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GCN Recovery News Report

This report will constantly be updated as information becomes available
Updated 1/19/08 8:55 AM.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, responding to concerns about high levels of formaldehyde in its disaster trailers, said Jan. 17 it would offer refunds to people who bought the government-issued trailers. FEMA said 10,839 travel trailers and park models were sold by the federal General Services Administration at an average price of $6,936, and 864 trailers were sold directly to hurricane victims. The agency said it would send e-mails to buyers notifying them of the refund option. FEMA said purchasers would need to request a refund within the next 60 days.

There are continuous news reports and FEMA press releases that describe the billions of dollars of federal aide for projects to rebuild the Coast. While some of this money is reaching local communities, the vast amount is still held up with federal and state administrators. When people read these stories in newspapers around the country, even here on the Coast, it is easy to assume that work for many repairs are underway, that is not necessarily the case. The money doesn't get released when FEMA approves work. That is only part of the process, which takes months of work by city and county officials who must submit project work orders to the state and FEMA to get approval. This process is so intricate that many times local officials have to resubmit paperwork, delaying work even farther. (More Here)

There are growing reports that private contributions for Katrina recovery are not reaching the ground as well. Some volunteer organizations have been cut-out of funding as there has been is an effort by private-sector individuals to create new non-profit 501-3c organizations to control where the relief money is going. This consolidation under new non-profit private corporations is not very visible to the news media and is being conducted in the background in the Mississippi Coast area. Partly as a result of these new "consolidated" groups, money provided by people contributing to the recovery is not going to where it is intended. There has been from the days after Katrina a huge need for a state-organized Katrina Recovery Fund administrative organization. So far, only private organizations have being set up and those are not very visible in their activities. The money trail has become nearly impossible to follow. In a recent case, where Katrina donated funds were to be used to purchase a building, more than three new 501-3c's were formed to administer the transactions, several to be operated only temporarily. Real leadership on this issue has yet to occur at the state level and there is no centralized oversight over these donated monies  in place, more than two years after Katrina slammed into the Coast. There are concerns that some donated monies are being bled off to administrators, lawyers and accountants instead of reaching groups that are actually doing the field work helping people recover from the hurricane.

Meanwhile,

Since Hurricane Katrina, medical care for residents has been poor with doctors and hospitals short staffed or often overwhelmed with patients. The situation for mental care has been far worse. The Coast has high numbers of elderly and elderly visitors. Families with Alzheimer sufferers and those who have other mental illnesses have had few resources to draw upon. GCN is very much aware of nearly a complete collapse of the Coast's mental care services since the hurricane and the system is still functioning without the resources needed. Mental health providers continue to report problems in lack of staffing, facilities, and funding for handling this continued crisis on the Coast. Families are also dealing with confusing and conflicting information, and inadequate facilities for the caring of mentally and physically disabled family members. Five nursing homes were destroyed on the Coast by Katrina and none have been replaced. Long term care for Alzheimer's sufferers is acutely short and what facilities that are available are far from the Coast. One Biloxi hospital shut down just earlier in January citing a "lack of patients." What is lacking is not patients, but money as high health insurance costs have resulted in many residents not having the money for health care, or insurance. It is not uncommon for people who have insurance to wait for weeks for an appointment, forcing residents with illnesses to seek costly emergency room services at the hospitals that remain.

Biloxi’s casino industry reported its largest ever annual gross gaming revenue in 2007, more than a billion dollars, according to figures compiled by the city today. The city’s eight casinos reported total gross gaming revenue of $1.007 billion for 2007, a year in which nine months saw revenue of more than $80 million, including an all-time monthly high of $97 million in July. (More Here)

2008 began with thousands of Coast homeowners still in FEMA trailers and the Mississippi Coast facing a housing crisis, especially for elderly and low to modest income residents. The situation on housing is interfering with the influx of workers for the typical jobs long associated with the Coast. Among the key challenges to housing is the high cost of insurance that has skyrocketed since Katrina, which has slowed the sales of homes and the reconstruction of the Coast in the hardest hit communities. There is progress however as the billions of dollars of federal reconstruction aid is beginning to be seen, but it will be years before many areas of the Coast will seem "normal."

What is evident is that residents struggle to get used to communities that have yet to make their way back. Biloxi and the Coast communities east into Jackson County are making the best progress. Still, there are vast areas where little remains except open fields where neighborhoods once stood. Much of the beachfront from Gulfport to Pass Christian along U.S. 90 remains empty. Piles of debris are far less than in the immediate months after Katrina, but they remain to add a unkempt look to many of the Coast's communities. The stark, empty slabs of homes and businesses remain bleak reminders of the past. This constant reminder wears heavily on residents who know their lives have truly not returned to normal.

Meanwhile, longtime residents are growing in resentment over homes built by volunteers and charity groups going to people that they see don't deserve them. Stories like one that ran on WLOX that detailed a woman that had moved to the Coast three days before the hurricane after 40 years living elsewhere and getting a house, has angered some who still don't have homes.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi Development Authority, which administers the Homeowner Grant programs says it will soon end the programs. They are encouraging residents that can benefit from Phase I and Phase II of the program to register. Phase I would provide up to $150,000 to residents that lost homes to Katrina's floods that were out of the official flood zones. Phase II provides grants to homeowners in the flood zones. The MDA reports only about half of the applicants in Phase II have received grants. Almost all of the Phase I participants, just over 17,000 homeowners, have their grants. Another program to help with the rebuilding of rental property has stalled.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation opened all four lanes of the new Bay St. Louis bridge Jan 8. The bridge is being completed under a $266.8 million design-build contract with Granite Archer Western (GAW).  The bridge opened two lanes of traffic on May 17, 2007, approximately ten months after the original bridge was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

The first of Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr's "decorative" street lights are finally going up on U.S. 90 just east of the Island View Casino. Electricians and work crews began installing some of the new lights along the roadway after months of groundwork, which included burying conduit, constructing pedestal bases and wiring electrical cable. The new lights are finished in black paint and hang from poles nearly 40 feet from the ground. The lights include globes that hang from a fixture mounted on a curled support. (More Here)

Badly devastated Waveland has hired a project manager to oversee millions of dollars of construction projects that include such items as a new City Hall complex, fire and police station, library and a business incubator. Overall, the project manager will be overseeing some 13 projects citywide. Waveland lost all of its public buildings from Katrina's storm surge and winds Aug. 29, 2005. Since then, the city has been operating out of temporary trailers. The project manager is Kurt Evans of Digital Engineering. He told aldermen in a workshop in a recent meeting that he'll be providing them with a monthly update on the projects and their millions of dollars' worth of funding, which comes primarily from FEMA and MEMA funds and Community Development Block Grants.

Meanwhile, the city of Pass Christian is finally moving into the rebuilding mode. That city also lost its public buildings, including City Hall, police and fire department buildings and library. Its downtown business district was also completely devastated. But since the hurricane, the harbor has been reopened and a restaurant at the harbor built. Hancock Bank's downtown branch has been restored and opened. Soon the Coast's first beachfront gas and convenient store will open. All of the gasoline stations from Biloxi to Pass Christian were lost from Katrina. Biloxi has two gas stations along U.S. 90 that are expected to open within a few weeks. In Pass Christian, work crews are about 70 percent finished with a new water and sewer system in the city, which was lost from the storm. Still, in devastated Pass Christian, Waveland and Bay St. Louis, many neighborhoods have yet to see any real recovery and thousands on people have yet to rebuild homes. In Hancock County, the board of supervisors only recently modified rules on how septic tanks are approved in rural areas of the county. The existing rules delayed recovery and rebuilding for property owners.

With the care of building on their own homes, contractors and professional historic restoration experts are making serious progress on restoring the last home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis at Beauvoir in Biloxi. The historic home and museum was severely damaged from hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005. History took note that the home survived the worst natural disaster ever to hit the United States, but it was not certain the home would survive, but it did. (More Here)

Biloxi, which is clearly leading the recovery among the Coast's most damaged cities has now issued more than a billion dollars in permits for commercial and residential construction since Hurricane Katrina. Since Sept 1, 2005, the city has issued a total of $1.086 billion in permits overall. Of that number, 50 percent -- $542 million -- was for non-casino and non-condo construction. In terms of residential construction, $452 million in permits has been issued for residential work, with $51.5 million for new single-family homes, accounting for 341 new homes permitted since Katrina. While the number of new home permits is impressive, the city lost nearly 6,500 homes during Katrina, many in the city's Point Cadet area in east Biloxi. Most of the those homes have not been rebuilt, nor are they likely to be rebuilt as the lot sizes, insurance costs and new elevation requirements have made reconstruction prohibitively expensive.

More than two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated Gulf Coast communities in Louisiana and Mississippi, a recent study estimates 65,000 children remain displaced and at risk of long-term health, education and social problems. The study, The Legacy of Katrina’s Children: Estimating the Numbers of Hurricane-Related At-Risk Children in the Gulf Coast States of Louisiana & Mississippi, was jointly produced by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Children’s Health Fund. While many displaced children and their families have returned to their home communities, the study finds their lives and their development are still being marred by inadequate housing, unsafe communities and lack of access to medical and mental health care.

Pascagoula in Jackson County has seen a sharp reduction in the number of FEMA trailers in the city. The number of FEMA trailers inside the city limits is down to about 850 from 7,000 soon after Hurricane Katrina, according to FEMA officials. Of the occupied trailers or mobile homes, 621 remain on private property, most in front of homes that  have yet to be rebuilt, and 231 are in Pascagoula's four emergency group housing trailer parks, reports the Mississippi Press newspaper. Of those still in trailers, 343 were renters before the 2005 storm. Pascagoula officials ordered all four emergency group housing sites closed earlier this year though the city did not set dates. FEMA is working to find residents permanent housing by May 1, though finding new housing is difficult. There are currently 106 available rental units in the city, but only about 58 of those are within fair market value. Throughout the Coast area, FEMA is trying to get people out of the trailers they have lived in since shortly after the hurricane. While progress is being made on those trailers in group parks, there are still over 10,000 families in trailers on private property in front of homes that have yet to be rebuilt. In Gulfport, city officials in December extended a deadline to January 31 to have people out of the FEMA trailers. As in most of the Coast's cities where the small trailers are found, many are on private lots in front of homes that have yet to be rebuilt. Deadlines in all the cities may have to be extended further as the FEMA trailer occupants need more time to get homes rebuilt.

Red tape and bureaucratic minions are continuing to stall hurricane Katrina recovery grants. A story by the Clarion Ledger outlines the latest problems regarding how the money approved by Congress is not hitting the ground where it is needed. More than two years after the devastating hurricane, millions of dollars in grants to help homeowners pay for raising their homes has yet to be distributed. Government officials at both the federal and state level seem to fail to understand that rebuilding homes is an emergency situation, yet they perform as if they have years to come up with procedures. In a recent teleconference with the news media, MDA Executive Director Gray Swoope, in a clear demonstration of insensitivity to the problem, defended the agency when asked about the slow pace of recovery programs.

"Slow compared to what?" he said. "There's been no program ever developed like this in this country. Zero. If I was down on the Gulf Coast, I'd be thinking, yeah, it's slow. But nobody has ever had to go through this and develop a program for each one of these components before." (More Here)

As if to add salt to open wounds, and another example of government disorder, the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) is tearing up newly laid sidewalks, curbs and driveways in Long Beach as part of their rebuilding of U.S. 90. The Sun Herald reports that just weeks ago, Long Beach finished a 4-mile stretch of new sidewalks along the beach as part of a $6.7 million federally funded infrastructure overhaul. "It makes you want to crawl in a corner and cry," Mayor Billy Skellie told the newspaper. MDOT says federal road regulations require sidewalks to be 5-feet wide, the FEMA-paid requirements would only allow Long Beach to rebuild the sidewalks as they were before the storm at 3-feet wide. The whole situation drew a response to the GCN Message Board from a Coast resident:

Posted by: () 12/02/2007 06:09
MDOT tearing up miles of city sidewalks. Here we go again folks.........Just when you think government cannot get any more wasteful or stupid, along comes another reason to confirm that we need to simply have another revolution, tear down the entire system and start over........When you destroy a new sidewalk simply to replace it with a new sidewalk two feet wider and that seems logical, you get a good picture of just how uncontrollable government has become. The best long term hope for future generations is that this country collapses from its own incompetence........You cannot fix this system, its impossible.............

Also, work on U.S. 90 has delayed repairs to the boardwalk along the beach. The project, which is coordinated by Harrison County, came to a screeching halt when three contractors who were rebuilding Highway 90, found out that boardwalk work would mean temporarily lane closures. The contractors are facing a tight deadline. They have until December 31st, 2008, to finish reconstructing 26 miles of the highway. Any delays would be costly. With the road a priority, the county is delaying replacing the boardwalk project. The new boardwalk is to be constructed with concrete, replacing the wooden planks. The new concrete boardwalk should survive future hurricanes and strengthen the bulkhead next to the highway.

Many hurricane Katrina relief organizations are running out of funds and resources to help people still seeking to recover from Hurricane Katrina. A grassroots effort is underway to help raise the additional money to help thousands of Mississippians that still need help. An excellent video has been produced to explain the need and why the help remains an important part of the Coast's recovery. You can see the video online on YouTube by clicking Here. For more information on the "Finish the Job" campaign, Click Here

Biloxi officials report that traffic on the new Biloxi Bay Bridge is running nearly 60 percent of pre-Katrina levels. The new bridge opened November 1 with only two of the six driving lanes opening. The bridge, on U.S. 90 connects Biloxi to Ocean Springs and is a key component of the Coast's road system and directly serves the busy Biloxi casino district. (More Here)

Contractors working on the new Bay of St. Louis Bridge are nearing completion of the bridge structure and rail for all four lanes of the bridge. Traffic will be restricted to two lanes during completion of other items of work, including the installation of lights. On March 8, 2006, demolition crews began to complete what Hurricane Katrina started in order to get prepared for the first piling for the new bridge, which took place in June, 2006.  The bridge opened two lanes of traffic on May 17, 2007, approximately 20 months after the original bridge was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Replacing FEMA trailers with more substantial Mississippi cottages is going slowly. Since the first home was placed this past July only about 1,000 families have been placed in the temporary homes. There is money in the program for as many as 4,000 Mississippi cottages according to officials with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), which is administering the program.

While that number is significant, there are 14,080 FEMA travel-type trailers still in use on the Coast, more than two years since Katrina and well beyond their intended design.

GCN Photo right: Mississippi Cottage in empty neighborhood in Biloxi's Point Cadet area.

Some Coast cities, such as Bay St. Louis and Waveland, have been concerned that the cottages are not suitable for long-term use as they don't meet city codes that require larger structures. Residents and neighbors are concerned that if the homes became permanent, they could drive down property values. (More Here)

The long-awaited FEMA elevation and flood maps were finally released to the public Nov. 16. These official maps reflect the areas most sensitive to future storms and flooding on the Coast and have been needed to help cities, residents and the insurance industry know where to best adjust how and where  people will build and what it will cost. Residents know the areas all too well as many of the areas remain empty of homes and businesses. For the most part, large sections of the Coast in communities from Jackson County to Hancock County have significant lands that are subject to big hurricanes. The FEMA maps are the most detailed ever for the region and they will help communities develop building codes and built height requirements for the future.  Cities are being required to make the tougher standards or face the loss of future FEMA support. (More Here)

Mississippi Power has asked the Mississippi Public Service Commission for an average 4.2 percent increase to customers' bills next year because of rising coal prices and coal transportation rates. Residential customers would pay an average of 3.2 percent increase. Mississippi Power's rate increase comes at a tough time for many Coast residents still struggling with finances and paying bills. Local volunteer agencies have been seeing a growing number of Katrina survivors that are having trouble paying utility bills and are reeling from increase gasoline costs for their vehicles. Many of the people being moved out of FEMA trailers into homes and apartments are finding they face higher utility bills that they can barely afford as the larger permanent homes and apartments use more power.

Mississippi Power's stockholders came out of Hurricane Katrina in good shape. The company received nearly $276 million in federal relief funds to offset costs of repairing its lines and generating plants from damages from Katrina. The federal funds stopped Mississippi Power from passing the repair costs off to the public, but the company has done little to harden its system for future storms. While the company was widely praised for restoring power within a few weeks of the hurricane, utility poles and lines damaged from the hurricane were replaced with the same type and the company has made no announcement of strengthening their  service for such future storms, something the rest of the public is being forced to do. (More Here)

There are growing reports of increased levels of homeless people trying to survive in Hancock County and living in poor conditions. Relief volunteers report that local area churches and relief groups are seeing the number of people that are having trouble finding a place to live that they can afford increasing.

The photo (left)  taken by Kathleen Johnson of Katrina Relief is of a  place in Hancock County that is housing up to eight homeless people a night - its a pump house. Johnson says she took the photograph Nov. 6 as she was out doing a social service work .

FEMA is moving ahead with plans to close more temporary housing sites established in Coast cities after Katrina. Approximately 15 temporary housing sites constructed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina throughout Mississippi have already closed and seven additional sites will close by the end of Jan. 2008. FEMA built 43 sites, known as emergency group or group sites, with cooperation from local governments and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) that met the housing need of more than 3,000 displaced residents. Occupants were placed in group sites if they did not have private property to place a unit or if their property could not sustain a temporary housing unit. (More Here)

As of Dec. 20th, 12,259 FEMA trailers still in use in South Mississippi, this figure is down from over 38,000 in February of 2006. What most people do not realize is that most of the FEMA trailers are not in group sites. Most are on private property in front of homes that people have yet to find a way to rebuild. Katrina destroyed nearly 75,000 homes in south Mississippi. Officials estimate only around 20 percent have been rebuilt. Many of the homes were also small, wood frame rental homes, which did not qualify for federal rebuilding programs.

As everyone living on the Coast already  knows, the cost of living here has sharply risen since Katrina. Housing is the main reason it has become much more expensive to live in South Mississippi, experts say. Insurance costs have escalated, making it more difficult to buy a home, and rent also has gone up because of the scarcity of apartments and houses.

Coast commuters and visitors have welcomed the partial opening of the new Biloxi Bay Bridge November 1. Two lanes of the 10-lane bridge opened to traffic, the entire bridge is set to be completed in April. With the partial opening, motorists are able to travel the full distance of U.S. 90 for the first time since hurricane Katrina. Biloxi officials report that bridge traffic is already heavy with traffic totals near 60 percent of the pre-Katrina rate.

With the opening of the bridge, Coast redevelopment is expected to accelerate. It is also a key to the restoration of the area's tourism industry.

With a series of very load explosions, the Armed Forces Retirement Home tower in Gulfport collapsed to the ground Oct. 25. The eleven story tower near U.S. 90 was the home of nearly 564 military retirees prior to Hurricane Katrina. A new home is to rise in its place. It only took a few seconds for the explosive charges to do their work on the 31 year old building, but it won't be until 2010 before contractors finish the work to reopen the home. Yates Construction is building the $189 million facility. A small ceremony was held prior to the building's implosion. A crowd of around 75 people had gathered just outside the property to watch the demolition. Many people in the crowd had worked at the home. After the hurricane, most of the residents were moved to the AFRH in Washington, or left to live elsewhere. (More Here)

Biloxi and some other Coast cities have begun notifying property owners that they have to maintain their property, cut weeds and grass, and remove any remaining debris stemming from Katrina. For property owners along the beach, Biloxi has begin issuing orders requiring that slabs that remain must be removed. Meanwhile, Biloxi and most other cities have been very slow to clean up themselves. City streets throughout the area are overgrown with weeds along the curbs and public right of ways are not being cut, giving much of the area an unkempt look. The dirt has gotten so bad along curbs that it is preventing some  street drainage when it rains.

Pass Christian was among the hardest hit towns from Hurricane Katrina and even after two years, the town, located on the western side of Harrison County, still is barely making it. But there are signs of encouragement. The city's harbor is fully in operation, there are several businesses that are rebuilding in its devastated business district, Hancock Bank  has restored its beachfront bank and water services are being rebuilt along Scenic Drive. Still, none of the town's public buildings are back. City Hall and the police department remain in trailers. Mayor Leo Chipper McDermott reports that only 3,800 of 6,000 residents have returned to the Pass.

In what is clearly bad news for the community, city officials are saying that the huge Wal-Mart Supercenter that was destroyed by Katrina may not be returning. (Photo right shows the store shortly after the hurricane, it has be since torn down.) The store was virtually new when Katrina slammed into the Coast and was a key element of the city's tax base. According to a Sun Herald newspaper report, Wal-Mart spokesman Tice White company officials at this point are "committed to returning" to the city, but as a result of corporate meetings this summer, the company made changes to its policy on building new stores. The plan calls for a more strict analysis that includes local population figures, and other factors, before construction begins. Company officials are currently gathering data to determine whether there are enough potential employees and customers to support the store.

Foreclosures on Katrina-destroyed property is expected to spike over the next several months. A 1980 Mississippi law that allowed courts to delay foreclosures for up to two years after a state disaster is declared expired October 4th. That law, which requires landowners to pay a reasonable "carrying charge" rather than the full mortgage payment, has helped thousands of homeowners by providing the time needed to get their homes back in shape. But the slow recovery has meant some people have been unable to do so. No one is sure how many families are affected. (More Here)

Meanwhile, FEMA is offering a carrot of sorts to help get Katrina survivors out of trailers and temporary housing. FEMA has initiated a reimbursement program that will provide relocation assistance to disaster victims displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The damage and destruction caused by the hurricanes resulted in temporary relocation of many Gulf Coast residents to various locations within and outside of their pre-disaster states.  For applicants returning to their pre-disaster state, relocation assistance is available for those who relocate to housing that is not provided by FEMA and is not a hotel or motel. For those families that are already living in their pre-disaster state in FEMA travel trailers or mobile homes, FEMA will pay moving expenses to a FEMA-funded rental resource anywhere in the continental United States. However, FEMA will pay for an in-state move only if the new location is greater than 50 miles from the present location of the applicants. (More Here)

A study by the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute added figures to the obvious regarding the slow progress in restoring housing on the Coast. The study found that about 60 percent of the region's housing, including 5,700 rental units, was damaged by the storm, the report said. Also, 60 percent of the region's rental stock was located in the hard-hit coastal areas of Pascagoula, Gulfport and Biloxi, re-searchers concluded. Ninety-five percent of the region's multi-family properties were located either on the Coast or adjacent to the region. Researchers said that the Aug. 29, 2005, storm compounded the pre-Katrina shortage of affordable housing and the lack of affordable multifamily housing is stalling the recovery. A big concern is the lack of housing for workers helping to rebuild the area, and for Coast residents who need affordable rental homes and  apartments, which have yet to be built. The Rand study noted that it may be four to five years before such homes and apartments can be constructed.

A review by GCN of a recent Gulf Coast apartment guide found that most apartments on the Coast are now renting for between $800 and $1,200 a month, which is too expensive for many people, including workers in the service-industry who earn just over minimum wage.  The housing problem is most acute for residents in Hancock County.

A proposal to divert $600 million from a Hurricane Katrina housing fund to a state port restoration project  has been called a misunderstanding by Governor Haley Barbour. In the initial report on the port funding, the Mississippi Development Agency said the MDA would funnel the $600 million for the port from the $2.25 billion remaining in Gov. Haley Barbour’s Homeowners Assistance Grant Program, which is funded by block grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the governor says the MDA erred in describing the source and purpose of the money and no diversion is occurring. The money was always part of the recovery plan submitted to Congress and the entire issues is the result of a mistake by the MDA. The "diversion" plan as initially announced drew sharp criticism from housing proponents who note that affordable housing is still in great need in south Mississippi as a result of the hurricane and the funding for the port is excessive considering the need for housing. Protests over using the money for the port instead of helping to rebuild homes, especially for the poor, is being heard nationwide. (More Here)

The City of Biloxi has begun work to restore its harbor, which was destroyed by Katrina over two years ago. Contractors are on the site and will clear the harbor of debris, restore electrical service and rebuild piers. In Gulfport, that city has yet to announce when its harbor and park will be rebuilt. Boat owners throughout the Coast use have few places since the hurricane to moor their boats.

An Army Corps of Engineers plan to buyout low elevation property in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson Counties has many residents upset and concerned about the future of their neighborhoods. The Corps in early January, 2008, announced that they are scaling back the buyout plan to just around 3,000 properties over the recognition of the costs involved. Last fall the Corps indicated that it would be buying out as many as 17,000 properties. In Hancock County, the buyout could make Waveland and Bay St. Louis almost towns in name only. A meeting on the buyout proposal Sept. 17 had area resident very speaking out about the program. Some residents see such a buyout as their only option to recover from Katrina as they have found rebuilding on their existing property too expensive as a result of higher insurance and build costs. Other residents are concerned that if the buyout actually goes forward, it will forever disrupt their neighborhood and towns. Local officials are concerned that a buyout of such large areas of property will severely affect their property tax base, making providing city services nearly impossible. The federal buyout is not considered something that will absolutely occur. The corps plans to submit its proposal to Congress, which may not fund the plan. At this point in time, the buyout plan, and another that would build levees to protect portions of the Mississippi Coast, are only in their earliest stages. Even if the plans were to go forward, it would be years before they were fully implemented. At this point in time, the plan only adds confusion to the Coast's recovery and to resident's who trying to make a decision on what to do.

Hurricane Katrina did more than destroy homes in communities across the Coast. It also destroyed the underground stuff that makes a home possible, such as water and sewer lines. Work to replace water and sewer lines are underway in Pass Christian, Long Beach, Bay St. Louis and Waveland. In Waveland, the damages were extreme and is among the main reasons that rebuilding has gone so slow. The federal government has stepped up to plate to provide disaster funding to the tune of nearly $60 million dollars to rebuild Waveland's water and sewer lines, as well as natural gas lines that were torn up by Katrina. But the work, which began just about a month ago, is also creating havoc. Construction crews are tearing up what is left of the roads in many of the most devastated areas leaving, for months to come, dirt roads that when it rains, creates muddy, nearly impossible to travel, streets for residents that still live in the area, or are seeking to rebuild.

Also, since the previous, badly-damaged, system has been shut down, residents in the area have been provided with plastic tanks to collect dirty water, and sewage from their homes. These tanks are in the front yards on the surface and are somewhat translucent. You can see what is inside them. The tanks are placed in the front of the homes, connected to the sewer pipes from the homes. They also don't hold much and the contents have to be pumped out of the tanks sometimes several times a week. A household with kids will quickly fill the tanks. That means pump trucks are now as common as garbage trucks also some streets, but the work pumping the tanks does not move as swiftly. The tanks are translucent to allow residents and pump crews to quickly see the level. (More Here)

The two-year anniversary of Katrina has come and gone, as also the national news media that came to note the event. Most of the stories dealt with the slow progress of the recovery on the Coast and in New Orleans, particularly regarding the rebuilding of homes. Few stories actually helped with the recovery's key problems, that of the high cost of insurance and the confusion over build heights. It is clear from many reports that the nation and the news media are becoming tired of the Katrina story.

Everywhere there is still sharp evidence that the recovery isn't so much a recovery, but a process that has only begun. Where people were saying earlier it might take five years for the area to look normal, the talk is now ten to fifteen years. That isn't recovery, it is a shame. The media is noting the lack of progress on some fronts, but the problems and reports are complex and often don't reflect solutions as so many of the people questioned are in government and business who are sensitive to criticism. Among the failures has been the slow response of businesses to help the area recover economically. Even simple to repair things like broken sidewalks, ruined streets and the general unkempt look of every Coast community is evidence of this inefficiency and management failure.

There is progress more than two years after Katrina, but the Coast remains an area that truly appears hurt. There are pockets of success and rebuilding, but almost without exception, these areas are like islands in what is still devastated areas. Biloxi's casino district is the most improved area and business for the casinos is booming. But the casinos only tell part of the story. Elsewhere, the mountains of debris have been removed leaving behind miles of empty lots filled with overgrown grass and emptiness that still disturbs many Coast residents that travel those areas. Many people are noting that the high cost of insurance is among the main issues affecting both home rebuilding and business recovery, but locally, the advocates for "insurance reform"  are mostly attorneys whose work is in behalf of insurance companies or businesses, the same businesses that hire illegal aliens and have been resistant to pay raises and decent salaries to help workers and residents rebuild their lives. Actual public participation on many issues has neither been encouraged or welcome.

A big issue that remains for 2008 is where is the money. GCN has been reporting for months that billions of dollars allocated by the federal government to help cities and people recover has not been hitting the ground fast enough. There are many reasons for this and none of them good. The problems with the money stem from everything from a slow bureaucracy, to concerns over fraud. Federal officials are also worried that some of the money is also finding its way improperly to the hands of individuals and some companies through good ol' boy networks well established in south Mississippi and in Louisiana. This cronyism is part of the culture that has been difficult to weed out over the years. Mississippi has poor laws and inadequate regulations to ferret out corruption and observers have worried that the relief effort is a windfall for some people. That is not to say the federal help and the donated money is being wasted. The scale of the disaster is such that it takes great effort to identify and work through the problems. For example, many people cannot rebuild their homes because much of the coastline lost water and sewer systems that have to be rebuilt. Such infrastructure needs are difficult to implement, costly to design and repair, and always take longer than anticipated.

 From the beginning GCN has noted that the real hardship from Katrina was not the storm, but the recovery. At this point, that is still the case.

Among the signs of recovery in Hancock County is Hancock Bank's historic building in Bay St. Louis Old Town. The bank building has been fully restored and open for business and will serve as an anchor for the eventual recovery of the city's Old Town business district. The restored bank also becomes the first bay road business to reopen in since Hurricane Katrina hit the Coast August 29, 2005. (More Here)

An interesting development has occurred with Bay St. Louis' plans for redistricting. The Sea Coast Echo reports that Bay St. Louis’ officials try at redistricting has hit a big bump at the federal Department of Justice, possibly causing a significant delay in elections to seat representatives for the newly annexed area. At one time, the city was promising elections by July 2007 to fill the two new seats created for the area. Justice Department concerns, however, could shove the elections well into the autumn. The problem could jeopardize the department’s approval of the annexation itself, which is what sparked the redistricting plan to begin with. The Department of Justice has a problem with the city using pre-Katrina census numbers. The Census Bureau recently announced that they could not obtain numbers for several south Mississippi towns, including Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Pass Christian and Pearlington, all of which have experience sharp population changes.

Biloxi official says days of ground elevation cottage-style homes in Katrina-destroyed east Biloxi "are over." Community Development Director Jerry Creel, appearing on WLOX TV, August 19, said that post-Katrina building regulations make such homes impossible to rebuild. Small, wood-frame homes were part of the east Biloxi landscape for decades, many which had seen flooding in past hurricanes. But now, the new build-height regulations, velocity zones and other regulations will primarily force commercial development in the area. Much of east Biloxi, also called Point Cadet, remains mostly empty. The area was densely filled with the small homes, many that had been in families for generations prior to Katrina. Only a few remain nearly two years after Katrina. The area's closest to the shoreline are being acquired for casino lands, but the interior property has little hope of casinos. (More Here)  Photo above right: Destroyed Point Cadet neighborhood-Sept. 2005. Katrina's winds stripped the trees of leaves

Gulfport finally began work on replacing its street lights along U.S. 90 this past August 21 and was expected to finish before the end of the year. However, work on the lights has moved slowly and will clearly not be completed until well into the new year.

While Biloxi’s casino industry has amazingly thrived since reopening after Katrina, it does not mean that the Coast's overall recovery is finished. “This is certainly great news,” Mayor A.J. Holloway said regarding the success of the casinos. “But at the same time it’s a double-edged sword. We don’t want the rest of the country getting the idea that we’re back in business and all is well here in Biloxi and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”  (More Here)

One of the major issues since Katrina has been the realization of the high numbers of poor, and fixed-income elderly residents on the Coast who lived in mobile homes or small family homes that had long been paid for but no longer exist. These people are having a hard time recovering from the hurricane. Hardly any program so far outlined has addressed the problem. Many volunteers have noted this problem as well and are alarmed that programs to help the poor, lower middle class, and elderly, have failed to materialize.

Local  politicians are coming under growing pressures to pick up the pace of recovery. But they have not been successful. What is happening instead is that they just hope everyone gets used to the situation. They hope not to have to raise taxes, but it seems inevitable. Roads and streets throughout the area are falling apart. Many before their time. In neighborhoods throughout the area, the heavy equipment used to remove fallen trees and homes from Katrina, tore up the streets, which due to the area's frequent rains are now becoming worse. The major corridor roads also are coming apart for same reasons, and the cities and counties don't have the money for repairs.

Work to repair Gulfport's huge public harbor has yet to begin and not a single public dock at the harbor has been replaced. Gulfport officials report that the city does not have the money to dredge the city's harbor and replace the docks. The Mayor's wife is to lead a committee to help find funds for the harbor to speed the redevelopment of Jones Park.

Meanwhile, it also appears Gulfport is falling further behind on Katrina recovery. Mayor Brent Warr says the city needs to borrow $10 million to build a new municipal courthouse and police department estimated to cost $17 million. He said the city plans to use some FEMA money and some grants to build the buildings. However, as of early January 2008, no repairs have started yet on City Hall and many other municipal buildings. A firehouse on Cowan Road remains without walls and the firemen in trailers.

Gulfport has received a grant that will pay for facades on empty and derelict downtown buildings. Officials hope the facelift will stimulate interest in the area. Gulfport's downtown was heavily damaged by Katrina's storm surge, but the buildings were also empty for the most part before the hurricane.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that it cannot accurately determine the populations in four Katrina-damaged cities on the Coast due to the loss of homes in the towns, reports the Sun Herald. Hurricane Katrina flattened hundreds of homes and scattered thousands of Coast residents. Entire neighborhoods — thousands of acres — from Waveland to Long Beach are still vacant and tracking down the people who live in those areas was impossible. The bureau reported they could not provide accurate figures for Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian and Long Beach. In the other Coast cities, where researchers were able to gather sound data, the results show a sizeable population drop from July 2005 to July 2006. Gulfport, the state’s second largest city, and Biloxi each saw an 11 percent loss in population. D’Iberville’s population fell 13 percent, the largest drop of any Coast city.

Some Hurricane Katrina survivors still living in FEMA trailers have begun moving into more secure cottages. The tiny 400 to 800 square foot cottages are beginning to be distributed to the Coast, but they are not expected to be a real solution to people still living in FEMA trailers. Only about 4,000 of the cottages, which look much like trailers, will be available. There is a strong resistance to allow the cottages in some cities as they do not meet zoning regulations and building codes. The cottages are also temporary structures, and while stronger than trailers, they are not meant to be permanent homes. Those receiving the cottages participated in a lottery made available by the state.

Governor Haley Barbour recently told Coast residents and businesses how he sees the future of the area. Barbour said Coast residents and businesses need to realize that the day of cheap living on the Coast is over. "The cost of living on the Coast is higher than it used to be, and employers have got to realize that wages are going to have to be higher, too, because of competition for workers," Barbour said. "And government cannot reverse it. Things like insurance, we can help mitigate. Utility rates, we can help mitigate....But we cannot stop it."  Barbour went on to say that the days of people of modest means living near the water maybe drawing to an end.

Pass Christian and Waveland have yet to rebuild any public buildings. As of early January 2008, their police, fire and City Halls are still in temporary structures or trailers. Gulfport has yet to replace its public buildings that were lost or badly damaged. Some of Gulfport's fire stations are still without walls.

There are new homes going up in many of the most damaged areas as people are getting insurance and grant money from the state, but this is not to say neighborhoods are being rebuilt. Most of the new homes are going up high on stilts to meet new elevation requirement. Beachfront homes are returning slowly, and while this is good news, the number here are also low. For every new home, there are many more lots that remain empty. The devastated areas remain with some recovery a block to two blocks-in where the most rebuilding is happening.

Work to repair many public buildings damaged by Katrina has yet to really get underway except in Biloxi, and in cities in Jackson County. Most churches are also not rebuilding their buildings that were along the beach highway. The Catholic diocese on the Coast lost all their buildings from the hurricane except the stoutly constructed St. Michaels Church on U.S. 90 in Biloxi. That church is to be  renovated.

There is progress in other ways, there is a building boom of both residential and commercial property in the northern sections of Biloxi, Gulfport and Long Beach. But no such boom is occurring in the most devastated areas.

Coast area realtors are saying that housing sales and rebuilding on the Coast are sharply down. The main reason is the high cost of getting insurance. The insurance issue is so devastating that homes with contracts are often withdrawn after the potential new homeowner finds out what their insurance costs will be. This is also affecting housing costs as prices that were higher in the months after the hurricane are now falling. Even then, the insurance cost issue is keeping sales slow. This high cost of insurance is also why so few affordable homes have been built. The cost of insurance is out of proportion to any such home and makes ownership nearly impossible for moderate income workers. Low income families have virtually no option. One realtor said recently, "The insurance problem is killing us."


GulfCoastNews.com received a prestigious award during the Online News Association annual meeting held in Washington, Oct. 6-8, 2006. During award ceremonies Oct. 8, GCN received the ONA Excellence in Service Journalism Award for small websites for its GCN Survivor Connector Database.

"This is truly a deep honor," said Keith Burton, GCN's owner and editor. "The GCN database was created to help people that were relocated from evacuations during Hurricane Katrina, but I never realized at the time how it would help so many people." (More Here)


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