Nine years ago today, Hurricane Katrina swept ashore – leaving behind $125 billion dollars in property damage. Thirty-eight thousand people left Mississippi’s three coastal counties after the storm. MPB's Evelina Burnett reports on how the coast is doing now.
Long Beach Mayor Billy Skellie says he knew Hurricane Katrina was a bad one when he got to the city’s main thoroughfare, Jeff Davis Avenue, the afternoon of the storm.
"When I looked over the track and saw a debris line about 200 feet south of the railroad tracks, I knew we were in pretty bad straits," he says. "And as we walked south, you could see it. It was just mind-boggling, the destruction that had taken place."
A 29-foot storm surge had swept away many businesses and homes. Long Beach lost about 6,000 residents after the storm, more than a third of its population. Skellie says that was a strain on the city.
"If you don't have people in your community, you're losing the possiblity of sales tax," he says. "We even like to plug them in at church. It's just the whole community deal. When you lose population, you lose some of the oomph you've had to do business and be healthy."
One of the businesses inundated on Jeff Davis Avenue was Lois’ Flower Shop.
"The windows were blown out. It had a couch in the front of it," recalls Kathie Kozlowski. Her aunt Lois Lawrence opened the shop in 1959. The business moved to a new location after the storm, but Kozlowski says there was no doubt it would continue.
"It was very, very important to Aunt Lois to re-open the shop, so that's what we did," she says.
Kozlowski and her sisters Eileen McCool and Tracey Staples inherited the business after Lawrence passed away three years ago. The flower shop moved back downtown two years ago, part of a resurgence that's seen a number of new shops and restaurants. McCool and Kozlowski say city improvements have also helped.
"They built the town green," says McCool.
"The city hall," Kozlowski adds. "The library is bigger and nicer than it was before Katrina."
"Everything they've re-done, they have done better," McCool says.
That’s a dynamic visible along the Gulf Coast – after the losses came the brand new buildings, sparkling new amenities, expansive new harbors.
But still, many cities haven’t yet quite gotten back to where they were before August 29, 2005. Long Beach still has about 2,000 fewer residents, according to the latest Census estimates. And despite the new shops, sales taxes are still lower, Mayor Skellie says, since the city lost two major shopping centers.
This too is a common feeling – this sense that things are definitely better than they were they were on August 30, 2005 – but still not quite where they were on August 28th, the day before the storm.
A volunteer gets ready to hang a new display at the Ground Zero museum in Waveland, which is where the storm came ashore. Alderwoman LiLi Stahler Murphy say she hopes the museum will bring more tourists to her still-recovering city, perhaps even some much-needed new residents.
"We've been kicked down quite a number of times, with the insurance rates, the elevations, the basic economy languishing, the housing market," she says. "And then in 2010, one week after we dedicated our new pier, the whole beach was closed for the summer with the BP oil spill. It's kind of like, what can happen next?
"But we're forging ahead," she adds. "It's just a lot slower than I expected."
Waveland's population fell almost in half after the storm. It’s recovered somewhat, but is still below pre-Katrina levels. The city has struggled financially, too, coming to a crisis point in 2011. It was then that newly elected mayor David Garcia says he discovered the city was running almost one million dollars in the red.
"It was due to not adjusting the employees to the level of revenues that was coming in," Garcia says.
Lay-offs, furloughs and other expense-cutting followed and the city seems to have stabilized financially. Its neighbor Bay St Louis is now going through its own financial reckoning, with city leaders there considering a 5-mill increase in property taxes.
Cities across the coast have had to pinch their pennies in recent years, or increase taxes, or both. The past nine years haven’t been easy on many residents too - social service agencies and nonprofits throughout the coast say they continue to see an increase in need.
"We took the stage area, and we turned it into exam rooms," says Pastor Sheila Jenkins, explaining how her church, Abundant Life Christian Center in Gautier, converted their youth center into a free medical clinic, called Volunteers in Medicine-Gautier.
Jenkins says since opening five years ago, the clinic has seen close to 3,000 people.
"There's still a lot of people now, with the state of the insurance industry and the state of the economy, they're working but they can't afford the health insurance," she says. "We're filling a gap for the people who just can't afford it."
Still, Jenkins says she’s optimistic about the progress in her city. Gautier, like the rest of Jackson County, has seen an increase in residents from before Katrina. But Gautier Mayor Gordon Gollott says they’ve had other economic strains, such as declining sales taxes.
"We have Singing River Mall, which is just presently being demolished," he says. "It's going to be modernized. That's a result of an aging structure that people were looking at from Katrina, and they want to revise it and make it brand new. So 2015 is going to be the catalyst year in our city, where we're going on an upward move."
This optimism, often tempered, about the future can also be heard throughout the coast. Back in Long Beach, Mayor Billy Skellie expects the growth from here will take time - but he thinks it'll happen.
"They're finding their way down here, just like the way they did to build it up over a 100 years that Katrina took out in 12 hours," he says. "And it's just happening that way again. It'll come back, but it's going to be gradual."
According to the 2013 Census estimates, the three coastal counties for the first time have together recovered their pre-Katrina populations. However, Hancock County still has fewer residents than it did nine years ago, and some individual cities are also below their pre-Katrina populations. See chart below. (Data source: U.S. Census Population Estimates)