BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – Eddie Favre is still wearing short pants.
Although the sweltering heat in this Gulf Coast town makes his attire a no-brainer in August, the five-term mayor has now worn shorts for 729 days in a row. Like black armbands and yellow ribbons elsewhere, the shorts are Favre’s personal emblem of his commitment to keep working tirelessly until his community, which was caught in the deadly eye wall of Hurricane Katrina two years ago Wednesday, is “back.”
Favre, 53, has never said exactly what he means by “back,” and is still making up his mind whether it’s a dollar-value of rebuilding, tax revenue or a certain post-storm population level. But in dozens of interviews leading up to the two-year anniversary of the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history, Favre and other Hancock County residents made it clear that they are more relaxed and pleased than ever about how far back they have come since the storm killed 55 of their family members and neighbors, washed away thousands of homes and businesses and dramatically changed life here.
“I really don’t think at this point we could do things a whole lot faster,” said the soft-spoken Favre, sitting in his second-floor corner office in the comparatively luxurious new City Hall that Bay St. Louis has fashioned in a complex on Highway 90 that it purchased from the local electric utility. “We’ve come a long ways.”
That progress is reflected in the mood in Hancock County, which has shifted decisively. Gone are most doubts about how completely the coast will recover, replaced with confident musings about just how long it will be – three years, five, 10? – before the region surpasses what it was before the storm.
“I’ve been through it three times,” said Councilman Jim Thriffiley, ticking off Hurricanes Betsy, Camille and Katrina on his fingers. “Any time you have a disaster, people come back bigger and better.”
Similarly optimistic sentiments were voiced by local reporter Dwayne Bremer (“People are definitely upbeat.”) , Habitat For Humanity project manager Wendy McDonald (“It’s just different, healthier” than a year ago.) and insurance broker Dave Treutel (“How far we’ve come in two years is amazing.”).
Bridge reopening lifted spirits
Many residents say the community’s mood was lifted on May 17, when the largest lifeline to the east -- the rebuilt Highway 90 bridge over the Bay of St. Louis -- was opened. The span, which now stretches like a grazing reptile with its head in Harrison County and its tail in Hancock, drastically shortened a vital commute between Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis and immediately brought new business to Hancock County retailers.
A recent report from the Gulf Coast Business Council, titled “Two Years After Katrina,” paints a downright rosy picture on many economic issues, noting that annual retail sales in the three-county coastal area have increased 61 percent since before the hurricane; employment has risen by 41,000 jobs statewide from pre-Katrina levels, despite a 70,000-job loss immediately after the storm; more than 30,000 post-Katrina building permits have been issued; and population has returned to 97.5 percent of the pre-storm level.
Further, the report says, property values have increased in line with national figures; foreclosures aren’t nearly as bad as they are in the rest of the country; homeowners have received more than $1 billion in grants; the number of FEMA trailers being used to house residents has decreased from 43,000 to 16,000; the vast majority of storm debris -- 43 million cubic yards -- has been removed; and the casino industry is employing record numbers and generating record tax revenue.
Driving through Waveland and Bay St. Louis, there are now long stretches where a casual observer would have no notion of the wreckage that lay here 24 months ago.
“Once it has taken off, it has moved very, very well,” Hancock Bank Chairman George Schloegel said of the recovery.
Municipal projects move forward
Favre and his counterpart in Hancock County’s other incorporated city, Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo, say dozens of municipal projects are under way or soon to begin in their towns.
Favre said $100 million worth of infrastructure replacement and improvement is scheduled for Bay St. Louis.
Some $60 million worth of work already is under contract and much of it has started in Waveland, where Longo said most of the electrical and gas lines have been replaced, all drainage culverts completed and about a fourth of water and sewer lines placed back in service.
In near-triple digit heat, workers are placing tens of miles of new gas lines in Waveland. Pipe layer Chris Counts describes the effort.
Both mayors are pleased with the return of revenue to city coffers, with Longo saying that his town’s biggest source of funds -- sales tax -- has returned to where it was before Katrina and Favre pegging Bay St. Louis’ income -- heavily dependent on casino taxes -- at 85 to 90 percent of pre-storm levels.
“We’re way ahead of where everybody thought we should be,” said Longo.
The area’s art scene, long a key part of life on the coast, is thriving. Two Bay St. Louis art-related businesses, Clay Creations and The Artists of 220 Main, will be honored by the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce this week for helping to set the recovery pace by reopening so quickly after the storm. A number of local artists and writers have been honored with fellowships, awards and grants for Katrina-related projects.
But nobody is saying that everything is a plate of pecan pie.
It's not all rosy
The Business Council report notes that despite the unprecedented federal aid earmarked for the Katrina zone -- a total of $116 billion -- well less than half of the FEMA funds committed to replacing infrastructure and public buildings have been disbursed. For students in the Bay St. Louis-Waveland School District, that means they’ll continue to go to class in portable buildings that “are deteriorating as we speak,” Superintendent Kim Stasny recently told a congressional delegation visiting the area.
Waveland, Bay St. Louis and Hancock County also have millions in storm-related debt that will have to be refinanced or paid off somehow in the next few years.
“What comes in goes out,” said Longo. “We’re still pretty much hand-to-mouth.”
The flow of volunteers – instrumental in the recovery and rebuilding efforts -- is tapering off. Residential construction remains slow, and it remains unclear where the thousands of evacuees still housed by FEMA will live once the agency collects its travel trailers and ends rent subsidies.
“Half of Cedar Point is still vacant,” Favre said, referring to a community in his town. “All along the beachfront is still vacant. That’s a big concern because until we can get the people back home, we’re not going to be what we are and where we need to be.”
Longo has been perplexed by seemingly endless shifts in federal policies on everything from flood maps to tree-cutting. “Almost weekly, we get some strange edict from FEMA or Homeland Security,” he said.
Environmentalists remain concerned that the haste to rebuild will lead to poor decisions about what is constructed where, especially when it comes to the region’s fragile wetlands.
Jousting over land-use plans
And there is plenty of jousting over new land-use plans being developed by both the county and Bay St. Louis. The tussle highlights a clear split that existed before Katrina between residents who want to follow the advice of many national planning experts to preserve the region’s historic, small-town flavor and those who are excited by prospects of extensive casino and resort development that could create what they call “Vegasippi.”
The ugly battles over property insurance are still raging. Many homeowners and businesses are looking hopefully to a proposal by local Rep. Gene Taylor to add wind coverage to the federal flood insurance program as a step in the right direction, although its prospects in a mid-September House vote are far from certain. “It’s a political hot potato,” said Chris Roth of Hancock Insurance, but “it certainly has merit to it.”
Those concerns will be set aside for a while on Wednesday, when the county comes together to remember the disaster. While residents struggled at this time last year to conjure an appropriate one-year observance, many folks say that there was little hesitation about what to do this year.
Two years to the minute that Katrina’s waters began their awful rise, claiming most of their homes and businesses and far too many of their loved ones, the people of Hancock County will gather in the sticky morning heat at the Veterans Memorial at the foot of Coleman Avenue in Waveland.
Names will be read to honor not only the dead, but also the volunteers who have spent so many hours here. Elected officials, business leaders, pastors and priests will make remarks. Waveland’s refurbished warning siren will sound. A wreath will be placed in the Gulf of Mexico.
And when everything is said and done, most will turn and go back to work, including Eddie Favre, who will still be wearing shorts.
Bay St. Louis mayor Eddie Favre has't worn long pants since Hurricane Katrina. He describes what the shorts mean for him and the community.
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