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In Poverty-Stricken Mississippi, Katrina's Damage Lingers

Adrianne Appel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
for National Geographic News
October 7, 2005
 
Weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck on August 29, people on
Mississippi's Gulf Coast are clinging to what's left of their homes, as
the devastated region inches its way to recovery.

In East Biloxi on the central Mississippi coast, Anthony Gazzo fled in time to beat the 30-foot (9-meter) storm surge. But his neighbor and her three young children insisted on staying.

"We begged them to leave, but they wouldn't,'' Gazzo said.

The neighbors remained in their living room, and the water kept rising. "They tipped the couch on its end and stood on it and climbed into the attic,'' Gazzo said.

In time, they swam to high ground and found help, according to Gazzo. His neighbor and her children are now in Spokane, Washington.

"She's not coming back," Gazzo said.

Several weeks after the hurricane, this neighborhood of bungalows is still scarcely more than piles of rubble. But Gazzo says East Biloxi will always be his home.

"I've lived here most of my life," he said, shoveling mud from in front of his house, which listed dangerously. "I plan on staying right here."

Gazzo is not alone. According to the office of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, of the 431,000 households who have registered for disaster assistance with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), 77 percent are staying in the ZIP code in which they lived before the storm hit.

One reason so many Mississippians are staying is that they have few resources and few alternatives.

"I have 126 dollars in my bank account, Gazzo said. "Not a lick of flood insurance."

According to the 2000 U.S. census, Mississippi is the third poorest state in the nation. About 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, compared to 12 percent nationwide.

As a result, storm victims here are inclined to stay in what remains of their homes, said Kenny Rae, program officer for Oxfam America, a relief agency working in Mississippi.

"Houses are the only assets they have,'' Rae said. "They are worth maybe $30,000, but it's all they have."

Mississippi's West Coast Hit Hard

Katrina destroyed more than 70,000 homes in Mississippi.

In the southwestern part of the state, many are making do by staying in their wrecked houses, living in donated tents in their yards, or doubling up with family.

Jeanette Peterson and her family, from the inland town of Dedeaux, are living in the ruins of their home.

"The roof's come off, and water's leaking in my house," Peterson said, while visiting a relief center in Waveland, Mississippi, to pick up cans of food. "I'm staying in another part. We have a tarp over it.''

The family survived the storm in a shelter built by her husband in the backyard.

"We were in a storm pit,'' she said. "We were there for five hours. It was terrible when we got out."

In Waveland, on the coast near the Louisiana border, Katrina left little standing.

When workers with Carolina Med-1—a federally funded mobile hospital based in North Carolina—arrived at the Waveland K-Mart parking lot, they were taken aback by what they saw.

"There were cars everywhere—and bodies in the cars,'' said William Miles, a physician volunteer. "There were two bodies on top of the shopping plaza."

Three weeks after the hurricane, the team had treated 3,000 patients, he said.

"We've seen indigent people with no insurance to upper-class people who have lost everything. But this is a poor community,'' he said. "The citizens here, the people, they've set up tents in their yards [to live in].''

East Biloxi

Along East Biloxi's casino row near the beach, workers in hard hats buzzed around hotels and beached casino barges, clearing sand and making repairs.

A few blocks away, Dao Nguyen was hard at work too, scraping mud out of her waterlogged bungalow.

She and her husband Hung Bui, a ship welder, were going through what the flood had left behind. They salvaged their kitchen chairs, pots and pans, and dishes and piled them on the porch. They draped their sodden clothes across the white front fence to dry.

They also placed their mud-splattered wedding photo against a porch post. "Five years ago in Vietnam,'' Nguyen said.

She was running out of food and wanted to know how she could contact FEMA.

"Somebody came by with food, but it is not enough,'' she said.

Soon after the storm many in East Biloxi sought relief at the Main Street Missionary Baptist Church, the only building on its street without significant damage.

"People came and sheltered in the church,'' said Joyce Battle, a volunteer there. "People came and said, We're so hungry, do you have any food?'

"At first we fed 5,000 a day. We were the only thing on [Interstate]-10."

A former casino chef prepared the food, she said, and other volunteers served it under a big blue tarp outside.

"We've been holding services outdoors,'' Battle added.

The church's parsonage had been given over to clothing, food, and boxes of bottled water donated through church networks, the NAACP, and Oxfam. UNICEF also delivered school-in-a-box kits, filled with enough school supplies for 80 students.

"We haven't received anything from the government,'' Battle said.

Until recently, few in East Biloxi had received government assistance, according to Bill Stallworth, a Biloxi councilman who leads the relief effort in East Biloxi.

"New Orleans is devastated—so is Mississippi," he said. "Weve lost probably close to a fifth of our housing. In this side of town, its closer to 70 to 80 percent of our housing stock, destroyed or uninhabitable.

"We're three weeks into a disaster, and where are FEMA and the Red Cross?" he said. "This is the poorest area, the hardest hit area, and where's the assistance?''

Banking on Casinos

Stallworth recently went to Washington, D.C., and met with members of the U.S. Congress to solicit more aid for his region. Now a FEMA assistance center has opened in Biloxi, and on October 3, the Red Cross set up operations.

One of the first steps in Mississippi's recovery will also be the biggest, Stallworth says: reviving the state's weak economy.

"In the next 6 to 18 months, most everything will be back online,'' Stallworth said. "Casinos are going to come back in and rebuild closer to the land so the structures are stronger."

Until Katrina, Mississippi law required that casinos be located on water in floating barges. The state will now allow them to build onshore, within 1,500 feet (457 meters) of the water.

The casinos, which have operated in the state since 1992, provided 10 percent of the state's revenues, according to the Mississippi Gaming Commission.

Stallworth sees casinos—and continued development on Mississippi's Gulf Coast—as his region's most promising path out of poverty.

"We had about 14,000 people employed by casinos [before Hurricane Katrina]. Thirty to forty percent of the city treasury came from casinos," Stallworth said. "Gambling is the economic fuel behind the city."

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