Governors attending their national convention on Mississippi's Gulf Coast have seen signs of Hurricane Katrina recovery — glitzy casinos packed with tourists, new condominium towers rising along the beach, the major expansion of a bustling state port.
However, unless the state executives skip the receptions with cocktails and jumbo shrimp, they probably won't see the neighborhoods reduced to vacant lots and detached concrete steps to front porches that no longer exist four years after the monster storm. They won't see the roads still torn up in the tiny town of Waveland or learn about the lagging city services in Pass Christian, where the tax base has eroded because its beachside Wal-Mart was gutted by Katrina and is still being rebuilt.
"It's changed a lot. Nothing is like it was," lamented Steve Kuljis, a mechanic who has lived most of his 59 years on Biloxi's Point Cadet, a blue-collar neighborhood obliterated by Katrina's winds and storm surge.
Point Cadet sits on a mile-wide peninsula between the Gulf of Mexico and the Back Bay of Biloxi. On Aug. 29, 2005, Katrina — the same storm that devastated New Orleans — flooded the low-lying area and turned the modest wooden-framed bungalows into toothpicks. It heaved boats on shore and sucked entire households full of belongings out to sea.
It was a neighborhood of fishermen and shipyard workers, of families whose last names were French, Slavic and Vietnamese. Many of the homes had been passed from generation to generation, and many were uninsured or underinsured.
Few people could afford to rebuild, and "for sale" signs now dot dozens of grassy vacant lots. A few homes have been rebuilt to meet new flood elevation requirements, though most former Point Cadet residents have moved farther inland.
Bitterness over New Orleans attention
Locals still talk about Katrina with a mixture of awe, anger and sadness. They're grateful to the volunteers who cleaned debris and fed the hungry. But a bitterness creeps into people's voices as they talk about New Orleans getting most of the media attention after Katrina, when the levees burst and the city flooded.
"New Orleans was not on the bad side of the storm. It's the coast itself that was so tore up," said 62-year-old Leon Balius, a retired shipyard worker who lives in Biloxi.
Katrina scraped across southern Louisiana before making its final landfall near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, about 50 miles west of New Orleans and 40 miles east of Biloxi.
Mississippi's Republican governor, Haley Barbour, had been in office just more than a year and half when Katrina hit. With the help of Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, who chaired the Appropriations Committee when Republicans were still in the majority, Barbour used his connections to help his state get $5.4 billion in federal recovery aid.
Most of Mississippi's federal Katrina money has been used to restore housing. Advocates for the poor have criticized Barbour for diverting some of the money into expanding the Mississippi State Port at Gulfport — a project Barbour defends as economically necessary.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said 52,512 houses or apartments in Mississippi suffered severe or major damage in Katrina.
Housing stock nearly back to pre-Katrina
Mississippi Housing Recovery Data Project said the housing stock in Mississippi's three coastal counties in mid-2008 was at 92 percent of its pre-Katrina level. The project estimates that by mid-2011, the area's housing stock will be at 104 percent of its pre-Katrina level. Most of the 43,000 trailers and mobile homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the storm are no longer occupied.
This weekend marked the first time since 1935 Mississippi hosted the National Governors Association convention. Barbour, who's often knocked Barack Obama's spending plan, has toned down the partisan remarks and taken the opportunity to show off his state's progress.
"All of this area was devastated, but as you can see a tremendous comeback has been made," Barbour said during the convention's opening news conference, with the state port as the backdrop.
As about half the nation's governors socialized over Gulf Coast seafood and Delta blues, though, a couple dozen locals gathered Friday a couple miles away for karaoke, catfish and cold beer at the Fleur De Lis Society lodge on Point Cadet. The social club for people of French ancestry opened in 1934, and its steel-frame building was gutted by Katrina. The new building has been open for about a year, on the same site.
Kuljis has rebuilt his one-story home on Point Cadet, with the help of a federal grant. He credits Barbour with securing that money — and he said he never considered abandoning his home.
"You're either going to roll over and give up," Kuljis said, "or get up and keep going."