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Town where Katrina made landfall now braces for BP oil spill

Waveland, Miss., still bears the marks of Katrina in trailers, unfinished construction, and a closed waterpark. Now, the BP oil spill is threatening its coast. Residents wonder if the town can survive.

By Staff writer / May 3, 2010

A fisherman walks on the dock past idle fishing boats on Monday in Pass Christian, Miss., as the fleet is confined to port since the shutdown of all fishing on the Gulf Coast due to the BP oil spill. Nearby, the town of Waveland is already seeing dead sea life wash up on shore.

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Waveland, Miss.

The brand new fishing pier of this Gulf coast city is virtually deserted, and it is no wonder why. “All you hear on the radio is oil, oil, oil,” sighs Gabe Stockfleth, the pier’s manager.

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Southeasterly winds are pushing acre upon acre of oil-darkened water from the BP oil spill toward Waveland, depriving the pier of its usual complement of fishers of red snapper, speckled trout, and wahoo. But the winds are also bringing something else: a sense of déjà vu.

This is the place where hurricane Katrina first touched land in August 2005. Now, it again stands as a literal beachhead for forecasts of catastrophe – a community whose needs are so dire that President Obama has given the mayor a special phone number to reach him directly.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

This stretch of coast is one of the more human faces of the environmental disaster looming just offshore. While much of the attention has been focused on the sparsely populated swamplands of southwest Louisiana, where Mr. Obama spoke Sunday, Mississippi’s west coast is home to large estates and churches, water parks and casinos – reminders of the area’s heyday as a vacation destination.

The echo of Katrina is still evident in the rebuilt houses on tall stilts, the “for sale” signs that line the beach, and the shuttered water park. So many malls closed that the only place to buy groceries now is Walmart. The public library still operates out of a makeshift trailer.

What economic recovery that began after Katrina has been brought “to a screeching halt” by skyrocketing insurance rates and the economic downturn, says Mayor John "Tommy" Longo.

Some 40 percent of the population never returned after Katrina. Now, many here worry that the approaching black tide will swallow this town whole.

Friends in high places

“We’re trying to live out the best of the days here,” Ray Crosby, a lifelong resident and one of the few fishing at the pier Monday. “When this oil starts smelling, ain’t nobody gonna want to stay here.”

Federal recovery crews are nine miles offshore laying down containment booms along vulnerable Mississippi and Alabama coastlines. Efforts to burn the oil and the use of 156,000 gallons of dispersants have proved only minimally effective due to a stormy weekend.

“The weather has been our biggest enemy,” says Mayor Longo.

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