As recovery lags in Gulf, spirits sag, too
In pockets of Mississippi's coast, Katrina survivors battle the foe of despair.
Pearlington, Miss. — When he peered out of his FEMA trailer at the frame of a new house in his front yard, Tony Dixon didn't see, as others might, a symbol of progress on the battered Mississippi coast.
Instead, Mr. Dixon claims, the frame became a taunt – a daily reminder that "corrupt" recovery coordinators kept diverting building supplies from his project to rebuild homes for their buddies. The former firefighter says his frustration boiled over one day last month in a bizarre one-man protest: He used his truck to yank the wood frame off its pilings and then set fire to the rubble, standing off with police until the flames died down.
"Normally I'm an easygoing person, but it got to where I just said, 'Enough of this mess,' " says Dixon.
Officials deny any conspiracy to sideline the project, and Dixon now faces arson charges. But his bonfire suggests that hope and patience are wearing thin for some Katrina survivors on the Mississippi coast, where promising starts and glimmers of normalcy are dogged by slow federal relief, waning volunteerism, and even the quirks of residents themselves.
"There's a growing gap between the ones who have been on the road to recovery and a significant group – perhaps 20 to 30 percent – who don't see the light at the end of the tunnel," says Ray Scurfield, director of the Katrina Research Center at the University of Southern Mississippi in Long Beach. Lack of progress compared with others, he adds, is "becoming more unsettling to the group that still feels stuck."
Here in Pearlington, called Katrina's "forgotten town" by many familiar with its plight, as many as one-third of the storm's survivors are experiencing a dull sense of despair, experts say. For them, signs of progress elsewhere only add to a feeling of isolation.
By some measures, coastal Mississippi's recovery is coming along. The state has sped things along by opting to send checks directly to survivors, instead of requiring the submittal of communitywide plans for large-scale aid, as Louisiana has done. Mississippi so far has distributed $958.2 million to 26,500 storm-wrecked households located above the flood zone. Up the beach in Biloxi, the casinos have led a surging boardwalk revival. When the battered Bay Bridge between Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian reopened in May, months ahead of schedule, locals like Chuck Breath conceded he'd never seen "a chunk of concrete look so beautiful."
Uninsured in low-lying Pearlington
But for at least 7,000 uninsured Mississippi households in tucked-away spots like Pearlington – one of the poorest towns in one of the poorest states – precious little has been put back the way it was.
Pearlington, prestorm population 1,500, remains a sleepy haven of retirees, military veterans, working-class families, and others who could afford to buy a plot in the bottomlands and a small house, but not always the flood insurance. In such places, where elevation is barely above sea level, government red tape and natives not keen on changing their building standards have slowed the recovery to a crawl.
"A lot of these people ... don't know any other lifestyle. They live day to day in self-reliance, and part of that is to throw caution to the wind and hope everything is going to be OK," says Tom Dalessandri, an emergency management coordinator from Carbondale, Colo., who has worked extensively in Pearlington.
In part because Pearlington is a remote and unincorporated part of the county, residents here waited four days for rescue crews after the storm. Likewise, it is playing catch-up in the broader recovery.
Residents who did have insurance often took paltry settlements – averaging about $15,000 – to pay back storm debts. The post office washed away, and some residents still travel nearly 40 miles round trip each day to retrieve mail in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Volunteers, working from a donation-driven recovery center nicknamed "PearlMart," have provided 85 percent of the labor to rebuild about 150 out of 500 homes. But donations, supplies, and even the volunteers themselves are dwindling, with no groups yet scheduled for August. Scraping the free-labor barrel, organizers are now often relying on 13-year-olds to swing hammers.
More darkly, locals blame several suicides on the poststorm ennui. Long waits and lack of progress have caused neighbors to raise voices against one another, as Dixon can attest. Some who have rebuilt say they feel guilty as they watch their neighbors struggle. For many survivors eking out days in trailers, there's a sense that "they've been forgotten," says Mr. Scurfield at the Katrina Research Center.
Many simply want straight answers. "Our government, if they're going to give people money, then give it to them," says Pearlington resident Rocky Pullman, chairman of the Hancock County Board of Supervisors. "If they're not, then just tell them they ain't, tough luck, it's over with."
In some ways, Mr. Dalessandri says, the government not only has failed to help residents in a timely manner, but also has undermined Pearlington, in part by mandating new building standards that are too onerous and far-sighted for the immediate needs of residents.
What's more, aloof attitudes by bureaucrats and arbitrary decisions about rebuilding requirements, especially by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have added to the human toll of the recovery, says US Rep. Gene Taylor (D) of Mississippi, who lobbied for faster funding in scathing testimony on Capitol Hill in May. A June report from Congress's Government Accountability Office faulted federal agencies for taking too long to get into long-term recovery mode. No public buildings – such as fire stations and city halls – have been rebuilt from Pass Christian to Pearlington.
"Economically and physically clobbered places like Pearlington continue to deal with [recovery managers] who don't appear to know their jobs, don't understand the ropes, and won't make decisions," says Representative Taylor in an interview.
Government officials bear some blame for the long waits and stringent demands – such as requiring Pearlington's only school to be rebuilt 30 miles away on higher ground, says Mike Womack, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. But so do many local residents, he adds. Many simply do not want to build to conform to the new storm elevations – an attitude that puts them in conflict with policymakers and taxpayers who aren't keen to bail them out again in the event of another whopper hurricane.
"One of the greatest impediments to rebuilding the Mississippi Gulf Coast are social issues, where at least 50 percent of the delay involves people who don't want to accept that they have to build in a different fashion to be safe," Mr. Womack says.
Checks mailed to some households
Still, the first 96 checks for Phase II of the Mississippi recovery effort were mailed last month, part of a multimillion-dollar aid package for at least 7,000 low-lying households, including some in Pearlington, that had no storm insurance – allowing up to $130,000 per family to rebuild to the new elevations.
"[Recovery] is never soon enough," says Donna Sanford, recovery director for the Mississippi Development Authority in Jackson. "This is a problem we've never dealt with before, so there's no road map for us to follow."
One way that townspeople have bucked up their flagging spirits is by returning some of the outpouring of charity that flooded Pearlington after the surge receded. When a tornado flattened a Kansas town this spring, people here scraped together enough blankets, clothes, and toothpaste to fill a 53-foot trailer.
They knew exactly what the Kansans would need after the storm.