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.

911 Caller: I've got two small kids. And the water's rising.

Ethel Curry: And I looked out the back window here and the water was all the way up to the top.

Julie Suaste: My house is gutted.

While New Orleans got paralyzed by Katrina, it's a different story in Biloxi.

Bruce Nourse: It will come back bigger and better than probably any of us can imagine at this time.

But Biloxi's comeback won't be easy.

Ricky Mathews: If we don't build back safely, we will get destroyed again.

Stanley Smith: FEMA started getting ripped off from the start.

Naomi Foster: I had a false sense of security that our government was like, "We're gonna come in and we're gonna help."

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.

Operator: 911, where's your emergency?

Caller: Yes ma'am, we got over-flooded over here.

Operator: Where you at?

Caller: 210 Brown.

Hurricane Katrina thrashes 200 miles of America's southern coastline from Alabama to Louisiana.

Caller: My apartment's coming apart. Got about four feet of water underneath me on the second floor.

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.

Caller: I'm at 405 Richmond in Biloxi.

Operator: Mm hmm.

Caller: And I've got two small kids, and the water's rising.

Operator: Ma'am, we don't have anybody that we can send to you. All of our officers are off the road for their safety.

Caller: How am I supposed to get out? I've got two small kids.

Operator: I don't know ma'am, we don't have anybody who can get to you.

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.

Caller: I want to get out of here.

Operator: I know sweetheart. I know you do.

Caller: Get me out of here.

Operator: Sarah, listen to me, Okay? We can't get to you but your daddy and mama are going to stay right there with you and you're going to be Okay. Okay?

Caller: Why can't you get to me?

Operator: Because baby, there's water over the road.

Caller: [unintelligible]

Operator: Baby, we can't get a boat there.

Katrina eventually subsides and the nation begins to grasp the scale of the disaster.

George Bush: The vast majority of New Orleans, Louisiana is under water. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses are beyond repair. A lot of the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been completely destroyed. Mobile is flooded. We are dealing with one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history.

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.

Stanton Fountain: This is a beautiful place. The water out there is gin clear. You can see bottom at 20 feet.

Ronald Baker: When I dated, we didn't have cars, so I dated in sailboats. When I had to go to school, we rowed to school in a boat. I mean boats have just been my life.

Foster: One of my favorite scenes: every June when shrimp season opened, you would look out to the water at night and it would look like a city, because there were so many shrimp boats and the lights were out there and it seemed magical.

Biloxi's coastal location defines the city another way: the Gulf of Mexico is where the hurricanes come from.

Curry: I was standing in the hallway when this shed popped and tilted forward.

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.

Curry: And I looked out this back window here. The water was all the way up to the top. And it was like a front loading washing machine. It was sloshing from side to side. And it would turn, back and forth.

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.

Curry: And I say, "Lord, please take it down because if it come any higher, I can't swim." Well, I was through the rafters. Holding my head up. Trying to keep it from getting in my mouth. Because I couldn't stand it.

A few blocks away, Ethel Curry's brother, Stanley Smith, watched the water rise on his property.

Smith: I was trying to find some shovels to dig trenches out back so some water flow, by the time I made it back around the house, the water had already started coming across the street so I went out back and found an aluminum boat and start bailing the water out of it. About 8:30 the National Guard truck pulled up and they hollered for us to come on with them, that's what we did, grabbed what we could, they took us to the police station to ride it out.

After the storm, Stanley, his wife Leslie, and their dog Tater returned home to a sodden house. And the house had moved.

Smith: This was the back step right here; that door used to be right here.

Stephen Smith: So it's moved off its foundation about four feet.

Smith: Yes.

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.

Smith: Sorry I hand't cleaned up.

Stephen Smith: Sorry I didn't take off my shoes.

Smith: That's Okay. That's fine. So you can see the line on the ceiling. And as you can see that room there is totally destroyed. The roof is all down inside of there and everything.

Stephen Smith: And there's like a - I mean, it looks like just piles and piles of dressers and clothes.

Smith: It took everything and just busted out the drawers and everything and all the clothes that were hanging in the closets and stuff.

Stephen Smith: Pulled them right out.

Smith: Pulled them right out.

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.

Smith: We got crackers, cereal, peanuts, we got potted meat, Vienna sausages, we got Spam, sardines, mini raviolis, we got army meals, Army rations, all the clean food that we have.

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.

Smith: [to neighbors] Hey, how y'all doing?

Neighbor: Good morning.

Smith: Hey Mr. Whittle.

Neighbor: You doing good?

Smith: Oh yeah, we're doing good.

Smith: At this trying time, we're all going through some turmoil. I can keep my pains and frustrations back because somebody's feeling worse than I am. And what I'll do is I'll try to say something encouraging to lift them up and if in doing so, if it does anything for them, it's going to make me feel better too.


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.

Kenneth Hollins: Jesus! Jesus is able to manage our storm! I tell you my brothers and sisters, the Lord is able to put shelter over our heads!

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.

Volunteer: We've got food, baby supplies and some first aid supplies. We have flashlights as well. We got batteries. There's a few radios in there I believe.

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.

Radio Announcer: We're going to take a quick break and be back in just a second.

Advertisement: Here's an announcement for State farm policy holders. State Farm is aware that the recent severe weather has caused extensive property damage.

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.

Suaste: It's sewage, mud, debris, just muck in general. We just had this house built. We moved in April 1. We've been in here just right at four months.

With the help from family and friends, Julie and her husband pick through their house to see what can be saved.

Man: Leave the microwave?

Suaste: The microwave's fine, that never got any water.

Man: Alright, leave it then.

Suaste: We're on day 13 from the hurricane. It still looks like a war zone here, it looks like ground zero.

Stephen Smith: So you have been doing what in the last week?

Suaste: Getting a hold of insurance companies, creditors, mortgage companies, FEMA, Red Cross, anybody we can get a hold of for any kind of assistance, whether it be food, shelter, financial, help with clearing debris, repairing properties, and it's a long haul. Everyday we're busy all day long and it still seems like we're getting nothing done.

But less than two weeks after Katrina, Julie has heard from her insurance company.

Suaste: If you don't have flood insurance it's pretty much too bad is what they say. My house is gutted. There is nothing salvageable in here. Appliances, carpet, furniture, everything is completely gutted. Since I did not have flood insurance, it's classified as a flood, I have no coverage.

Stephen Smith: How much will you get?

Suaste: $3,400.

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?

Suaste: I hate to have to give the house back, but if I have to - but I feel I'm gonna have to give the house back if I don't get some kind of relief or help to rebuild.

As it turned out, roughly 30,000 South Mississippians would need the same help to save their homes.

Mathews: So you have families who had all their equity tied up in their homes and now they have a mortgage for a slab.

Ricky Mathews is publisher of the Mississippi Gulf Coast's Sun Herald newspaper.

Mathews: And they were told by the federal government and the floodplain maps that they didn't need flood insurance and 30,000 homes for a place the size of South Mississippi, that is significant.

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 -

Foster: When the Red Cross truck came through the neighborhood for a feeding, you know, they'll bring lunch or dinner. And it was the most humiliating thing in my life that I ever had to do. To walk up to that truck and say, "I need five meals please."

Reilly Morse: When you have you choose between your medicine and a homeowner's insurance policy and you're living in a house that maybe you haven't had to pay for, you're probably going to try to keep yourself alive before you go and insure the house.

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.

Nourse: Before the storm, this was a 70,000-square-foot casino. We had a half-dozen or so high-end restaurants across the back wall.

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.

Nourse: It will come back bigger and better than probably any of us can imagine at this point in time. We're talking three-to-five years down the road. We feel it's a pretty safe bet to invest in Biloxi, Mississippi. Given our history, it's pro-business. Three-to-five years down the road, we'll be rocking and rolling.

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.

Suaste: We're working for an Allstate Insurance company that's helping settle flood claims for those that were affected by the storm from Rita and Katrina.

And we had to meet in the parking lot because they're staying in a FEMA shelter on Mobile Bay; no visitors allowed.

Suaste: We're living on the Holiday cruise ship. Which is one of the Carnival cruise lines that FEMA has set up. They treat it as a shelter. So there's no alcohol, there's no entertainment. They serve three meals a day. There's laundry facilities. It's actually quite a nice setup for us.

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.

Suaste: Everyone has a story and they're all the same story. That their home's destroyed. They lost all their belongings. The things that were most precious. And they get upset. They start crying on the phone, "You don't understand what it's like." I tell them I do but I'm not really in a position to tell them that my personal situation is exactly the same if not worse. We still don't know what's going on. And we don't have any flood insurance to even wait for the check.

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.

Curry: Oh, I'm getting some bed linens. And some shirts for Dezmond because it's hard to fit him. Hopefully I can find him some pants as well.

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.

Curry: The mold is so bad in there and the floor is like wavy and buckles and stuff. We're waiting on the people to come and gut it out.

Boy: I almost fell once on there.

Ethel says it's hard for the boys to understand why they can't stay in the house.

Curry: I had to take them in because they didn't believe. Because the first night we was here, they cried. They did not want to stay in this trailer, so I had to take them in the next day to let them see that it is not livable. You know, and the first they talk about is their toys and their books and their games and all the stuff they lost.

Woman: Okay look, they have Spiderman, Bob the Builder, Spongebob.

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.

Woman: Let's see if your hand will fit in here.

Boy: This'll fit.

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.

Foster: And they sleep very soundly. They are exhausted and I think they fall asleep here on their mats because they feel safe. They're comfortable and I don't think their living conditions, and I'm sure they're not ideal because mine aren't either, and I'm sure these children aren't sleeping as well as they should at night.

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.

Foster: You wait for the insurance to make a decision and then you wait for FEMA and your life is in someone else's hands. You know, and it's hard that strangers are going to make the decision about your future for your life and your children.

Naomi says the toughest thing though, is being truly needy for the first time in her life.

Foster: When the Red Cross truck came through the neighborhood for feeding, you know, they'll bring lunch or dinner, and it was the most humiliating thing in my life that I ever had to do, to walk up to the truck and say, "I need five meals please." And I don't have a problem giving and helping because that's what I do, and now we are in the position to ask for help and it's very embarrassing.

Smith: I've been tearing the carport down getting everything ready and stuff. Come on in.

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.

Smith: You know, the first night I slept in this thing, I woke up the next morning and I felt like a newborn baby. I felt like I was reborn. I had a burst of energy. I could breathe. I mean it was really wonderful the first night.

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.

Smith: A lot of people are blaming a lot of stuff on FEMA, but FEMA started getting ripped off from the start. That might've put a halt to things, you know, until they go, "Whoa, I think I've seen that social security number three times already."

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.

Smith: Because it's hurting people that really need it. People are out there right now driving new vehicles and they never owned cars. How do they pull stunts like this, you know? FEMA wasn't asking questions, they were just giving out money.

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.

Mathews: These people have an incredibly important choice to make and that is they're facing bills like they've never seen before. They didn't have insurance, or even if they had insurance, they've lost their job and they're doing the math and they're thinking, "If I go to work for this much an hour, it will take me about 150 years to pay it all back." So they're in a limbo state. I call that the "Katrina factor."

Matthews says the Katrina Factor is paralyzing people at a time when they can't afford to stand still.

Mathews: And some of those people will make choices to be part of the rebuilding effort and raise their sites higher and get more training and get better jobs and whatever, and some of them will not and the reality of the situation is those exact people will end up being replaced by other workers who are coming to this market and take their jobs from them. It is a sad part of the severity of this disaster.

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.

Foster: My FEMA trailer. Home away from home. Y'all come on in.

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.

Foster: It has its ups and downs. It's very cramped, it's difficult to move around. But I'm just thankful that we do have it. Ya know, if I thought it would be permanent, I would go out of my mind.

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.

Foster: First Lady Laura Bush was down, I want to say Monday, at the Seebee base, visiting with the children for Christmas, and said, "Parents, you need to give your children a normal Christmas." Well, hon, tell Congress to pass a bill to help us. I mean look around you. How can you have a normal Christmas?

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.

Inspector: Structurally it can be built back. The house can be brought back the way it was.

Curry: Most people tell me it's cheaper to rebuild than it is to patch this place up.

Inspector: The hardest thing is that this is your home. It's just not an easy choice to all of a sudden say, "Tear it down," or, "How am I going to build a new one?" If it is torn down, where do I start with?

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.

Curry: A few years prior, I did have, until a few years ago when my nephew came to live with me, trying to help them out with the small kids and stuff like that. And never having enough money to take care of special things, I just didn't renew my policies.

Since Ethel didn't have insurance, she doesn't qualify for federal help. It's a problem facing many low-income homeowners in Biloxi.

Morse: The idea is, supposedly, that you are promoting financial discipline, financial self-responsibility.

Reilly Morse is a Gulf Coast lawyer who helps poor people with housing problems.

Morse: When you have to choose between your medicine and a homeowner's insurance policy and you're living in a house that maybe you haven't had to pay for, you're probably going to keep yourself alive before you go and insure the house.

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.

Curry: I'm saying, "What do I do? How can I get started? Who can I see to tell me what to do or what to start on first?" If I come in and start sweeping some of this out, maybe I can get somebody to come in and say, "Well, maybe you just need to take up a few boards and stuff and spray it down." Other people say it's not that simple, because the mold is growing in, all of this stuff is going to have to be taken out. And it's back to square one again. I don't know

Smith: Hey Mr. Calvin, how you doing? I'm just showing some friends of mine some progress, as things going.

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.

Smith: I was planning on remodeling awhile back. It's just the storm beat me to it.

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.

Smith: It's just like getting on a road that you've never traveled before. If you read the signs you might not get lost. But I've read signs and still got lost. But you learn from experience.

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.

Barney Foster: You call them up and you go, "Do you all understand? I don't care about my business, we want to get back into our house. We live in a trailer." And they just - no clue.

Naomi Foster: Hope; you run out of hope. It's gone. You think you're never getting back in your house. And they surely will not move those FEMA trailers. Those things are going to stay for 100 years. My youngest Matthew said, "I'm tired of camping now. I'm ready to go home." There's only so much a little kid can do in a trailer.

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.

Curry: When I lay down sometime at night and fall off to sleep and dream about the sky, there's waves of water coming in, and I can't get up or turn so that I can find a way to the door. Sometimes I see myself floating on something, trying to get higher, as high as I can get so that I can keep my head above water. And I think about the boys, can I get to their beds to get them up so they won't drown in the water. Sleep like 45 minutes to an hour. If I get three hours of sleep, I do good.

Ellis: So this kind of dream keeps waking you up?

Curry: Yeah.

Ellis: Every night?

Curry: Uh-huh.

Ellis: The same one?

Curry: Uh-huh.

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 -

Bill Stallworth: It's just vitally important that we are able to safeguard this area. It will be just a low down, dirty shame for people to have worked all their lives only to be displaced and pushed out.

Find out more about Hurricane Katrina and the city of Biloxi at our web site: You can find all of ARW's previous documentaries, or sign up for our e-mail newsletter. That's at

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.

William Ernest Parker: My property should be Crawford Street, runs back up and goes to the bay here. It'll be probably where this ball park is here.

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: Thank you all very much for coming. Let me get a sense - how many people are here tonight for the first time?

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.

Brigham: What they have known is, they had a little house, and in many cases, they didn't have a mortgage on it because it had been passed down through the family. And that place is gone now. In some parts of that area, it's just not going to be possible to build that house back.

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.

Brigham: Our job is to say, "Here's the kind of city that's coming and the kind of city you can have."

But the Living Cities plan is just one of many. Other powerful forces have different maps for the future of East Biloxi.

Lenwood Sawyer: Here's Imperial Palace, here's Beau Rivage, then you come down in here is where the Grand, Casino Magic and Isle of Capri is located.

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.

Sawyer: In my opinion, and I rep folks who are looking at this now, you'll see real high-end condo development, high-rise, mid-rise condo development, you're gonna see retail, more business office buildings, that type of thing located in the center part right through here. All the rest of this will be back into gaming. In 10 years, all of this will be developed.

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.

Smith: This is where I'll be conducting my sleep from now on, hopefully.

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.

Smith: I'm going to end up in a house, I would say 200-times better than the one I was in. Much nicer house. It doesn't compensate for a lot of the things that we lost. I can't really look back at what was here before because then that would be depressing.

Smith: Hey how ya doing? Oh doing good, thanks.

Man: Is this your house?

Smith: Yeah.

As we talk, a church group from Massachusetts drops by. They're walking the neighborhood looking for people to help.

Man: We got some Home Depot cards. Our church for this trip, had people donating money, so we have $4,000 converted into Home Depot cards and we want to give them to guys like you who can hopefully use it. I don't know if there's anything you can use?

Smith: Yes, yes.

Man: We're just doing it in Jesus' name.

Smith: That's wonderful.

Man: Just want to share God's love with those that we can.

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.

Smith: Lot of people have left. I noticed, a lot of the houses down this way have been torn down and there's no FEMA trailers for them to live in. That's a pretty bad sign. A lot of 'em ain't gonna come back.

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.

Bill Stallworth: Hey there.

Olivia Kim: Brother Stallworth!

Stallworth: I'm going to look in the house for just a minute.

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.

Stallworth: It's just vitally important that we are able to safeguard this area. It would be a low-down, dirty shame for people to have worked all their lives only to be displaced.

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.

Stallworth: My goal is to produce a house a day.

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.

Stallworth: I want to seed that area. I want to seed it with houses so that it breaks up the idea that you can come in and buy any one big track of land for cheap.

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.

Ricky Mathews: The question is, is he giving the best advice to the people who live there?

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: So Bill will have to live with the consequences of asking people who have limited means to rebuild in areas where they could be susceptible to future storms.

Mathews argues Biloxi should not cut corners on designing homes that can survive future hurricanes.

Mathews: If we don't build back safely, we will get destroyed again. And believe me, the federal government is not going to be spending billions of dollars in rebuilding again. Particularly if we don't do it right this time.

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.

Mathews: We need 70,000 housing units just to get square. The estimates by 2010 are somewhere north of 100,000 housing units. If we continue to build housing on a yearly basis the way we were headed before Katrina, it'll take us about 50 years to get where we need to be. We need it today.

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.

Curry: Today is the first day of school, thank God. They're bored. And I'm bored too, because I can't find enough things for them to do.

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.

Curry: I've had three churches came out last week and took a look at the house. They tell me that they don't have anybody in who does the roof. Habitat for Humanity came out. They told me that right now they don't have people to do the roof. They said, I can go to the Salvation Army but the Salvation Army was only helping you with sheetrock. I can't get sheetrock when I don't have a roof on the house. Don't want to do that. I don't know what to do.

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]

Suaste: Hi. Oh stop. Let me put her away. You don't need her jumping on you. Come on, come on.

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.

Suaste: Eleven months after Hurricane Katrina and we're finally back in our home. We have furniture and still have yard work to work on. And still waiting for my kitchen cabinets. But I really didn't think a year later we'd even be this far. It's a nice feeling to be home.

But what about the feeling that another hurricane could come through and wipe out her house again?

Suaste: Tell me an area that is not dangerous. The West Coast, you've got mudslides, forest fires, earthquakes. The Midwest, tornados, brush fires. I guess you choose your medicine.

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.

Suaste: It could have been very easy for us to pack up what little we had left and moved and filed bankruptcy and just give in to everything. But if I did that, I lost everything that I put in thus far. To me, I was not willing to give up that easy.

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.

Foster: Call me if it gets finished, we'll come over and stay with y'all. In a real house. Good. We'll take them. Bye Sarah.

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.

Foster: Actually, it's worse. Because the year anniversary is coming up, and we just knew that we would be in the house. So the longer we're in the trailer, the more closed the quarters become, because the more things you accumulate. Now I have uniforms for the boys. Now I have their school supplies, now I have my school supplies.

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.

Foster: I had a false sense of security, believing with my heart and soul that no matter what catastrophe or disaster happened to this country, that our government was like, "We're the big giant, would come in and help." I'm not saying they didn't come in and rescue people, we didn't need that. I'm talking about long-term recovery. They're not there to help.

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.

Barney Foster: The church groups. Some of them take their vacation. Instead of going on vacation they come down here to help. They're like, "You don't realize what this does for us." We try to explain to them, "If you feel that good, it makes us feel a 100 times better, you just don't know." I said, "I don't think it's the fact that y'all came in here and worked, it's that y'all came, that y'all care."

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 You can find all of our previous documentaries or sign up for our e-mail newsletter. That's at

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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