One of the communities still struggling 10 years after Hurricane Katrina is the low-income, low-lying peninsula called East Biloxi. Long home to Biloxi’s working class, its new immigrants and seafood industry, the area remains scarred by the storm. MPB’s Evelina Burnett has our report.
Ethel Curry rode out Hurricane Katrina in her upended refrigerator as it floated near the ceiling of her East Biloxi home. As it went higher, she used a ceiling fan blade to break the tile in the ceiling.
"And the rafters were so small, I had to hold on to each side to keep my head above the water," she recalls. "And I stayed there for five and a half hours, until the water went down."
Curry was able to rebuild her flooded home about two years later with the help of volunteers from TV soap opera Guiding Light. It's an experience similar to many here, who received help from the nearly one million volunteers estimated to have come to Mississippi after the storm.
But Curry's is the only house on her street now – two others didn’t rebuild – and the memory of the rising water remains.
“It’s frightening and so much has changed since then," she says. "A lot of landmarks and different things. So I myself don’t go very far. If I have to go over a bridge, it’s with someone in my family because I’m afraid of the bridges because of the water.”
The scars of Hurricane Katrina – visible and unseen – continue to haunt the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Here in east Biloxi, those visible scars can be seen in the gap-toothed streets, where only driveways mark where neighbors’ homes once stood.
“When I look around, a lot of things still haven’t changed," says James Crowell, president of the Biloxi branch of the NAACP. “It’s a lot cleaner of course, we had quite a bit of debris after Katrina, but when you look at the empty lots and the economic situation, here in east Biloxi, it’s primarily the same.”
Several things have slowed the rebuilding. Crowell says insurance, which has doubled in some areas, is perhaps the biggest issue.
Also, many streets in east Biloxi are currently torn up in a post-Katrina utility project that will continue until 2018. Other hurdles: property claims that are complicated when homes have been passed down informally over generations; and new federal requirements to rebuild at higher elevation to lessen flooding risk.
“That increases the price of that home about $20,000 to $30,000 depending on how high you want to raise it," Crowell says.
The less visible scars include the lingering psychological effects of a storm that destroyed thousands of homes in this tight-knit community, fracturing families and neighborhoods. Alice Graham is the executive director of Back Bay Mission.
"They not only lost their home, they lost their community," Graham says, "and that level of trauma lasts for a long time. It's a long time before you can take a deep breath and say, 'I survived it.'"
Another invisible scar – what could have been. It’s a disappointment mentioned by many community advocates – this sense of opportunity, lost. Crowell says there were at least three different plans created for Biloxi, "primarily all centered around walkable communities with grocery stories and parks. But when you look around today, you don’t see any of that."
Carol Burnett is with Moore Community House, a nonprofit that’s worked with low income women and children in east Biloxi since 1924. She says the plans and public hearings encouraged people to envision what they’d like the community to be.
“With all the hurricane recovery money that was coming to the coast, I thought the coast had an opportunity to make some of that real. But here we are ten years later, and the essential economic inequities that existed before Katrina are still here," she says."
Which is not to say there hasn’t been some progress. The casinos, one of the coast’s main economic drivers, built back relatively quickly and are doing well. There’s a brand-new baseball stadium bringing visitors downtown. And there are hundreds of new homes and many new public facilities.
Moore Community House, for example, was able to build two new early head start facilities and now serves twice as many children as it did before the storm.
And people haven’t given up hope East Biloxi will thrive. A new community collaborative was formed a few years ago, to encourage progress. Again, James Crowell.
"I hope in 10 years later, this peninsula would be totally different from what you see right now," he says. Crowell wants more development, more recreation, and an even better east Biloxi.