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Reinventing Biloxi

Marketplace Staff Aug 29, 2006

SCOTT JAGOW: In Biloxi, Mississippi, a lot of the hurricane recovery has been fueled by gambling. Before the storm, most of the casinos were on floating barges. But Biloxi’s now letting more of them them build on land. The casino business has lured people back to the city for jobs. But housing is another story. Government help for homeowners is only trickling in. And the group in the worst shape might be renters.Stephen Smith of American Radioworks was in Biloxi today for the Katrina services.

HALEY BARBOUR: This is where the hurricane hit, and the obliteration was so enormous that it couldn’t be captured by a TV screen or a photograph.

STEPHEN SMITH: Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour stood on Biloxi’s town green this morning. With speeches and song, Biloxi held a memorial at exactly the time when Hurricane Katrina’s tidal surge swept through the city one year ago. Governor Barbour was flanked by Mississippi’s powerful congressional delegation — including Senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran — who helped bring billions in federal recovery money to the state. The service was a time for somber reflection on the lives lost and the neighborhoods devastated by Katrina. But there was also intense pride in the Mississippi coast’s recovery — especially in comparison to New Orleans.

BARBOUR: Our people are not into victimhood. Our people got knocked down by the worst disaster in American history and got right back up, hitched up their britches and went to work.

After the memorial service the dignitaries went down the street for the reopening of the Beau Rivage Casino. It’s the most luxurious of Biloxi’s casinos and the largest building in the state of Mississippi. Its parent company, MGM Mirage of Las Vegas, spent half a billion dollars rebuilding the storm-ravaged casino. Employees in their silk vests and cocktail dresses streamed in the reopened doors.

Six of Biloxi’s original nine casinos are back open today. City officials predict the casino business will double its pre-hurricane size within a decade. There are proposals for an amusement park and other attractions in Biloxi.

But there’s anger on the first anniversary as well. Across the street from the Beau Rivage, two hundred people marched the sidewalk to demand more government money for poor people made homeless by the storm. Biloxi City Councilman Bill Stallworth says the casinos and related jobs are critical to the city’s recovery, but many of the lower-paid casino workers and thousands of other renters can’t find an affordable place to live.

BILL STALLWORTH: I think if we had put as much attention on that situation as we have trying to get the casinos back up and going, we’d be a lot farther along.

In December, Congress passed a tax relief program to spark housing and business investment on the Gulf Coast. It pledged $5 billion in rebuilding aid to Mississippi homeowners but relatively little federal money is earmarked for renters.

JUDY JACKSON: When I hear people talk about, “I’m waiting on that money from the governor. It’s comin’, it’s comin’, it’s comin'” I’m like, what about us? So I just feel very helpless right now.

Judy Jackson was renting the house she lived in when Katrina hit. That house was destroyed. Jackson and her family have been staying at a relative’s place outside Biloxi. The Jacksons want to move back to the city, but rents have nearly doubled. Before the storm Judy Jackson paid $650 a month for a three-bedroom house; a place that size now goes for $1,200.

JACKSON: I work everyday. My husband works everyday. We’re just common American people. We don’t make that kind of money to even attempt to pay them that kind of money for rent.

Before Katrina about half the people in Biloxi’s poorest part of town were renters. The storm also damaged or destroyed 45 percent of the city’s public housing. Congress set aside money to rebuild public housing but the aid is stalled in bureaucracy.

DELMAR ROBINSON: It makes no sense whatsoever.

Delmar Robinson is the head of public housing in Biloxi. He says many of the working people who lived in the city’s public housing are in other parts of the South waiting to return. Robinson worries that he and the government in general are failing them.

ROBINSON: We haven’t gotten them back here, and the jobs are here.

As Biloxi marked today’s one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with prayers and ribbon cuttings, many people who lived in public and rental housing are still praying for help.

In Biloxi, this is Stephen Smith for Marketplace.

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