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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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This project is evolving. Our daily dispatches coverage has been retired. Click here to see what happened in the area between mid October and January 1, 2006.

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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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99 COMMENTS

I still find it hard to beleive,but just keep the faith.God don't make no mistakes. he will help you to overcome.you all just dont let the government and big business run you all out.

2 years ago a 20 foot storm surge in Gauttier destroyed our new house with me, my wife and our dog in it. We moved into the house 3 days before the storm, (bad timing I think lol). We lived in a Days Inn located in Greenville Alabama for 26 days. After many long talks we decided to come back to Mississippi, we did so because of the quality of people that live here. It would have been easy to leave we lost everything. To date our total recover is $14.750 from FEMA (suprise Flood Insurance doesnt cover you for damage in the first 30 days of the policy). The decision to return may have been the best thing we have ever done. One year after the storm we started a Internet Marketing business and it is booming. We have purchased a damage house (far from the water) and we figure in 3 or 4 years we will no longer be on concrete floors). The storm washed away alot around here but the great people of Mississippi picked themselves up and went back to work (with the help of many volunteers) but in the end it was the heart and soul of the people that live that brought us back from Katrina. If you ever want to find the spirit that made America great come to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

Thank you to MSN for acknowledging the Mississippi Gulf Coast as being damaged by Katrina. I have looked on several web cites that only mention New Orleans. The national television media only talks about New Orleans. Once again, THANK YOU for not forgetting the Mississippians who are still working hard to recover.

This letter is very controversial to many Americans. We feel we should just use the big stick for our immigration policy. However, there are other forces. The Mexican drug lords are very strong. They can find many illegal immigrants to recruit form. I feel our immigration policy should also provide the carrot approach as well. We need to create economic opportunities south of the US-Mexican border. However the Mexican government needs to work positively with the US to keep corruption out. What will be saved in less expenditure for services such hospital emergency room visits. We create an incentive for immigrants to migrate back south of the border with economic incentives and services. We will all win.
We need to partner with top brains at our leading universities to create logical economic incentives and services south of the border. We need to make sure we do not spend more than what would be saved on services this side of the border. One such economic partnership with Mexico is to help rebuild New Orleans. We should only use American citizens to rebuild New Orleans. However many materials such as plywood, nails, and other building materials would be required to rebuild New Orleans. We could partner or create building companies south of the border to make and provide such materials.
With this type of partnership with Mexico, the US would save on services on this side of the border. In addition, building supplies could be made south of the border to rebuild New Orleans. Then later more materials could be made for our aging infrastructure.

The struggles still continue. Insurance companies don't pay. If you had insurance, whether good or bad, you don't get assistance from any other source. My house was a total loss. We recieved $22,000 from my insurance company(ALLSTATE), $1500 from FEMA, and $2000 from Red Cross. How do you tear down and rebuild a 2000 sqaure foot house for under $22,000?

Keep your heads up and pray each and everyday. Continue to have faith and everything will come together. Time heals all wounds and in time you can look back and be thankful and grateful at how far you've come.

It great to hear some optimistic news two years after Katrina. Everyday, we here in New Orleans, hear about how the city is struggling to come back and our crime is growing. It's good to finally hear something positive come from all we have gone through. I wish our neighbors to the east the best of luck. Continue to rebuild and strive to become the great community you were Pre-K.

Thanks for the update! It's heartening to read about the progress that has been made in Mississippi but I was sorry to read about people's insurance issues and the fact that school in Bay St. Louis and Waveland is still being held in portable buildings that are deteriorating. And I imagine other Gulf Coast communities are having similar problems. Would that the Bush Administration would redirect some of those billions being spent in Iraq towards the Gulf Coast to use for such things as building schools--the $116 billion that's been mentioned clearly hasn't been enough to do the job.

It's time the candidates of both parties and any serious third party visited Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and other communities in the area to see how recovery has been coming along--both the good and the bad. Because, while the progress that has taken place is better than nothing, there should have been more in the 2 years after Katrina. This needs to be a campaign issue. And I don't mean the candidates should have photo-ops like Bush has had on his trips to the storm zone--they should bring concrete plans with the means they will use to implement them if elected. Mayor Favre is right to be keeping his shorts on.

Having had the special opportunity to assist in the aftermath of Katrina as a Chicago police officer I must echo the statements made by some of those above. The treartment we were extended by the people we came in contact for the sixteen days of our deployment was the epitome of unselfishness in the face of unimaginable personal tragedies. To say we were treated as family does not even approach the sacrifices they made for our well being. We were made to feel as one of their own. This when the uncertainity of their own very existence was weighing upon them. I shall forever consider it an honor to have walked among such people. May God Bless you and protect you.

THANK YOU BAY ST LOUIS FOR ALLOWING US TO SERVE YOU.WE CAME DOWN 3WEEKS AFTER KATRINA TO HELP FROM BRUNSWICK,GA.WITH THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION DISASTER RELIEF TEAM.TO HELP.SINCE THEN A GROUP OF US FROM NORTHSIDE BAPTIST HAVE BEEN BACK 4 AND 5 TIMES.WE ARE COMING BACK NOV 3RD-9TH-07.WE STAY AT THE 1ST BAPTIST CHURCH THERE.EVEYONE HAS BEEN SO NICE AND HAVE MADE A LOT OF FRIENDS THERE AND WE LOVE YOU ALL.I KNOW GOD HAS DONE MANY THINGS THERE.PLEASE KEEP UP THE FAITH
SEE YA SOON.GOD BLESS

I just want to know if anything is being done about these insurance companies. It seems that they can always find a loop hole to keep from paying people who really need it.

I've gone down as a volunteer for the last two summers and have seen the remarkable recovery. But do not let this article fool you, there are still too many living in FEMA trailers and still much to be done to improve the human condition. This article focused too much on business, which is critical to the coast's recovery, but leaves one with the impression that things are back to normal. They are not.

We in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, thank each and every volunteer for the selflessness they have shown to us here in the storm-ravaged area. Yes, New Orleans always seems to be at the forefront, and I for one would like to thank MSNBC for recognizing that fact and continuing to cover our struggles. We would not have made it thus far with out the volunteers and the dissemination of information through the media. We still have a long way to go, but things are beginning to look somewhat better. Just don't forget us.

I guess I am a lucky person between the flood insurance, Road Home and SBA. I can build a stronger and higher house. I work for the city of New Orleans during and after big K, Driving around I stopped many times and thanked those who where helping others gutting houses etc. I was amazed at the numbers of people who came and helped those in need. Thanks to those who have come and are comming to help.

Myself and my husband moved to Dayton Ohio 8yrs. ago. We still have family in Mississippi and New Orleans. Jenise who owns Clay Creations is a very good friend of mine. I worked for her when she just had a cart at the River Walk in New Orleans. My house has many of her clay pieces and I always give the story behind them. Last year I brought home switch plates for friends. When we go home I always try to get to see her and her family. Enjoyed seeing her mom Nancy in April of this year. Jenise was on vacation. That is one woman that has a true passion for what she does. I admire her for getting up and running after the storm with of course help from her husband Mark and her parents. Her daughter Devon will become a strong young lady by having such a devoted mom. Keep up the good work and see yall next time we come home.

I am also glad to finally see some news on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Personally, I think New Orleans has received much more media attention because they have barked the loudest. Maybe the politians on the coast need to recognize this. If you are running low on volunteers, stand up and say it. I was raised in Long Beach for 18 years and I was devastated to go back to Mississippi 3 weeks after the hurricane and see my love distroyed. The people of Southern Mississippi are a resilient people and I am proud to call myself one of them. For the short time I was able to volunteer, I met people from all over this great country, but truely, America is defined by the strenght and courage of the people from Southern Mississippi. God Bless

Denial would be a better description than optimism. There is very little progress; Eddie Farve is a pariah, not a hero. Bay St Louis and Waveland governments are corrupt mockerys of democracy living a delusion. $23.5 billion has gone to the MS coast with very little to show for it on the western half.

I want to know why it's taking less time to rebuild the Gulf Coast than it is taking to rebuild Ground Zero.

For the billions we have spent to rebuild post Katrina I certianly hope there is optimism.

After living for 26 years on the Gulf Coast, My son and I have moved to Arkansas from Pascagoula, Mississippi here we owned a video game store before Katrina. It wasn't the storm that took everything--it was the looters AFTER the storm. Every day, in spite of 4' by 7' grids wired over the doors(that someone had broken out and started the looting during the storm), more and more product was stolen. They even brought in shopping carts and loaded out everything. I have been a widow for 13 years and was just trying to make a living for my son and myself. We could have recovered from the storm; but, not from the betrayal of the people who were probably our very own customers. You can not live where you can not trust.

My ENTIRE family was hurt from hurricane katrina...we are all new orleans and my heart goes out to everybody along the gulf coast...mississippi, louisiana, and alabama.

What a huge difference between a CAN DO city like Bay St. Louis and the CAN'T DO CITY OF ENTITLEMENT that is New Orleans.

I LIVE IN KILLEEN,TX IAM ORGINALLY FROM NEW ORLEANS AND NEED HELP FINDING OUT HOW THE RED CROSS IS ASSISTING RESIDENT IN COMEBACK TO THE CITY WHO WANT TO COME BACK.

All the politcians in Mississippi and Louisiana must be investigated regarding contracts awarded since Katrina and Rita hit.

Why isn't this happenning for News Orleans. Is The Fed Gov't practicing favoratism? Is this because of the racial makeup of the Ms. Gulf Coast and New Orleans? What's going on. Why can't we see this kind of progress in New Orleans.

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