For a reporter returning to southern Mississippi after four months away, signs of progress are clearly evident. But seven months after Hurricane Katrina flattened much of Bay St. Louis and Waveland, the pace of reconstruction is maddeningly slow and frustrating to many residents.
It will be many years before life returns to normal in these two small cities on the Gulf Coast, but the steady process of rebuilding should mean hundreds of more housing units will be available over the next year.
And while everyone who calls the area home would prefer that the hurricane never happened, many businesses that have been able to open clearly are doing a booming business. Strong lumberyard sales, for example, are one reason Bay St. Louis sales tax revenues have been higher than expected, although overall city income is still down sharply because Casino Magic remains closed. The casino is expected to reopen by the end of 2006 along with some of its restaurants and its 14-story hotel.
Driving along U.S. 90, the main highway connecting Bay St. Louis and Waveland, it is apparent that many businesses, especially smaller ones, have repaired, rebuilt and reopened. The area is still woefully short on grocery stores, although Wal-Mart has expanded its food selection and appears likely to become the area's dominant grocery outlet for the foreseeable future. The only other grocery store is more than 10 miles away in Diamondhead.
While groceries are a bit hard to come by, the restaurant scene has improved dramatically, as two of the most popular sit-down restaurants have reopened on Highway 90 in Bay St. Louis. Rickey's Bar and Grill was formerly located on Colman Avenue in Waveland, which was wiped out by the storm. Trapani's Eatery was on the waterfront in Bay St. Louis. Both specialize in local cuisine with a heavy emphasis on seafood.
The scope of the hurricane's destruction is still astonishing, and many residents complain of a shortage of available workers, even though the roads are crammed with contractor pickup trucks. One major obstacle is a lack of available housing for employees, which means many workers have to commute from Slidell, La., 30 miles away, raising reconstruction costs.
In the most devastated parts of Bay St. Louis and Waveland, the main change over the past four months is that hundreds of lots have been cleared of debris. But in most of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, only a few homes have been rebuilt to the point where they are livable again.
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