Kai Ryssdal: From American Public Media, this is "Rebuilding Biloxi - One Year After Katrina," a documentary from Marketplace and American RadioWorks. I'm Kai Ryssdal. A year ago, hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. It hit hard in Biloxi Mississippi.
While New Orleans got paralyzed by Katrina, it's a different story in Biloxi.
But Biloxi's comeback won't be easy.
In the coming hour, "Rebuilding Biloxi - One Year After Katrina," from Marketplace and American RadioWorks. First, this news update.
Ryssdal: This is "Rebuilding Biloxi - One Year After Katrina," a Marketplace and American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Kai Ryssdal.
[phone rings] Monday, August 29, 2005.
Hurricane Katrina thrashes 200 miles of America's southern coastline from Alabama to Louisiana.
But the hurricane bears down hardest on Mississippi. Winds up to 120 miles an hour rip through cities like Pascagoula, Gulfport and Bay Saint Louis, tearing off roofs and shredding trees. Then, water surges in from the Gulf of Mexico.
In the city of Biloxi, flood waters rise 25 feet in some places. The city is built on a peninsula, and the storm surge gushes through town trapping residents in their homes. People scramble onto tables and counters, then into attics and then onto rooftops. Houses are swept into the street. A child begs 911 for help.
Katrina eventually subsides and the nation begins to grasp the scale of the disaster.
America's attention has been focused on New Orleans; on how devastating the flooding was there and how slowly the city is picking up the pieces. But 90 miles east, in the city of Biloxi on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, a dramatically different story is unfolding.
[chainsaws and hammers]
Unlike New Orleans, the rebuilding in Biloxi began almost immediately. It was fueled in large part by the city's casino industry which poured billions of dollars into rebuilding and expanding. In New Orleans, flooding forced most of the population to abandon the city. More than half is still gone. But in Biloxi, many people rode out the storm at home or moved back soon after. Biloxi is poised to recover faster than any place else on the Gulf Coast. Some say the city will be a better place to live after Katrina. But not for everyone. Over the past year, producers Kate Ellis and Stephen Smith followed four Biloxi families who lost everything they had. They bring us an intimate portrait of people struggling to rebuild their lives. It's a struggle against mud and bureaucracy and bad luck, and a struggle against despair. A year after the storm, some families are recovering, and some are mired in misfortune. Stephen Smith has this part of our program.
Stephen Smith: Biloxi is defined by this waterfront on the Gulf of Mexico, 26 miles of white sand, the largest man made beach in the world. French explorers landed here in 1699, making Biloxi one of the oldest cities in the U.S. About 50,000 people live here. When you ask people in Biloxi what they love about their city, they talk about deep family roots, the diverse mix of European and Vietnamese immigrants drawn here by the seafood industry, about the campy tourist joints along the highway. But mainly they talk about the water.
Biloxi's coastal location defines the city another way: the Gulf of Mexico is where the hurricanes come from.
Ethel Curry's house is in one of the oldest parts of Biloxi. She is 60 and grew up in this neighborhood. Ethel was at home alone the morning Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters surged in.
The foul, gritty water burst into the house. A refrigerator tipped on its back and began to float; the door splayed open. Frantic for a safe place, Ethel climbed inside. Then the tide pushed her make-shift raft up against the ceiling. She punched through the ceiling tiles to get air. The water kept rising.
A few blocks away, Ethel Curry's brother, Stanley Smith, watched the water rise on his property.
After the storm, Stanley, his wife Leslie, and their dog Tater returned home to a sodden house. And the house had moved.
Inside Stanley's house, a brown stain runs in a line around the walls of each room up by the ceiling. It's the high water mark.
It is six days after the hurricane. The stench of floodwater sours the air. Biloxi's streets are choked with fallen trees and shattered houses. People's stuff - an old Andy Gibb album, a muddied Hello Kitty hat - mingles in the street with broken toilets and lamps. Emergency crews from around the country are starting to pour in. And so are relief supplies.
Stanley and his wife are sleeping on their front porch. They've made a narrow bed from sofa cushions they dried out in the sun. Before the storm, Stanley was the head of grounds-keeping at a retirement home. Leslie was a clerk at a department store. Katrina wiped out their jobs. It also wiped out their cars. So Stanley cruises the neighborhood on foot.
On the first Sunday after Katrina, Stanley Smith and his sister Ethel make their way to New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. The service takes place on folding chairs in the parking lot because the church got flooded.
As a military helicopter patrols the sky, about 30 people join in the service. Ethel Curry and a few others are staying in a dry corner of the church; the only shelter they can find. New Bethel Church is about a mile from the shore and many of the people who decided not to evacuate before Katrina felt safe in this neighborhood. After all, they'd made it through Hurricane Camille in 1969.
At the end of the service, a truck backs into the parking lot. Volunteers from a Florida church spring open the back door and begin unloading provisions. In the weeks after Katrina, thousands of volunteers show up unannounced to help.
Batteries and portable radios are welcome. Biloxi residents have no phone service, electricity, or running water. Even those who have cars can't easily get gas. So people are feeling isolated and trapped.
In the weeks after the hurricane, Biloxi radio stations broadcast scores of reassuring ads from insurance companies. Teams of insurance adjusters roll into town to begin taking claims. The hurricane destroyed 6,000 homes and businesses in Biloxi, about a quarter of the buildings in the city. Thousands of other homes were damaged but could probably be repaired. One of those belongs to Julie Suaste. She and her family are sorting through the wreckage.
Julie and her husband were both dealers at a Biloxi casino. They evacuated to Florida before Katrina hit. When they got back, two days after the storm, they found a house from down the street washed up in their front yard. The Suastes' one-story home was still standing. But shoulder-high flood waters had wiped out nearly everything inside.
With the help from family and friends, Julie and her husband pick through their house to see what can be saved.
But less than two weeks after Katrina, Julie has heard from her insurance company.
That's on a house that had been worth $170,000. Without insurance money to rebuild, without a job, the question in Julie's mind is: will she lose her house to the bank?
As it turned out, roughly 30,000 South Mississippians would need the same help to save their homes.
Ricky Mathews is publisher of the Mississippi Gulf Coast's Sun Herald newspaper.
So significant that Mathews ran an editorial calling for the federal government to award Mississippi $4 billion in aid for home-owners alone. People on the Mississippi Gulf Coast desperately needed massive help from the federal government, but would they get it?
Ryssdal: You're listening to "Rebuilding Biloxi - One Year After Katrina," a documentary from Marketplace and American RadioWorks. Coming up -
I'm Kai Ryssdal. Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
Ryssdal: This is "Rebuilding Biloxi - One Year After Katrina," a Marketplace and American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Kai Ryssdal.
By late October, two months after hurricane Katrina, the massive shell of Biloxi's Beau Rivage casino is crawling with construction workers and machinery.
Before the hurricane, Mississippi law said casinos had to be on water, either on riverboats or on barges tied to shore. But soon after the storm, Mississippi changed its laws to allow Gulf Coast casinos to build on land. It was a boost that casino developers had wanted for years. Land-based casinos will be less vulnerable to hurricanes. They can also be much bigger. Beau Rivage spokesman Bruce Nourse says Mississippi's new law will change the face of Biloxi.
Rock and roll may be the future, but for most folks in Biloxi, the first months after Katrina are all about the blues. That includes Julie Suaste. She and her husband lost their jobs as dealers at the Beau Rivage. Producer Kate Ellis caught up with them just before Halloween.
Kate Ellis: It's late at night in Mobile, Alabama. In a parking lot, sitting in the car, Julie and her husband Ruben just got off work.
And we had to meet in the parking lot because they're staying in a FEMA shelter on Mobile Bay; no visitors allowed.
What's not so nice is the separation from their 13-month-old son Nico. Julie sent him to live with a sister in Indiana until life settles down. For now, Julie and her husband work seven days a week, 12 hours a day. They're processing flood insurance claims from homeowners in New Orleans. It's temporary work. With their casino jobs gone, Julie and Ruben need the money. Talking to other storm victims is almost like hearing themselves on the other end of the line.
Julie Suaste's family is treading turbulent water. If they don't get money from either insurance or the government, they're not sure they can afford to rebuild. But just walking away from the mortgage on their damaged house will ruin their credit. Still, they can leave. For others, that's not an option.
Back in Biloxi, Ethel Curry's goal for now is simple survival. She's hunting through boxes of donated clothes in the parking lot at her church.
Ethel is raising her nephew's sons. She gave up her job in a school cafeteria to care for them because their father, a mechanic in the military, travels so much. She survives on the money her nephew gives her and on welfare. Ethel and the boys are squeezed into a FEMA trailer parked in the yard. Dezmond is eight and Brandon's six. Their house is still in one piece, but no one can live in it.
Ethel says it's hard for the boys to understand why they can't stay in the house.
At his elementary school, Brandon and the rest of his class try on Halloween costumes donated by teachers in New York. Brandon squirms into a skeleton suit.
One of the classroom teachers is Naomi Foster. She says many of her five and six-year-old students are pre-occupied by what they lost in Hurricane Katrina. The children are easily distracted and quick to tear up. At nap time, they now do something that they'd always tried to avoid in the past. They sleep.
Naomi and her husband Barney are living with their two sons in a FEMA trailer parked in their backyard. Their house was heavily damaged by Katrina's flood waters. The Fosters didn't have flood insurance. So for Naomi, trying to get money to rebuild is one long game of wait and see.
Naomi says the toughest thing though, is being truly needy for the first time in her life.
December 15, nearly 4 months after Katrina. Stanley Smith and his wife Leslie are living in a FEMA trailer parked in their front yard. It's just a camper and it's so narrow that if Stanley tripped going in, he'd hit his forehead on the opposite wall. But Stanley's thrilled to be out of his moldering house.
Stanley seldom strays far from home. In the quest to rebuild, he doesn't want to miss a visit, usually unannounced, from insurance adjusters, FEMA inspectors or relief workers. So far, Stanley has gotten a $17,000 insurance settlement for his house, and $5,000 in FEMA aid. Stanley thinks he should be getting more money from FEMA, but he can tell the agency has problems.
Stanley would know. He found out recently that a man in Florida was using his Biloxi address to bilk money from FEMA. Stanley worries about the fraud and waste.
Stanley Smith's mood at Christmas time is optimistic. He keeps from brooding by fixing up the yard and tinkering with projects. But the scene around him, and across Biloxi, remains bleak.
Bulldozers are still scooping up tons of storm debris. Lots where splintered houses stood are now empty. This is progress, but the sight is lonesome. Some 100 days after Hurricane Katrina hit, Congress is still debating how much aid to send to the Gulf Coast. Aid to restore bridges and schools and businesses. And aid for those who can't afford to rebuild their homes. So many people in Biloxi and across the Gulf Coast are on the edge of financial ruin. Newspaper publisher Ricky Mathews wonders how many will stay.
Matthews says the Katrina Factor is paralyzing people at a time when they can't afford to stand still.
And it's a part of the disaster that will take years to unfold. Biloxi officials are bracing for a tide of bankruptcies to wash in. As unemployment benefits run out, bank accounts run dry and bills keep accumulating.
A week before Christmas, Naomi Foster is at home in her FEMA trailer in the backyard. There's a miniature Christmas tree with ornaments that her eight-year-old made. Naomi, her husband and two boys are here for the duration.
At the school where Naomi teaches, donated gifts have been pouring in for the students and their families. But the help Naomi really wants depends on Washington. She's always admired George and Laura Bush, who have made repeated trips to the Gulf Coast showing support for storm victims. But Naomi's faith is being tested.
Five days after Christmas, President Bush signed a relief package for the Gulf Coast. The aid would contribute to the largest disaster recovery effort in American history. The package included more than $3 billion for direct grants to South Mississippi homeowners, people who lived outside the official flood zone but still had their homes damaged or destroyed by Katrina's tidal surge. But there's a catch. You can only get the aid if you had insurance on your home. Many people didn't.
February, 2006, nearly six months after Hurricane Katrina. A city inspector is examining Ethel Curry's house.
Whether she tears down or builds back, Ethel Curry can't do anything without financial help. She lived outside the flood zone so she didn't have flood insurance. But she didn't have any other kind of housing insurance either. She stayed in the family home when her folks died. And because the mortgage was paid off, she wasn't required to carry homeowner's insurance.
Since Ethel didn't have insurance, she doesn't qualify for federal help. It's a problem facing many low-income homeowners in Biloxi.
Reilly Morse is a Gulf Coast lawyer who helps poor people with housing problems.
Mississippi officials are working on a grant program for homeowners who couldn't afford insurance, but that's months away. In the meantime, Ethel applied for rebuilding assistance offered by charities and church groups. Nothing's come through. She's all alone with a problem that seems unsolvable.
A few streets over, Ethel's brother, Stanley Smith, chats with a neighbor over the fence. Stanley's feeling good about his future. It's six months since Katrina and he's got the money he needs to rebuild. With insurance and a federal disaster loan, he's got about $144,000. So Stanley and his wife are thinking about a 3 bedroom pre-fabricated house.
He may joke, but Stanley Smith spent six diligent months tracking down insurance agents, bird-dogging FEMA officials, working on forms and finding receipts for the property he lost. He figures his 16 years in the military taught him how to navigate government systems. Stanley says too many others in Biloxi give up when they get befuddled by bureaucracy.
Even people who carefully negotiate those road signs can still run into plain bad luck. Barney and Naomi Foster were prosperous, middle-class people before Katrina, people with their lives in order.
Before the storm, Barney ran a successful business renting out jet skis and other gear on the Gulf shore. But the hurricane wiped out the beachfront hotels that fed Barney customers. He figures it'll be years before he can restart his business. Problem is, seven months after Katrina, the federal government offered him a disaster relief loan for the business, but not his house.
Across town, Ethel Curry can't seem to find a way out of her FEMA trailer. In early spring, she's already worrying about the coming hurricane season which starts in June. And she's suffering flashbacks.
Ethel is scared, and she's isolated. She has a large, extended family in Biloxi but they don't seem to offer much help - she says they're too busy with their own lives. For Ethel, her worries and hopelessness are a new storm closing in.
Ryssdal: I'm Kai Ryssdal. You're listening to "Rebuilding Biloxi - One Year After Katrina," a Marketplace and American RadioWorks documentary. Coming up -
Find out more about Hurricane Katrina and the city of Biloxi at our web site: AmericanRadioWorks.org. You can find all of ARW's previous documentaries, or sign up for our e-mail newsletter. That's at AmericanRadioWorks.org.
Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "Rebuilding Biloxi" was supported in part by a grant from U.S. Programs of the Open Society Institute. Our program continues in just a moment from American Public Media.
Ryssdal: This is "Rebuilding Biloxi - One Year After Katrina," a Marketplace - American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Kai Ryssdal.
[casino craps table]
Springtime in Biloxi, Mississippi. Once again, gamblers crowd the craps tables and work the slot machines. Three of the city's original nine casinos are open and doing record business. All the others are expected to reopen soon. The mayor of Biloxi predicts the casino business will double in size within a decade. Biloxi hopes to become the gambling destination in the South. Nine months after Katrina, there's a land rush of sorts in East Biloxi, the city's long peninsula ringed by casinos. It's a part of town that's historically been home to poor and working-class blacks, Vietnamese and other ethnic groups. The new, high-end development there is an economic boon to Biloxi, but it threatens to squeeze out people with deep roots in the community. Stephen Smith has the final part of our program.
Smith: East Biloxi residents crowd around a big map at the local community center. It shows a master plan for rebuilding the tip of the Biloxi peninsula.
With colorful pen strokes, the map predicts new casinos, hotels and other tourist attractions hugging the shoreline. Further inland are neighborhoods and parks.
Gordon Brigham is with a New York based non-profit group called Living Cities. Biloxi's mayor hired the group to create a blueprint for rebuilding East Biloxi. Homeowners at these meetings often view Brigham with skepticism. He's asking them to consider living in a place that will look different - but be more affordable to rebuild-than the single-family bungalows they lost.
Not possible because new FEMA flood regulations will make people have to build high off the ground on stilts or tall cinderblock foundations. That will make rebuilding a single-family home too expensive for many low-income residents of East Biloxi. Gordon Brigham says Living Cities will show them types of homes they can afford. The plan includes higher-density housing, like apartments and townhouses. Some would have parking lots on the first couple floors so flood waters could wash right through.
But the Living Cities plan is just one of many. Other powerful forces have different maps for the future of East Biloxi.
Lenwood Sawyer is a Gulf Coast real estate agent and a seasoned broker of casino land deals. When Sawyer looks at a map of East Biloxi on his office wall, he doesn't see affordable housing.
As Sawyer sees it, if you don't want to live in a high-rise or a condo, or you can't afford to, you'll have to live somewhere other than East Biloxi. Long-time residents of the area, including a large Vietnamese population, fear they're getting left out of the plans for their community. But East Biloxi resident Stanley Smith didn't wait for anyone to map out his future.
It's almost a full year since Katrina and Stanley Smith shows off the second-story bedroom in his brand new house. It's a two bedroom, pre-fab cottage with a steel roof. The front porch is big enough to fit an outdoor grill and several chairs. Stanley's house has a tall foundation. It's four feet higher than his old place and just above flood level. The house isn't finished yet; the inside is still just framing and plywood. But it's looking like home to Stanley.
As we talk, a church group from Massachusetts drops by. They're walking the neighborhood looking for people to help.
Stanley has one of the first new homes on his block. He never thought about abandoning his place or moving away from Biloxi. But he can see from his front porch that other folks have.
Some empty lots in East Biloxi have already been bought up by condominium developers. Many city leaders say it's a good thing. New wealth and new jobs will come to what's been an historic but threadbare part of town. But one Biloxi politician is trying to make sure that poor and working people don't get driven from the neighborhood.
Councilman Bill Stallworth visits Miss Olivia Kim at her FEMA trailer which is parked in the driveway of her storm-damaged home. Stallworth heads a group of non-profit organizations that is rebuilding houses for poor and working class people in East Biloxi, people like Miss Kim. About half the housing in this part of town is rental property. But there's also a long tradition of home ownership.
For Stallworth, it's a race against time. New FEMA flood regulations will kick in sometime in the coming year. People who can rebuild before the rules take effect don't have to meet the new elevation requirements that will make construction so costly. So Stallworth's group is working overtime.
And it's not just about getting people back in their houses. For Stallworth, it's also about making it harder for condo developers to buy up big blocks of property in East Biloxi flattened by the storm.
It's a chess game, he says, protecting low-income homeowners from getting overpowered by the market. So far a few hundred houses have been rebuilt. There are thousands more to go.
Newspaper publisher Ricky Mathews worries about Stallworth's plan. He says Stallworth is betting there won't be another storm with the kind of tidal surge produced by Katrina. Mathews believes the experts who say there will.
Mathews argues Biloxi should not cut corners on designing homes that can survive future hurricanes.
Meanwhile, Katrina destroyed so many houses and apartments, housing is virtually impossible to find in Biloxi. With all the casino and tourism employees going back to work, there's a critical shortage. Add to that the thousands of construction workers pouring into the region. Mathews says housing is the Gulf Coast's number one problem.
Nearly a year after Katrina, there are some 2,300 FEMA trailers in Biloxi. One of them belongs to Ethel Curry and her two boys.
It's August 4, 2006. The first day of school for the two grand-nephews Ethel Curry is raising. She drops the boys off at the bus stop and returns to the quiet of her FEMA trailer. One year since the storm, Ethel still has no idea how to get her house rebuilt.
You can hear the exhaustion in her voice as she explains her predicament.
Ethel says she's never thought about leaving her home in Biloxi before, but she would now. If she had somewhere else to go.
[door knock, dog barks, door opens]
Over at Julie Suaste's house life almost seems normal again. She and her husband are about to go back to work as dealers at the Beau Rivage casino. They've got their son Nico back from his aunt's house in Indiana. And they're living under their own roof.
But what about the feeling that another hurricane could come through and wipe out her house again?
Julie and her husband chose to stay in Biloxi in spite of getting virtually no rebuilding money from either insurance or government grants. They took out a loan and sold a rental property to fix up their house.
On the anniversary of Katrina, the Suaste's have resettled in Biloxi. But they've learned from the storm that they need to be better prepared for trouble. Ruben is training to be an electrician, Julie, an insurance adjuster. Jobs they can do anywhere if they need to get out of town.
Naomi and Barney Foster hardly thought of giving up on Biloxi when they lost everything to Katrina. But after a year of struggling to rebuild, they now wish they had. Even knowing they'll soon move back into their house doesn't make it any better.
That's not the hardest part for the Fosters. It's the months-long fight they had to get a federal disaster relief loan. They were handed from one official to the next, each seeming more indifferent than the last. Hurricane Katrina stripped the Fosters of the middle-class life they once had in Biloxi. But their battles with bureaucrats took away something else: a kind of faith.
Nearly everything Barney and Naomi did this year to get their lives back together they did, more or less, themselves, or with the help of volunteers. Tens of thousands of volunteers from around the country have come to Biloxi over the past year to help clean up and rebuild. The volunteers, it turns out, are what kept the Fosters from despair.
It's been one year since hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. In Biloxi, the city is a mix of recovery stories. By the looks of it, casino and condo development is galloping ahead. That may mean Biloxi will outpace other communities, certainly New Orleans, in getting back on its feet. Some people in Biloxi are back in their houses and back at their jobs trying to make life feel as normal as possible. It's what locals call "the new normal," where life in some ways looks like it did before the storm, but nothing is the same. One year later, thousands of people are in still in limbo, waiting for the help they need from insurance or government or charities to get a roof back over their heads. Officials don't know how many have simply given up and moved on. Most people we talked to said Biloxi was their home, it would be too hard to go. But it's hardly been easy to stay.
Ryssdal: "Rebuilding Biloxi - One Year After Katrina" was produced by Kate Ellis and Stephen Smith. It was edited by Catherine Winter. Coordinating Producer: Sasha Aslanian, project coordinator Misha Quill, production assistant Ellen Guettler. Special help from Linda VanZandt. Mixing by Stephen Smith and Craig Thorson. Web Producer Ochen Kaylan. The executive producer is Bill Buzenberg. For Marketplace: Editor Peter Clowney, Senior Producer Celeste Wesson, Executive Producer J.J. Yore. I'm Kai Ryssdal.
To learn more about Hurricane Katrina and the city of Biloxi, or to listen to this program again visit AmericanRadioWorks.org. You can find all of our previous documentaries or sign up for our e-mail newsletter. That's at AmericanRadioWorks.org.
Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This program was supported in part by a grant from U.S. Programs of the Open Society Institute.
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