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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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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

To Paul from Richmond Va... Groud Zero, or the World Trade Center, is a building. The Gulf Coast includes several cities and communities, perhaps that is why. These people need a place to live not just work.

I can't say I understand what all those affected by Katrina are going through. However I can say that my heart goes out to every single person involved. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. We are lucky enough to live in part of the world which has not seen the likes of a storm like Katrina, but who can sympathize with those who have suffered extreme despair and loss.
I wanted to let people know that as far away as we are, our love and support goes out to all those touched by Katrina.

When Hurricane Fran went through Wilmington, NC, a resident of Wrightsville Beach, standing in front of his pretty much devastated house, was asked how he felt about it. His reply was, "well, it was nice the other 364 days this year". A fine upbeat attitude, but one that will lead to further chaos and destruction. Humans have a brain that we seem, somehow, to be able to turn off at any time. Hurricanes do happen, and they recur. The same Wilmington NC had seven in four years. When folks rebuild in these disaster-prone areas they bank on those "other 364 days", and easily forget the Big One. It seems to me that if your house is in a flood plain, or a tidal surge zone that intelligence says "move elsewhere". I, for one, don't think that my tax dollars should go to pay for stupidity. Everybody is at some risk, no doubt, but to place oneself in a very high-risk setting and then expect government to bail you out when "it" happens is a real and serious imposition on not only intelligence but on our collective tax dollars as well. Let's leave the beaches bare, for sunbathing, swimming, fishing etc. Let's leave the flood-prone and tidal surge-prone areas for the floods and tidal surges, as the grand designer of nature intended.

Almost two years ago, my life was forever changed. I lived in New Orleans East with my spouse and three kids.Within in a matter of days we were homeless, hungry, and forgotten about.My kids attended four schools within a two month time period.I was born and raised in New Orleans and lived there all my life until August 29, 2005. I have never been so disappointed in not only our local goverment, but the federal goverment as well. Now two years later and my city, our city still looks as though Katrina hit yesterday in some areas. I think it's really, really sad that there are still people out there with no jobs, or a stable place to live.I can honestly say that it will be hard to move back to a city where we are looked down upon even today. Treated as though we deserve to live a certain way. I never lived in any projects in that city nor did any of my family before me.But, these days I count my blessings. GOD has blessed my family trmendously. I have a beautiful home in a newly developed subdivision. I'm attending school full time, and I have a new job in law enforcement.So, for me Katrina was a good thing. I will continue to pary for all me fellow New Orleanians. GOD BLESS!!!!

Things here is Pascagoula, Gautier, Ocean Springs are starting to show some real progress. And best of all we are starting to see smiling faces from the locals on a daily basis! We know we still have a long way to go, but for many of us the 2 year anniversary is going to mark how far we have come rather than how far we have to go. MSNBC - thank you for remembering us in Mississippi!

"Two Years After Katrina, optimism returning to region"??? Are you kidding???

"SENSE OF OPTIMISM TAKES SEED"

It is certainly not my intention to come off as sounding negative, but I absolutely do not sense that optimism is taking seed here, especially not so in the New Orleans region.

There is a great majority of our population that still does not see a glimps of light at the end of the tunnel. As a result, mental health decline has become a dangerouly worrisome issue throughout our society; in addition, it is clearly not being dealt with efficiently, nor effectively.

Sorry, but I feel that the headline title of this article is a Pseudo Truth. Hopefully one day the title of this article will reighn true.

I have been down 2 years in a row working with Langiappe Church http://www.lagniappechurch.com/ with others from our church www.Westcog.org to help in the rebuilding effort. When I was was there this past July I could really see a huge difference from the previous year. A true sign that christians are doing what it takes to help those in need.

To the lady that has only received $22,000. I would like to know where all the money went to that people donated. I am from Ohio I sent money. there was millions collected. Why hasn't this woman received the donated money. Andrea, columbus ohio

Great to see Miss recovering. Send some of your people to New Orleans to show them the government can't do it all. But then again they re-elect Ray so I don't think there are very many self sufficient people left there.

We here in New Orleans could learn from our Mississippi neighbors. I can tell you down here the criminals are much more efficient at rebuilding their community than the regular politicians (mostly amateur criminals in their own right).

New Orleans needs to stop crying and start working.

I have recently returned from a few days in the Long Beach - Bay St. Louis area, and was shamed at the slow progress being made to return your communities and your lives back to their pre-Katrina levels. You deserve so much more support and less red tape in your battle to return your lives to normal. I feel your pain deeply for I was one of the victims of the Flood of '93 along the Mississippi River, and I too spent countless days and weeks "dancing with the Feds" until the new post-disaster programs were developed and implemented. The tragedy is that many of the programs which are being developed to aid your communities are very similar to the same ones that FEMA, Federal and local governments developed to handle our disaster more than a decade ago. I have never been able to understand why we have to reinvent the wheel everytime disaster strikes.

Keep the faith, friends....I can tell you from experience there are much better times ahead although it will most likely be years before the rainbow appears to signify the end of your struggle. Bless you all and know that some of us are still...and will always be behind you in your efforts to rebuild and return home.

Why is anyone suprised that the Gulf Coast is still in disrepair after Katrina? We still have not recovered fully from Opal or Ivan. Shops that were once thriving before Opal were permanently closed, the same goes for Ivan. Fly over Pensacola and you'll still see homes with a blue roof (although those are falling down for the most part). As with all things the corruption, pointing the blame finger at everyone else, and overall incompitence we allow those we elected is staggering. From the lowest city level manager to the President. All promises for the TV photo-op, but when push comes to shove these people are no where to be found. When I viewed the news reports after Katrina and people were saying how fast the gulf would recover, all I could do was pinch myself because I was certain I had slipped into an alternate universive. Come to find out it was only rhetoric.

It is hard to describe the feelings that come and go since Katrina two years age. I do see progress on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but more would have/be going on if the insurance companies would have set up to the plate and taken care of people like they stated they would. They were trusted and let so many people down.

It's funny to read the comments about how New Orleans seems to get all the attention. Over here in Louisiana the complaint is how Mississippi gets a larger share per capita of the federal dollars than Louisiana because of the Republican MS governor and the Republican White House being in cahoots. I think we all have something to complain about down here when it comes to government efforts. The Gulf Coast region is being rebuilt by good people in both states pretty much by themselves and with volunteers from all over the USA (God Bless Them All).

I have to correct several miss characterizations from previous comments..First, there is no 30 day waiting period if you are closing on a house..and why would anyone move into a house on the coast with a hurricaine in the gulf? I would have found a reason to delay the closing......And the lady in Louisiana who only got $22,000...why didn't she have flood insurance? That would have paid for her loss! If she was in New Orleans (below sea level) it should be criminal not to have the inexpensive policy ...why do we as a society have to keep bailing people out who are irresponsible?

Paul from Richmond Ground Zero SHOULD NOT be rebuilt. It is now the resting place for many americans who died on that tragic day. There should be no building on top of it. Would you put a building on Grandmas grave?

I just recently visited New Orleans and it is a visit that will stay with me forever. I am apalled at how little has been done in the time since Katrina.(by the government, not the people of New Orleans and the countless volunteers) I think any who can, should go see for themselves what has happened since the storm. I agree that it should be a campaign issue. We should be ashamed of what has happened in our own country.

I am going to Mississippi on a Mission Trip to help rebuild in October. I'm glad to see optimism despite the work and healing still left to be done.

The South was hit pretty hard by Katrina, not only New Orleans. But that is where the media headquartered their collective efforts to show the world just how slow the wheels of the United States government turn. If Katrina would have hit another country, the bush administration would have been at the front of the line preparing assistance to send there. The Katrina-hit Gulf Coast is making a remarkable recovery, in some aspects. But the shameful part of it is whenever the actors, musicians, and prominent celebs that are so active in rebuilding stop their support, all that the South will have to fall back on is the same administration that was retardedly slow at the outbreak of Katrina.

Granted Katrina was a disaster but to call it the most destructive hurricane in U. S. history is inaccurate and shows the rating is only based on dollars (i.e. property value). The hurricane of 1900 that hit Galveston, Texas killed over 6,000 people (this number can be verified on the Internet under Hurricane of 1900, Storm of 1900 as they were not named then). Many of the bodies could not be buried as the earth was too wet and were floated out into the Gulf on wooden barges and set afire along with the bodies of horses, cattle, dogs, cats, etc. I realize that the media likes to sensationalize everything to attract viewers ("the worst ever", "the largest ever", etc.) but Katrina comes no where near the Hurricane of 1900 in loss of human life which is the only constant and thus the only logical method to rank natural disasters. Unfortunately, much of the heartache associated with Katrina in New Orleans proper was caused AFTER the storm had already passed by the evil and crime that ran rampant throughout the city.

Hurricane Katrina left many people in ruins! That which was really "eye opening" was the lack of opportunity provided for those living in poverty. And those left behind were truamatized for many days waiting for rescue. Who are the "people" living in the FEMA trailers? Why is it that we are rebuilding in an area where this could all happen again? If I were living in an area where danger lurked so closely, I would not wish to put my family through such a devastating experience a second time. And yet, I have never had to endure such a disasterous experience. For everything that has been mentioned above, what about the people who had nothing to begin with...poverty is everyday, all day. We are not rebuilding for the poor, that's what the trailers were for. However, the trailers are now in ruins because of the area in which they have been placed. If the trailers are in ruins, we can only imagine what this is doing to the health of the people who live there. This area is polluted with molds, destruction beyond the city that has yet to be attended to, the decay of the deceased, the run-off of many types of contaminants (including raw sewage) and so much more! Why not move in land and rebuild, you could still have New Orleans with quality air to breate?
As one of millions who sat glued to the TV when all of this happened, a nation horrified by what had transpired. I am amazed that people are rebuilding this city and how much will flood insurance cost once completed? Will you be able to get flood insurance? And do the taxpayers come to the aid of such a crisis again? We can't control "Mother Nature." So when the next hurricane comes a shore, New Orleans is devastated yet again. Will you be able to rebuild yet again? Why not build below sea level? You will have a city in ruins again, should a hurricane come through again. Are you serious...what a terrible waste of money, when there are so many in America who don't know when their next meal will be.

I have an Associate Degree in Civil Engineering .
Geodetic homes and round buildings ,one style can take a 400 mph wind.Foolish builders and zoning codes won't let the round bulidings built for job security by letting the storms periodically ruin the hurricane areas,and politicians and zoning codes do not think the structures look pretty enough so Geodetic round structures are outlawed in many Southern areas,so I say let the Hurricanes wipe em out like the 1968 205 mph Huricane Camille ,remember if it falls apart it creates jobs for the greedy and geodetic homes are cheaper and safer so I say let em all fall down again if they don't want to build right,bring it on to Orleans again,politicians never will build it right.

as a little girl, my family and i would travel from alexandria, louisiana, during august to the gulf coast for a week vacation. this back in the 50s. i remember the stately mansions, the salt water taffy, sea shells made into lamps (i wish i still had one of those!!) the lighthouse, and the wonderful smell of the salt water. later, i lived in longbeach then gulfport for about a year or so.you could buy fresh shrimp off the boat for 50 cents a pound!
i can't imagine the destruction, it's been easily 30 years since i visited down there, but would love to see the rebuild. my heart cried when i saw the images of the damage, it was so lovely. reading through the comments it was so heartening to 'see' the love and caring for the gulf area that shines through each message.but i wanted to ask something about other regions that have been destroyed by hurricanes...places i am still hearing about that have not yet recovered and people are still living in tents etc...can this be true of south florida..from the destruction that andrew caused in 92? that's 15 years ago....how can this be possible? does anyone know if this is true?

The Katrina volunteers did most of the work in New Orleans gutting the houses as the home owners sat on their porches watching not lifting a finger to help. It was a sad sight to see. New Orleans is a unique city with a culture all it's own. They beg for help but want no controls on how the money is spent while the politicians back pockets fill up with cash. Two more corrupt New Orleans officials are up on charges since last week. And the residents wonder why more help isn't coming. Rebuild the 9th ward. It wasn't worth anything before the storm. The 9th ward is not safe to live in and the rest of the city is following suit with the crime, drugs, murder capital of the USA and on and on...Just tear it down and start over again.

my daughter lives in new orleans and works for habitat for humanity. i visited there in may 2007.the people who remain love this city with all their hearts.but the constant frustration and one step forward, six steps back daily movement is depressing and heartbreaking.the people count on each other, not our government.it is a sorry commentary on the priorities of our elected officials;it's like living in a third world country.God bless all of you.

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