Four months have passed since Hurricane Katrina roared ashore in Hancock County, Miss., changing forever in just a few hours the landscape and lives of its 46,000 residents.
In many ways, Bay St. Louis, Waveland and their surroundings are indeed rising from ruin. From Highway 90, the main commercial drag through both towns, to Beach Boulevard, which winds around the Bay of St. Louis and down the Gulf of Mexico, also tying the communities together, there is a hustle and bustle more befitting Wild West boomtowns than Southern verandas and bayous.
The challenge of temporarily housing the thousands of displaced residents appears to have been largely met. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reports that it has received 26,678 requests for help and has provided $95.5 million in housing assistance to the county, and $42 million for other needs. FEMA has placed 8,188 travel trailers and 13 mobile homes in Hancock County.
Government agencies, private builders and non-profit groups are gearing up for a massive blitz to build new permanent homes in the area. One of the most notable efforts is being undertaken by Habitat for Humanity, which is now seeking land for the thousands of homes it hopes to build across the Gulf Coast region in the next 18 months via its sweat-equity program.
There was some good news before Christmas for homeowners who had been told they did not need flood insurance, did not carry any and have been rebuffed by the carriers of their regular policies: The state of Mississippi plans to use billions of money it receives in a federal hurricane relief to give them grants for rebuilding.
Before that rebuilding work can begin in earnest, however, there are still mountains of storm debris to be removed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is running that project and reports that 2,512,917 cubic yards of debris have been removed so far, much of it from public streets and roads.
The clearing of individual residential lots in areas where Katrina left giant beaver dams of two-by-fours, roof decking and appliances is going slowly and that has become a frustration often heard on the streets and in public meetings. Contractors worked all last week in a lower Waveland neighborhood on Favre Street just to get a handful of parcels swept down to bare earth.
Post-Katrina commerce gains new footholds daily. Before Katrina, the Chamber of Commerce counted 1,400 businesses in the county. The chamber said 800 were damaged or destroyed. Many others temporarily shut down. A list maintained by the Mississippi Economic Council this week lists nearly 200 Hancock County concerns that are back in operation after the storm, from Granny’s Bait in Waveland to Yuki Art & Interiors in Bay St. Louis. Although the list includes some government entities and churches, it has doubled in size since mid-November.
One key link to the world beyond, the CSX Railroad bridge, should see its first freight cross the Bay of St. Louis before spring arrives. Within weeks, work will begin in earnest on an even more important connection, the Highway 90 vehicle bridge, although the date by when drivers will first be able to use it was pushed back by some months over funding issues.
The same federal largesse that will help some homeowners and pay for part of the bridge also will make the county’s schools, which suffered $26 million in Katrina damage, financially whole again, according to the school board. It took more than two months after the storm for classrooms to reopen, but by Christmas break, 3,858 kids, or 80 percent of the pre-storm student body, had returned, albeit many of them to temporary buildings. The focus on academics was a challenge as nearly half came from families left homeless or displaced by Katrina.
The financial news for local governments has not been as good. Although the two cities and the county will get plenty of help from FEMA and other sources to fund capital projects, they have had a far tougher time trying to balance their operating budgets in a post-Katrina world that has robbed them of most revenue from sales and property taxes, and, in the case of Bay St. Louis, casino operations. As the New Year approaches, the mayors and their councils, and the county board of supervisors, are poring over options to use borrowed funds and seek state and federal grants to keep their no-layoff vows.
The holidays found many county residents able to relax and spend time with friends and family. There were joyous reunions and time to swap stories by those who had ridden out the storm and share sad news of those who did not make it. There was even a FEMA trailer decorating contest.
And although Bay St. Louis and Waveland banned fireworks, a staple of New Years celebrations in many southern locales, one entrepreneur found a way to hawk pyrotechnic offerings anyway, guaranteeing at least a few bright spots as 2006 arrives.
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