Joe Spraggins knows it will take stockpiles of food, water and fuel and better evacuation routes to survive if the Gulf Coast gets hit by another monster storm this coming hurricane season.
What the Harrison County emergency management director cannot fully plan for is the psychological toll another hurricane could exact on residents struggling to rebuild their lives after Katrina.
“They’re already at the point of breaking,” he said. “If we have another storm of any size this summer, mental health is going to be a huge issue.”
Katrina laid waste to tens of thousands of homes and businesses and killed more than 1,300 people in Louisiana and Mississippi. Now, less than two months before the next hurricane season starts June 1, overworked officials and frazzled homeowners are bracing for the possibility of another killer storm in a region where thousands still live in government-issued trailers or under blue tarps.
This hurricane season could be more brutal than last year’s, when a record-setting 27 storms, including 15 hurricanes, churned in the Atlantic Ocean. Forecasters say the Atlantic is in a period of increased hurricane activity that could last another a decade or longer.
Even a weaker storm than Katrina could be devastating, wiping out much of the modest progress that has been made and sweeping away the little trailers.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour calls this a “critical period of vulnerability.”
“We’re going to pray for the best but prepare for the worst,” he said.
Spraggins, whose territory includes Katrina-battered Gulfport and Biloxi, said the county is devising a new emergency plan to replace the old one.
Katrina made a mockery out of federal, state and local emergency plans. Evacuation routes were clogged, communications were spotty, and emergency supplies were not positioned to arrive quickly in the areas of greatest need.
“We will never be prepared to take a Katrina, but we will be prepared to do a lot better than we did the last time,” Spraggins said.
In Mississippi, about 99,000 people are living in more than 36,000 FEMA trailers and mobile homes. In Louisiana, more than 51,000 trailers dot the landscape.
Many people whose homes were demolished by Katrina also lost cars and trucks, meaning it could be difficult for them to get out if another storm threatens. As a result, evacuations will start earlier and will be conducted more often, Barbour warned.
“We’re going to have to decide earlier to evacuate because it’s going to take longer,” Barbour said. “And also, because of the flimsiness of the travel trailers, we will probably evacuate sometimes when we didn’t really need to. But we can’t take the risk because the travel trailers are extremely vulnerable.”
Likewise, the coast’s natural defenses have never been weaker. Katrina, followed by Hurricane Rita a month later, ripped apart a band of barrier islands and wetlands that help soften a hurricane’s blow.
“These barrier islands are in many places the first line of defense for the mainland,” said Abby Sallenger, an oceanographer for the U.S. Geological Survey. “If we have another hurricane hit, how much worse will the impact be?”
Economy in tatters, too
Katrina also left the region’s economy in tatters, especially in New Orleans.
A report issued in February by Louisiana-based economist Loren Scott found that metropolitan New Orleans’ employment rate remained 32 percent below its pre-Katrina peak, or down 198,000 jobs. Scott worries that a lot of employers will give up if another destructive storm hits New Orleans.
“All of these companies are willing to be part of the ‘Save New Orleans’ movement once,” he said. “I just wonder if they’re willing to be part of it twice.”
Katrina dealt a crippling blow to southern Mississippi’s economy, as well, but its casino industry is recovering and the scenic 70-mile coastline has condominium developers salivating.
“People still want to have their home or condominium look out on the water, and that’s going to remain a serious draw,” Scott said.
Katrina destroyed Daniel’s South Beach Restaurant and Bar, a beachfront watering hole in Bay St. Louis that Ray Murphy’s family has operated for more than 25 years. Murphy is about to reopen the restaurant in an old Knights of Columbus hall, about a half-mile from the beach.
Murphy said the threat of another destructive hurricane never factored into his decision to rebuild.
'Not ready to throw in the towel'
“One of these days, I’m going to give it up — but not yet,” he said. “I’m not ready to throw in the towel.”
Neither is Scott Oliver, a longtime Gulfport resident. On a cement slab with a clear view of the beach, he is building a storm-resistent “fort” to replace the quaint wood-frame house that Katrina blasted into splinters and shards.
Oliver poured the first two concrete walls — 12 feet high and 12 inches thick — in early March, copying features of buildings that survived Katrina.
“I had a structural engineer tell me the first floor would qualify as a tornado shelter,” boasted Oliver, 59, a project manager for a building contractor.
Oliver started drawing the blueprints less than a week after Katrina. But first he had to convince his wife, Caprice, that rebuilding so close to the coast is not foolish or reckless. The thought of losing everything — again — is almost unbearable.
Said his wife: “I don’t necessarily believe that’s the last Katrina we’re going to see.”