Even though so many of their neighborhoods look like this street in Biloxi, MS, most of the Mississipians we talk to are clear on one point: they will rebuild. But aside from waiting on endless lines to get the right paperwork and endless telephone calls to their insurance companies, one of the major challenges is figuring out where to live in the meantime.
While wandering around Biloxi, MS one day, we came upon a merry group of neighbors having a visit on the front porch of a tidy but gutted house. With help from volunteers, they were able to clear out the debris from their house, throwing nearly everything away save a bed frame and a dresser. They feel lucky that the structure remains intact. And though the porch remains suitible for afternoon chats, they are living in a FEMA trailer parked in their driveway.
Most people are living in FEMA trailers, small mobile homes from 13 feet long to 21 feet long (depending on the size of your family). Buddy, the affable security guard at the Prime Outlets mall where the booth is parked has been living with his roommate in an 18 foot trailer which, he says, "is getting smaller everyday." One woman we talked to was living in an 21 foot trailer with her husband and three teenage boys–all of whom are taller than she is.
We visited Tom and his sweet dog inside his FEMA trailer. Tom’s house was at the bottom of a dead end street. He rode the storm out in his house. When it was over, he found that nearly all of his neighbors possesions had wound up in his front yard. On the small table in his trailer are three or four handguns and twice that many watches along with other odds and ends he was able to salvage. He said that after the storm the end of his street was clogged with all sorts of debris, cars, boats–even some bodies.
Some people haven’t been able to get the FEMA trailers so they have resorted to living in tents. For most people, their property is all they have left–even if there is nothing on it. Many are still paying mortgages on houses that no longer exist.
We’re staying at the Isle of Capri Hotel and Casino in Biloxi, MS, one of the few hotels still standing along highway 90. It’s a odd privilege to be staying right in the middle of one of the hardest hit areas. Closed off to most of the public, we are required to go through a military checkpoint before driving up the empty highway to the Isle of Capri. On our left are battered hotels–the Beau Rivage, the Hard Rock Hotel, Casino Magic–on the right, where there used to be old ante-bellum houses and beachfront homes, are sets of stairs leading to piles of debris. It’s an eerie sight, the daily dose of which has become an important part of how we’re coming to understand this storm and it’s impact.
Above, is a view from Facilitator Nick Yulman’s hotel room. You can see across the highway what little is left of the neighborhood–a community of fisherman, mostly shrimpers, many Vietnamese–that once surrounded these hotels.
Because of off-shore gambling laws, the hotels built their casinos on large barges. The force of the hurricane took three of those barges (as big as hotels themselves) and carried them across the highway. The Isle of Capri’s casino disappeared without a trace. Above, you can see one of those barges being dismantled by wrecking crews.
The Isle of Capri, closed to the general public, is teeming with FEMA and EPA employees as well as builders, electricians, plumbers, and anyone else needed to renovate the damaged hotel in order to re-open later this month. One hotel employee, Rocco Asencio and his wife Terri came to the StoryBooth to talk about their hurricane experience.
We weren’t sure what to expect when we pulled into Gulfport, MS. Three months after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Mississippi Gulf Coast, destroying 90 miles of coastline, it was hard to imagine what kind of stop this would be for StoryCorps. Would people be ready to talk about their experiences? And if they were, would they be willing to find the time in their already upside down lives to come share their stories? Fortunately, it seems like there is a real desire among these Mississipians to put on the record exactly what happened here and how it’s changed their lives.
Mississippi Public Broadcasting has made it possible for us to set up in the parking lot of the Prime Outlets mall at the intersection of two major roads. It’s important that we are located in a place that is easy for people to access. Many of the roads are still closed and those that are still open are often without street signs or clogged with traffic. Above, highway 90, the major coastal highway, is completely closed.
While so much has changed on the Gulf, the sunsets are still beautiful. But even bathed in pink light, the bulldozer on the beach and the scattered remnants of a pier are reminders of how much has changed here.