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Ghosts of Mississippi

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Casinos reopening, but area remains a disaster

by Rob Wiser

At the time of this writing, it had been nearly five months since Hurricane Katrina hit. With each passing week, this epic tragedy—which arrived on August 29, 2005—fades a bit more from the national consciousness.

But step off the plane in Gulfport, MS, as I did recently, and you’ll immediately sense that the wounds inflicted by Katrina are still raw. Every conversation you overhear relates in some way to the disaster. National Guardsmen in fatigues, FEMA workers and groups of volunteers—ordinary citizens who continue to fly in to assist with relief efforts—stand beside me in the baggage claim area, a grim sense of purpose etched on their faces.

As I ride in a taxi towards my destination—the Isle of Capri casino, located on the Gulf Coast—the forests of trees on either side of the road were twisted, some splintered like matchsticks. Even here, miles from the water, Katrina’s wrath was unimaginable. As we near the water, and I witness the effect it had on residential communities, the destruction can only be described as biblical in proportion.

But like many of you who are reading this story, I had associated one place with Hurricane Katrina: New Orleans. As we all know, the levees broke, 80 percent of the city was submerged and the populace was plunged into nightmarish conditions while relief efforts fumbled in disgraceful and humiliating fashion. Meanwhile, the media swarmed to the scene, capturing hellish images of thousands suffering in the Louisiana Superdome. Television pundits debated allegations that the race and economic status of the victims slowed down the government’s response. Video footage of looters was replayed ad nauseum. The Superdome fiasco became the focal point of the story, and once it had been resolved, the media moved on—leaving the American public with the false impression that the crisis had passed. Help, it seemed, had arrived. Public officials declared that New Orleans would be back and better than ever.

But there is another side to this ongoing saga that has been largely overlooked. While New Orleans may have been the public face of the catastrophe, it was the Mississippi Gulf Coast that sustained even worse devastation. New Orleans was spared the full fury of the storm when it veered east and rampaged inland along the Louisiana-Mississippi state line. Unlike New Orleans, the Gulf Coast wasn’t just flooded; furious winds generated 30-foot tidal waves that flattened entire neighborhoods. Gigantic, multi-level casino-hotels were swept away or flung across roads, destruction that defied imagination and laws of physics.

The final tally, according to Gulfport’s Sun Herald newspaper, was staggering: $125 billion in estimated damage, 236 dead and 65,380 houses destroyed. (By comparison, Louisiana’s death toll stood at 1,078, with more than 6,000 homes in New Orleans and neighboring St. Bernard Parish flooded and likely facing demolition.) Yet the damage along Mississippi’s 70-mile stretch of coastline has been a mere footnote to the horror in New Orleans. In an editorial headlined Mississippi’s Invisible Coast, the Sun Herald stated that the Gulf Coast is fading into a “black hole of media obscurity.”

“Katrina was an animal that nobody expected,” says Cathye Ross, senior director of marketing for Isle of Capri Casinos. I’m riding shotgun in her car as we travel down Highway 90, which runs parallel to the Gulf of Mexico. Prior to Katrina, this was 12 miles of gorgeous high-end beachfront. Now, on this overcast January afternoon, it resembles the dawn after a nuclear winter.

The extent of the damage varies from block to block; Katrina’s wrath was as cruel as it was random. On one side of the highway, the giant guitar outside the Hard Rock casino-hotel stands relatively unscathed (the $300-million resort was on the verge of opening when Katrina struck). Directly across the street, there are empty, scarred lots where homes, shops and restaurants were washed away.

In the opposite direction, the bridge connecting Biloxi to Ocean Springs, a residential community where many casino employees live, was reduced to rubble by the high winds and waves. The reconstruction of this bridge remains mired in agonizing bureaucracy, forcing employees to drive a long, circuitous route to and from work. The extra gas this trip requires is an expense that many can ill afford right now.

“All of this property either had houses or businesses on it,” Ross says, directing me to look out the window to my right. We’re driving past a long stretch of empty land where the ground is littered with chunks of debris. I’d assumed I was seeing the aftermath of the cleanup effort, where damaged buildings had been bulldozed and carted off. But as Cathye informed me, nothing had been bulldozed. The storm had literally ripped entire city blocks from the ground and carried them off. This rubble was all that was left.

She points out where a Boys and Girls club once stood, and where an entire condominium complex had vanished into the wind. Where there had been shopping plazas filled with restaurants, and marinas filled with boats. A brand-new museum designed by famed architect Frank Gehry; the home of Jefferson Davis, who led the Confederate States of America during the Civil War; a Presidential Library. All of it, and much more, either mangled beyond recognition or simply gone.

I had no idea it was this bad. Not even close. “Believe it or not,” she tells me with a rueful smile, “this is the cleaned up version.”

She points out the site where the President Casino once stood. Incredibly, it takes us several minutes of driving before we see where it wound up: miles down the road, now a colossal, twisted scrap heap. Treasure Bay is an even more haunting visual: an immense, multi-level casino resembling a pirate ship, now stranded on the beach with its entire lower half gutted by the storm waters.

Ross was employed by Grand Casinos when Katrina made its deadly approach; she fled her home in Ocean Springs to take refuge in Jackson, MS, a two-hour drive away. “I was just like anyone else,” she says, “watching CNN hour after hour and trying to see what was going on. You didn’t know if your house was still there or not. It was miserable…after the storm there were no cell phones, no communication, nothing. People were talking by text messages. This went on for days.”

We continue on. “All along here, there were mansions,” she says, nodding towards another patch of bombed-out landscape. “I mean mansions…huge homes.” Some of the once-magnificent structures still stand, reduced to deserted hulks that look like they took direct hits from cruise missiles. She notes the home of a prominent legislator, and an antebellum estate once featured in Southern Living Magazine. Across the face of one ruined million-dollar residence, the words “YOU LOOT, WE SHOOT” are spray-painted. It’s like a scene out of a post-apocalyptic Hollywood movie.

I bring up the topic of New Orleans. Among the Gulf Coast residents I’d spoken with, there was obvious frustration over the disproportionate amount of media coverage that their city was receiving. Ross told me she’d recently made a trip there. “I was talking to a gal and she found out I was from the Gulf Coast. She said to me, ‘so did you have any bad weather over there?’”

We share a chuckle, lightening the somber mood for a moment. We drive in silence for awhile, viewing more scenes of destruction, and then she states a sentiment that I would hear more than once during my stay. “There’s such a sense of community here. I love this area and I wouldn’t want to be anyplace else right now…even though you could say there isn’t much here.”

I would hear these same thoughts echoed by others who had literally lost everything. The people of the Gulf Coast are not only resilient, but deeply rooted—this is an area of the country where families live for generations, where you raise your children and they raise their grandchildren. Many of these communities are now gone, never to return, wiped away without a trace. The human costs of this can’t be factored into any federal budget. ´

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