Recovery Stagnant In Mississippi Coast Towns

Washington Post

Sunday 27 November 2005, 5:28 pm

By Michael Powell, Washington Post Staff Writer

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. -- Three months ago, Katrina all but scoured this old beach town of 8,000 off the face of the Earth. To walk its streets today is to see acres of wreckage almost as untouched as the day the hurricane passed.

No new houses are framed out. No lots cleared. There is just devastation and a lingering stench and a tent city in which hundreds of residents huddle against the first chill of winter and wonder where they'll find the money to rebuild their lives.

Like New Orleans to the west, hundreds of square miles of Mississippi coastland look little better than they did in early September. At least 200,000 Mississippians remain displaced, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is short at least 13,000 trailers to house them.

Fifty thousand homeowners lack federal flood insurance and cannot rebuild. The unemployment rate has quadrupled, now topping 23 percent in the coastal counties.

The personal shock of it all hasn't subsided. Locals say it's not uncommon to hear perfectly rational people talk of suicide.

Not all the news is grim. Workers in Biloxi have carted away 1 million cubic yards of debris. They have stretched blue tarps over tens of thousands of damaged roofs. Every town along the Gulf Coast has an operating school -- the last one opened in Bay St. Louis on Nov. 6, albeit with only 100 of its original 300 students.

There are twin devastations in Mississippi, and it would take Solomon to pick the worse of the two. There are the coastal cities and there are such places as tiny Pearlington, deep in the woods and marshlands along the Louisiana border. Here a 35-foot-high storm surge roared up the Pearl River.

This is a self-reliant corner of the state, and neighbors sawed and hauled debris -- one even shot a 12-foot alligator lolling in a living room. But the local school remains shredded, its roof a spaghetti of metal beams. Everyone lost cars and trucks, and there's no money for replacements. Many people sleep in tents or shacks that have been roughly thrown together.