Biloxi, three years later

August 28, 2008

This summer, I was treated to a radically new view of the Mississippi I know. Reaching the top of the newly constructed Highway 90 Bridge, which replaced an older one destroyed three years ago by Hurricane Katrina, the entire peninsula of Biloxi spread out before me. As a Biloxi boy whose family has been in the region since before the Civil War, it was one of the most stunning sites I have ever seen. The bridge is also one of the few positive changes since Katrina.

Biloxi is the cultural center of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a region that has always been more New Orleans gumbo than Mississippi catfish. In fact, it was the original New Orleans, founded around twenty years before the Big Easy ever came into existence. It is a city settled by French, Croatians, Cajuns, and Vietnamese, a city that is proud of its Catholic heritage and cannot live without its Mardi Gras, a city where a po-boy is always lunch and no dinner is complete without French bread.

Three years ago, it was all swept from under my feet. My low-lying peninsula city could not survive one of the most powerful hurricanes the U.S. has ever seen. The church in which I was baptized was reduced to a skeletal steel structure. A casino barge landed on my preschool. My dad’s house washed away.

And the recovery efforts, which were supposed to make the Mississippi Gulf Coast bigger and better, made it neither. The latest census figures from July showed that Biloxi is still shedding residents, most likely those who have found it too tough to rebuild and have given up. We’re actually lucky: the Census Bureau still cannot determine population figures for other cities situated only a few miles from Katrina’s landfall, like Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis, due to their almost total devastation.

My grandparents were forced to relocate from their home in the historic center of East Biloxi after their house was flooded with several feet of water. Instead of rebuilding, they gave the house away and moved to the next town over. Most of the lots around theirs are still empty, too. New flood zone regulations, requiring houses to be constructed 20 feet above the ground to get federal aid for rebuilding, have made it nearly impossible for the neighborhood to recapture its pre-Katrina character. Insurance is extremely hard to obtain, as companies like State Farm pulled out of Mississippi after the storm. Though my grandparents would love building a new structure at the site of their old home, they, along with their neighbors, simply cannot.

The lack of effective government action has exacerbated the situation. Our Republican mayor, governor, and president have allowed the important parts of the city to wither away while still insisting that the recovery is going well. Instead of cleaning up the Coast and pushing for insurance companies to actually insure residents, they have allowed $500 million allocated for rebuilding housing to be diverted to the expansion of the state port of Gulfport, a pre-Katrina plan unrelated to the current crisis.

Politicians have trampled all over the residents while gaining political points on our so-called “recovery.” A.J. Holloway, Biloxi’s mayor, has ranted about how people still living in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers want to live there because they are free. Believe me, no one wants to live in a FEMA trailer: beyond being tiny, they contain dangerously high levels of formaldehyde.

Some good things have come back since the storm. A popular local po-boy restaurant opened in a new downtown location, across the street from the cathedral. A brand new pier was built on the beach to house the city’s two schooners. The construction of our slow-to-be-built art museum designed by Frank Gehry is continuing once again. And an artist has made sculptures of local sea life out of dead trees along the beach highway.

But these instances of rebuilding are too few and far between. It’s a scary time right now, since the city really does not know in which direction it wants to go; we could become another Las Vegas, as our mayor practically insists, and lose our unique identity, or we could meld the past with the future and become a world-class city.

Despite all my complaints, no matter how hard I try to get away from it, I always feel a tug pulling me back to my hometown, telling me that I need to help get the city back on its feet. Maybe one day, my duty as a Biloxi boy will be too strong to resist.

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