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Desolation Row

In the ruins of coastal Mississippi, uncertainty reigns supreme.

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All these people that you mention

Yes, I know them, they're quite lame.

I had to rearrange their faces

And give them all another name.

Right now I can't read too good,

Don't send me no more letters no.

Not unless you mail them

From Desolation Row. -- Bob Dylan

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Lots of people in coastal Mississippi are thinking about desolation. They wake up to it every morning. From Hattiesburg to Gulfport, trees not snapped into twigs are bent like straws. In Biloxi, empty, bombed-out neighborhoods are strewn with broken lamps and muddy toys. The ravaged beaches are a mess of gutted mansions and twisted metal skeletons where fast food restaurants used to be. There are three operating casinos where once there were 13. Pass Christian is a mess; Bay St. Louis is a disaster; and Waveland looks like a sprawling landfill, where demolished cars are deposited on top of demolished cars and sofas dangle from the branches of uprooted oaks.

It's been six months since Hurricane Katrina carved a deadly 200-mile gash across the Magnolia State, killing 236 people, destroying 65,380 houses, and causing an estimated $125 billion in damage. To anyone who hasn't witnessed the digging-out process firsthand, it looks like Katrina hit yesterday.

On December 14th, the Biloxi Sun Herald devoted its cover to an editorial called the "The Invisible Coast," which documented known atrocities and begged the national media not to turn Mississippi's Katrina ordeal into a footnote to New Orleans.

"If I had 1,000 reporters and all the newsprint in the world, I couldn't tell all the stories that need to be told here," says Sun Herald executive editor Stan Tiner.

These are a few of those stories:

World Turned Upside Down

Hazel Raley is in a foul mood.

"I don't feel good mentally, physically, or anything else," she says, emerging from the Biloxi Community Center on Howard Street, a few blocks away from where she once lived. Raley, a housekeeper at Keesler Air Force Base, evacuated upstate before Katrina hit. When she came back to Biloxi, everything she had was gone.

"Everything but my car," she croaks, puffing on the butt of a bargain-brand cigarette. "I've lived in three different shelters since I got back. I finally got a FEMA trailer on the day before Thanksgiving, and believe me, I'm grateful for that."

You don't have to spend much time on the coast to discover that every Katrina victim's story is essentially the same, with subtle differences -- depending on how much they had, how much they lost, and how much more they stand to lose. Raley didn't have much to begin with: a plot of land where she's lived for 19 years and a trailer that was grandfathered in when Biloxi passed an ordinance banning mobile homes.

"[The city says] I can't put a trailer back on my property," she says glumly. "I'm supposed to get $15,000 in insurance, but I haven't seen a dime, and even if had the money it's not enough to build [with], so I'm essentially homeless."

Raley was housed at Biloxi High School until classes resumed and she was moved into the civic center. When the center was reclaimed by the city, she was moved into a military "hut." Now, she lives in a FEMA trailer on a community baseball field in D'Iberville. No matter how hard she tries to be optimistic, Raley can't escape the suspicion that, come springtime, somebody's going to want to play ball.

"I guess the worst part of it all is a feeling of uncertainty," she says. "The FEMA people are always coming around and reminding us to tell them when we move. I know you have to tell them when you move, but when they keep telling you over and over, it makes you feel unwelcome.

"I've asked [a city representative] if I can't afford to build a house on my property, what am I supposed to do? He said, 'I don't know. Sell it?'" The situation makes Raley feel helpless. "I feel like I've been lied to and pushed around," she fumes. "It's not like I want to be homeless. I've got a job. It's not like I'm too lazy to work.

"My whole world," she says, "has turned upside down."

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When asked what advice he might give to a person in Hazel Raley's situation, Biloxi's mayor, A.J. Holloway, is nothing if not honest.

"I don't know what to tell you," he says. "The oldest and the poorest section of Biloxi is a mixed-race community. The shotgun houses there were built on small lots before we had zoning or codes [governing elevation, types of housing, etc.]."

Holloway describes the situation as "difficult" and says neither the city nor the state can help these people rebuild. He floats the possibility of financing, tax credits, and HUD assistance, but he's uncertain about details.

"It's going to take the private sector to help us get through this," Holloway says. "If you accumulate land at a reasonable price and build multifamily housing, you'll fill it up."

In a destroyed city dotted with tents, trailers, and other makeshift housing, Raley's story is particularly resonant. At a recent Biloxi City Council meeting, Ward 6 councilman Ed Gemmill said some of his constituents were worried about the possibility of 120 FEMA trailers moving to a site near Water's View Drive, where some houses are worth more than $1 million. According to the Sun Herald, Gemmill didn't want to see those property values go down. Ward 1 councilman George Lawrence opposed the trailer park because some of the residents would "not necessarily be local."

"It's the old 'not in my backyard' thing," says Vincent Creel, public affairs manager for the city of Biloxi. "But you also have to ask, 'How temporary is temporary?' There are still pockets where we have 'temporary' housing from Camille. And if [you're going to put a trailer park] somewhere, you have to make sure there's infrastructure to support it, including water and sewer lines."

The land in question was already under consideration for a medium-density subdivision. The councilmen opposing the FEMA trailer park still approve of the original development plan.

Homeless Heroes

The Biloxi Community Center on Howard Street is a busy place. It used to host dances, wedding parties, and recreational events. Now it's the local FEMA headquarters and the temporary home of an organization called Midwest Help. Founded by former Biloxi resident David Romero, Midwest Help provides food, water, new clothes, diapers, and medical aid to the area's displaced citizens. The group also boasts a 56-computer network -- set up with help from Dartmouth College and the U.S. Department of Labor -- that helps those who've lost jobs prepare resumes and find work. On a slow day, Romero says 400 to 600 people come through the door. On a busy day, up to 1,000 people come in. Now Midwest Help is in danger of losing its home. According to Romero, the city has issued its third and final eviction notice.

"They said they don't think these people need our services anymore," he says. "The people who come here have lost everything, but apparently the city thinks otherwise. I've offered to pay [the city] more in rent than FEMA pays, but they won't take it. They just want us gone."

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Romero is originally from Biloxi but was living in Indiana when Katrina hit. He immediately set up a donation station and began collecting food, clothes, and water. The owner of an Indiana trucking company offered Romero a truck and two drivers to haul his load to Mississippi. Three days after Katrina hit, Romero rolled into Biloxi with 15 tons of relief supplies.

Romero discovered that other trucks were coming in with supplies, and nobody knew what to do with them. With the help of his crew and a local SWAT team, he set up a warehouse to receive donations, organized the relief trucks pouring into the area, and drove around the city handing out supplies.

Romero saw things he can't forget. "I watched this one kid climb over a pile of rubble trying to get to us. I saw a nail go through his hand and I couldn't take it anymore," he says. "I broke down."

At one point, Romero drove his truck to the national media's staging area at the Biloxi lighthouse, turned on his siren, and started shouting, "I've got breaking news." He caught the attention of CBS News and told reporters he had 95 tractor-trailer loads of supplies in a warehouse that needed to get to people who were hurting.

"When you have a natural disaster, you have to make sure you don't have a second disaster with the relief effort," says Vincent Creel. "[After the storm], all of our communications were down. Nobody [trucking in supplies] knew what to do with the stuff, so they would just dump all the clothes on a street corner or in a parking lot. When it rained, all those clothes were ruined, and it just became more we had to clean up."

Asked specifically if the city told Romero his services "weren't needed," Creel balks and praises the man behind Midwest Help. But his answer is a qualified yes.

"We need to make repairs on the Community Center," Creel says, adding that the center needs to be reclaimed for recreational programming.

"There's a Salvation Army providing the same services two blocks away," Creel explains. He also says that, unlike Romero, the Salvation Army has a "great" tracking system.

"[The Salvation Army] is capable of serving 5,000 prepared meals a day. They have a drive-through, and they are also offering financial services," Creel says. "Why have two [relief] locations in a two-block area?"

Creel's comments baffle Romero, whose database contains 3,000 addresses and tracks people both by their address before the storm and by their FEMA identification number.

"One box a day for one person from every address in the database," he says. "We gave away 25,000 new toys through our Christmas program, and I can give the city the name of every child who received a toy."

Exasperated by what he sees as Creel's unfair comparison to the Salvation Army, Romero says, "It's not like we're in competition. [The Salvation Army] does good things, but they don't do what we do. You can drive through the Salvation Army and get a peanut-butter sandwich in a box, but we've got food and brand-new clothes. We've got a clinic and computers. I don't think the Salvation Army has any of that.

"I've offered [the city] rent, and I've asked about buying the property [or a city-owned building across the street], but they aren't selling," Romero says. "The mayor won't return my calls. I've asked over and over why they want me out, and I've been given every excuse in the world and no reason."

Romero has his own theory about the city's reluctance to work with his group: "The reason is the [casino and condo] developers," he says. He speculates that new elevation standards and building codes will prevent many homeowners in his demolished neighborhood from rebuilding. "Right now, the mayor is looking at plans that involve leveling [this neighborhood]. ... This is all bad, dirty politics."

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Mayor Holloway disagrees:

"I think the biggest misconception about [the city's recovery efforts] is that people think we're trying to move them out of their neighborhoods, that [we want to] force buyouts, turn the land over to the casino and condo developers, and chase people out. A lot of people say we're catering to the casinos, but that's not true. The casino industry is the tide that will lift all boats and put 17,000 people to work. It's the tax base for the city. One of the rumors going around is that people are trying to buy up land to build golf courses. If they are, I don't know anything about it."

Romero and Midwest Help were evicted this week.

Rolling the Bones

"I was helping rescue people during the storm until I heard they were finding dead people, and I had to stop," says a goateed college student at Chili's in D'Iberville.

"I can't believe somebody hasn't shot an insurance adjustor yet," says a man on the street in Ocean Springs.

"I'm really just sick of talking about the storm," says a blackjack dealer in Biloxi.

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You can't pump gas, check into a hotel, or drink a beer on the Mississippi coast without hearing a story about Katrina. The only genuinely upbeat people around seem to be the casino managers. "People need an outlet for all their pent-up frustration," says Jon Lucas, general manager of the Imperial Palace. "They demand entertainment."

Lucas says revenues are up and that his casino now employs 700 more people than before the storm. He thinks Biloxi will be a $2 billion casino market in less than 10 years.

Mayor Holloway echoes the enthusiasm. He says the city has set aside 19 acres for new casino development.

"The new casinos coming into Biloxi think it's a strong market," Holloway says. "There will be 20 casinos in Biloxi in the next five to 10 years."

"The coast was right on the cusp of a huge boom when Katrina hit," says Hannah Silkman, media relations director for the Gulfport Convention and Visitors Bureau. "That boom's still going to happen. We have $2 billion in confirmed tourist-related development."

Bobby Weaver, Harrison County Sand Beach director, says some of Biloxi's beaches will be re-opened this spring. "It's a lot of work, and we're doing it in stages. The first stage is to remove the top layer of debris, and we're still in the midst of that phase. We use root-rakes to capture most of the large stuff. [Then] we use specialized equipment to screen the top 12 inches of sand."

But there is also the issue of water cleanliness. "We are concerned about the condition of the water," Weaver says. "There could be areas where there are vehicles or trees. [Cleaning the water] is a project involving the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard. It will be a two-year period at least before 100 percent recovery. A lot of issues -- insurance, zoning, etc. -- aren't finalized yet, and people are sitting idle with so much at stake. I suspect you'll see a lot more progress in the next six months."

Sun Herald editor Tiner agrees. "There's a lot of uncertainty right now. People can't just deal with all these unanswered questions and get back to their lives," he says. "But you have to understand, these are all the children and grandchildren of [Hurricane] Camille. They either lived through it or grew up hearing about how badly we were hurt. But we rebuilt. That's our legacy. Pride is an endearing characteristic of these people who've had the hell kicked out of them. They are very strong."


The Summons

A conversation with John Grisham.

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Ten days after Katrina hit Mississippi, best-selling author John Grisham, whose novels unfold in the humid territory between Memphis and Mobile, climbed aboard a Blackhawk helicopter for an aerial tour of the gulf. Staggered by what he saw, Grisham and his wife Renee started the charitable organization RebuildTheGulf.org and seeded it with $5 million of their own money.

Flyer: What was your first impression of the Mississippi coast after Katrina?

Grisham: I was stunned. Nobody had started cleaning up yet. There were no FEMA trailers on the ground. I thought the place would be crawling with National Guardsmen and it would look like the stuff I'd seen on TV, but everything had a deserted, empty feeling.

Why did you start your own organization, instead of giving to an established charity?

After 9/11, I wrote a check to a fund set up by Bill Clinton and Bob Dole for scholarships for the children of 9/11 victims. I'm glad I did, but I always wished I could have seen who the money went to. Renee and I decided we would administer this fund and make sure that the money gets to people who need it the most.

In addition to writing checks to individuals, you're working to develop affordable housing, right?

We're working with architects to develop modular, workable homes that can be built in a factory and shipped out. These will be real, environmentally sustainable houses -- not a trailer.

What do we need to know about RebuildTheCoast.org?

It's not a permanent charity, and we're going to spend all the money. We've raised about $9 million, and we continue to attract more donations, although they have fallen off a lot [over the last few months]. Every night, Renee and I sit down with a stack of letters from people who've lost everything. We look at their ruined houses, and every letter breaks your heart. We evaluate a dollar amount, and we write a check.

And when the money runs out?

There will probably be more projects, and I'll put in more money. I want to work on smart building, to help the smaller towns plan better and adopt better codes. -- CD

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