lots of homeowners that have yet to reach the point to rebuild.

"We were among the first to receive a settlement from the Scruggs lawsuit against our insurance company," Taylor said. "Everybody was reluctant to file suit and we regret that it came to that," Taylor said.

Dickie Scruggs, a well-known attorney from Pascagoula, has spearheaded a series of lawsuits in behalf of property owners against insurance companies. The insurance companies had denied coverage for claims over the wind verses water debate. Many more lawsuits are pending.

Taylor said that the delay in dealing with insurance companies is what has slowed rebuilding for her neighbors. Signs that are sharply critical of some insurance companies are posted in yards along North Beach Blvd. even 21 months since the storm that changed everyone's lives.

The hope Taylor sees is in the progress, however slow, that occurs. "Everybody rejoices when somebody moves back into a house," Taylor said. "...But it has taken a lot longer than we would have liked."

The empty neighborhoods indicate that it will be yet many more months before any semblance of normalcy returns to many of the cities on the Coast. This is especially true in cities west of Biloxi, which due to its dynamic tourism industry and casinos is recovering far more quickly.

In Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Long Beach and especially Pass Christian, rebuilding homes and neighborhoods are moving very slowly. Some of the reason why is tied to what tasks lay before local governments. They have to rebuild water and sewer, and gas lines in some of most damaged areas, and that work has only begun. Long Beach is installing new water and sewer along its beachfront, and Waveland has begun as well, but it will be months before that work is finished, and until then, homes really can't be rebuilt.

Taylor says many residents in her city are also finding it difficult to determine how they should rebuild. That new building requirements are confusing residents and delaying reconstruction. Many residents with the resources to rebuild find they cannot simply rebuild their home, but must raise it much higher and strengthen the construction. This results in costs that well exceed the money they have from insurance and from grants. Taylor said her home is much smaller than what they had before the hurricane.

Other costs come from the spike in what people now have to pay for insurance that have followed Katrina. This "second storm" is making it nearly impossible for families to afford to replace, or even buy homes in the region. The high insurance costs has strangled home sales throughout the area, report some real estate companies. Businesses are also paying far higher rates.

Taylor believes Congress must act to establish an all-perils policy that people can afford. She said catastrophe's like Katrina often point out the failings of government and business, and Katrina's aftermath is one such event.

"Some people think we are all crazy to rebuild, but there is no place that is completely safe from some sort of natural peril," Taylor said.

The situation regarding the recovery is even more difficult for the thousands of people still living in small, cramped FEMA trailers scattered throughout the Coast. Some 25,000 such trailers are still in use. Most of them are on homeowner lots. Only around 5,000 trailers are in FEMA trailer parks.

As the 2007 hurricane season begins in June, all of these residents are in a precarious position. Many of the trailers are on lots that were home sites before Katrina and are vulnerable to even a minor hurricane.

Then there is the impact of all of the empty homes and out-of-town families on the local economy. While there are truly bright spots, the loss of income from property taxes remains a scary situation for a few communities. Pass Christian lost nearly 85 percent of all of its homes, 100 percent of its government buildings and nearly all of its commercial businesses. While a few stores have reopened, the loss of so much revenue for the city makes its very survival as an incorporated community uncertain.

Also reeling 21 months after Katrina are those in the medical profession. Many doctors have left the area as the number of people needed to support their practices are not yet back in the community. Bay St. Louis recently lost one of their community's four remaining pediatricians. Many physicians report that they are still being overwhelmed with patients that cannot pay for services or have no insurance.

Part of the fear that people have on the Coast is that all the help promised will not come and insurance settlements will drag out too far for people to sustain there lives waiting. GCN has been reporting for over a year that much of the federal help promised is still tied up within the federal agencies assigned to distribute the funds in the Katrina-Rita Disaster Zones. The U.S. News & World Report noted recently that only half of the $110 billion dollars set aside by Congress for relief and rebuilding has been spent.

The slow progress on those elements that are within the government's responsibility has been among the most disparaging experiences for taxpaying residents. Streets and sidewalks are still in bad shape and unkempt with grass and weeds growing along public right of ways. Parks are in disarray, Libraries remain closed, and public buildings in every Coast city remain visibly damaged with little or no work in progress. Most everyone expects something to happen to fix things back up, but as the days stretch to months and years, it is only hope that sustains.

FEMA is notifying residents in trailers that they can purchase them if they want. A deadline for everyone to be out of the trailers was recently extended from August 31 to March 2009. But local communities have begun to resist any new FEMA trailer parks and some are closing. In addition, the placement of FEMA trailers on private lots was done as an emergency as city codes do not allow them. Renewal of permits is already likely to become difficult as the months continue.

Church volunteers and charity groups from around the nation continue to do what they can to rebuild homes, but those efforts are focused more on the poor and elderly whose homes were damaged or destroyed. For the middleclass, they are the ones that are having the most difficulty. Thousands of homeowners are still paying on mortgages for homes that no longer exist. About 53,000 homes were lost during Katrina in Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties.

Local communities are still heavily burdened with sorting out the difficult paperwork with FEMA and public officials continue to put a smiling face on the recovery 21 months after the hurricane. They are concerned that the slow progress will discourage residents. But Taylor is convinced that residents will not give up on their towns.

"We are probably a year behind where we thought we would be," Taylor said. "We lost a lot of time wrestling with insurance companies."

Most Coast residents would easily agree.

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