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Katrina fuels a real estate boom

Amid all the debris in Biloxi and elsewhere on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, there are signs that Hurricane Katrina may be fueling a new real estate boom — topping the one already started years ago by the casinos.

In real estate offices, phones are ringing off the hook with storm victims listing even damaged homes for top dollar.

“If they end up selling their property to go buy or build something else,” explains real estate agent Sarah Rider, “they've got to get as much as they can out of it.”

Housing is in such short supply that homes spared by the storm sell almost immediately.

Melanie Gary just sold her house for much more than she would have gotten before Katrina.

“We could have gotten $140,000 prior to the storm,” says Gary, “and we're taking an offer of $170,000 now.”

It's widely believed here that developers will soon buy up whole blocks of destroyed homes to make room for lucrative casinos, condos and entertainment complexes. But in damaged low-income neighborhoods, renters fear they will be edged out for good.

“There's so many poor people that need a place to live,” says Biloxi resident Frankie Wheaton, “and I don't think they should come in here and hog all the property up.”

City councilman Bill Stallworth says the real estate boom could change the character of this historic city.

“The generational people, they're going to be gone,” says Stallworth. “And what they're going to be replaced by are people who are looking to make a quick buck.”

In a particularly cruel blow, Katrina destroyed more than two-thirds of Biloxi's public housing units, and there's no money yet to rebuild them.

“All the wealth and industry that's coming is going to depend on people who need affordable housing to service this industry,” says Steven Palazzo with the Biloxi Housing Authority.

While most here see the real estate boom as a key to economic recovery, others fear it's not for everyone.