Devasted region still has a long recovery ahead

Aman Ali

Students from the University of Akron ride in the back of a rental truck as they drive to the Miramar Lodge nursing home in Pass Christian, Miss. GAVIN JACKSON | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. – Driving along U.S. Highway 90, the Mississippi interstate connecting Pass Christian and Biloxi, much of the destruction Hurricane Katrina unleashed here is still apparent.

Insides of buildings were completely gutted. A casino in the shape of a titanic Viking ship caved in as if pirates had toppled it with cannonballs.

The scraps from the hurricane’s devastation were an eerie reminder of what this coastal region used to be. For some demolished homes, the only remnants were porch steps that now lead to nowhere. Colossal highway signs for restaurants like McDonald’s and Waffle House stood in empty parking lots with no buildings to offer.

“You look at pictures and it’s not the same,” sophomore nursing major Melissa Rowland said. “You have to see this place for yourself.”

Remembering what happened during the hurricane brought painful memories for many residents who survived the storm.

“I told my son as we drove off Highway 90 to take a last look at the city because it will never be the same,” recalled Lisa Wheeler, resident of Ocean Springs, Miss. “This (area) is like a whole new world now. You can’t even recognize some these streets anymore.”

Police officials who stayed behind during the hurricane had difficulty navigating around the chaos. Entire houses were knocked off their foundations and sat in the middle of some streets. Signs on houses like “You loot, we shoot” and “Thanks for stealing my scaffold. I hope you fall and break your neck!” indicated the looting that ran amuck after the hurricane.

“There were no working radio towers to help us police the city,” Pass Christian patrolman Kurt Langenbacher said. “We had to block off the city to everybody except the road crews and volunteers.”

Langenbacher added “things are slowly getting back to normal” for the area. For the past seven months, volunteers and local residents of Biloxi and Pass Christian have undertaken the daunting task of returning both cities to normalcy.

“God will make a way for us,” said Peggy Gibson, preacher and Biloxi resident. “There are a lot of people who want us to leave, but this is home.”

Over 50 different waste management and construction crews have been cleaning up debris around both cities. Using knuckleboom trucks, vehicles that resemble toy crane machines often found in arcades, waste crews are transporting the debris to nearby landfills. Construction crews are demolishing buildings that have too much damage to be repaired.

In other areas, agencies like The East Biloxi Coordination and Relief Center have been helping local residents since the storm hit. Founded by Councilman Bill Stallworth of Biloxi’s 2nd Ward, the center supplies food, water and home repairs to nearby residents.

“Basically, our center is a one-stop shop here,” Stallworth said. “When people need something, they get it here.”

Stallworth hopes residents of Biloxi and Pass Christian will take rebuilding efforts into their own hands as well.

“We learned the hard way we can’t do it (rebuild) unless we do it on our own,” Stallworth said. “When you rely on other folks to solve your problems, you won’t get them solved.”

Before the hurricane, Biloxi was a booming industry for fishing and tourism. Casinos and shrimp operations in the city brought in a bulk of revenue for Mississippi’s economy. Only a small handful of both business establishments are operating now.

A hurricane remotely near Katrina’s magnitude hasn’t hit southern Mississippi since Hurricane Camille in 1969. Many of the residents who survived Camille underestimated the impact of Katrina.

“I thought Katrina wouldn’t be so bad,” Biloxi resident Pham Kiet said. “After the hurricane, my neighborhood looked like a cemetery. I lived here for over 30 years – my God.”

Several residents and experts expect the rebuilding process in Biloxi and Pass Christian to take at least five to ten years.

“The only thing we can do right now is start over and pick up the pieces,” Wheeler said. “That’s about all you can do.”

Contact student affairs reporter Aman Ali at [email protected]