Hello From A Ravaged Gulf Shore
Katrina Knocked The ’WE’ Out of Mississippi’s Welcome
Where Do You Put 50 Million Cubic Yards of Debris?
Written by Duane Bradford. Last updated Tuesday February 7th, 2006
By DUANE BRADFORD
GULFPORT, Miss. - The sight of the miles of hurricane destruction along the Gulf beach drive in Biloxi, Mississippi is such a shock that I barely notice the effort of lugging all of my gear up the 56 stair steps of the hotel here to my room on the fifth floor. The elevator is still out of order.
It is five months since Katrina roared ashore here, but the thrust of the message spray painted on one building along the devastated Gulf beachfront still tells the story clearly: “You Loot, We Shoot.”
As a disaster assistance employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, I had been sent here to relieve one of my colleagues in the challenging world of communicating - I use that word guardedly - with the media. Ever since CNN’s Anderson Cooper tearfully raged at us for not doing anything, it has been catch-up ball all the way.
I have driven into or out of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I suppose, a hundred times or more during the last 50 years as we Floridians visited my wife’s family in Louisiana. A visit in Biloxi after Hurricane Camille startled us. But this time is not an ordinary visit. You can tell things are going to be different in Mississippi when, upon crossing the eastern border from Alabama on Interstate Highway 10, the welcome sign reads: “lcome to Mississippi.” Hurricane Katrina had knocked the “We” out of Mississippi’s welcome, but there are far more pressing repairs needing attention in the task of bringing the Magnolia State back to where it was before Category Five winds of 175 miles-an-hour and a storm surge of some 20 to 30 feet arrived last Aug. 29.
The next state highway sign is a little banged up and slightly askew. Down on U.S. Highway 90, the top of two bolts holding the highway sign on a pole had disappeared, letting the sign roll upside down to tell motorists they are driving on Highway 06. At the I-10 welcome station, there is a restriction on the entry of busses. But the coffee is hot, and road maps are still available. The Highway 90 bridge is still out, said the attendant, edges of its section spans collapsed into the water like dominoes. But most other roads are open.
Westward along the Interstate highway, the pine trees are leaning to the north, more graphic evidence of the intensity of Katrina’s strength as the storm bounded north from the Gulf shore a few miles south of the road. Advertising signboards lean wildly or are left with just the two steel support poles and a blank spot where the sales pitch had long ago flown north.
At the I-10 exit to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, a major exit, businesses are stirring again. Gas pumps are busy. Store cash registers jingle. Fresh “We Are Open” signs tell of the Isle of Capri casino down on the beach. And over on State Road 4, long lines of patient customers await their turn in checkout lines to give WalMart some of their earnings. A car dealer is offering a “special military” sale. It is a Sunday afternoon, and traffic is heavy going due south off I-10 toward Biloxi and a junction with the old U.S. Highway 90 that parallels the shore for the miles between Biloxi and its westward neighbor, Gulfport.
Lodging facilities are stretched thin along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but the hotel room here is clean and neat. The message given to incoming guests, however, still contains a few grim hints of the disaster that forced about 89,000 Mississippians into 33,000 travel trailers and mobile homes provided by the nation’s taxpayers through FEMA.
Glass: watch out for it when walking in the area. Some of it could have been carried into the carpets on shoe bottoms.
Curfew: The military is still strictly enforcing a curfew between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. in a strip of Gulfport between the beach and the railroad tracks paralleling the beach a few blocks away. This complements the words sprayed on damaged structures notifying everyone that looters will be shot.
Elevator and Phone service: No room phones or elevator service yet.
Guests are housed only on the upper floors. (Hint: the storm surge pushed a raging 20 or 30-foot high wall of water ashore.) Guests hope the lower floors are not overtaken with black mold.
“Boil Water” warning is over for Gulfport. I still buy water anyhow.
How exquisite my timing today. As I fold myself into a chair and begin to catch the breath I lost in my climb up stair steps to my floor, I aim the television remote gadget to the tube and click the “TV” button. And there, on C-Span, is our defrocked FEMA leader, Michael Brown, making a speech to a gathering of media at a California meeting of some kind. He is confessing error for some of his actions or inactions during the early hours of Katrina’s arrival in New Orleans. There were no mayors or governors or congressmen or state legislators; no bureaucrats; no media (for a few pretty grievous examples of reporting); none of we citizens, for that matter, joining him at the podium in accepting a share of blame. For, in truth, without diminishing Brown’s culpability one inch, there is enough blame left for all of us to bear for the utter failure to adequately deal with such a catastrophe.
But Mike Brown does something else. Although I cannot recall hearing any loud protestations made by him or anyone else at the time, he tells us about the $80 million of funds in effect cadged from FEMA’s budget by the administration, and the large number of unfilled positions of emergency workers it caused. And he warns of the impending breakup of critical emergency response and disaster recovery operations of the agency by the Department of Homeland Security. Just how effective his emergency management opinions are at this point, however, is debatable.
What is not debatable, though, is the clear impression given by the administration of George W. Bush that the Federal Emergency Management Agency never occupied a position of significance in the overall scheme of government responsibilities. It was a good place to install political friends and from which to grab budgetary funds in the name of the Never-Ever-To-End (NETE) fight against terror (as if there was no terror to Mississippians who listened helplessly to the night howls of Hurricane Katrina). How well I remember hearing the President declare early in his presidency that FEMA’s Project Impact, a premier program designed to reduce the impact of future disasters around the nation and one of the best things the agency had ever promoted, was a failure and would be ended.
Turns out the President may have been playing more on the political aspect of the program that was designed and ardently championed at every turn by James Lee Witt, a bona fide emergency manager appointed by President Clinton to lead FEMA from the disaster doldrums after Hurricane Andrew. Now, the name of Witt’s program no longer exists. It has been excised. And FEMA’s acting director no longer occupies an important seat, on the President’s Cabinet as Witt did. But the idea of mitigation has not ceased - in all likelihood because state and local politicians and their Congressmen think it is a pretty darned good idea to reduce the grief of future disasters by splitting the costs with locals to induce the construction of better, stronger, storm resistant mousetraps. But President Bush, nonetheless, did send a clear, highly negative message regarding FEMA, and the agency has skittered downhill since.
We plod along attempting to help Katrina’s victims recover from their enormous losses, however. And right now, a lot of money, many headaches and thousands of hours of heavy toil have gone into that effort. So far, more than Four Thousand Three Hundred Million Dollars (I think that is more understandable than the $4.3 billion explanation we see tossed about) - Four Thousand Three Hundred Million Dollars - has been approved to help this recovery process in Mississippi alone.
While there are still complaints about why it takes so long to deal with a disaster that impacted 92,000 square miles and a million people here, the recovery corner is slowly beginning to be turned. Nearly 500 temporary school classrooms have been erected. Fifty million cubic yards of debris? That’s what they’re guessing will have been removed in Mississippi alone by the end of spring. They’re just over 30 million now.
But a few nice letters arrive every now and then, and the business people in the Biloxi and Gulfport areas are beginning to smile as they notice the return of flocks of customers and hear the cash registers click and whir. There are “can-do” billboard messages. P.J.’s coffee shop is a true oasis with internet access with overstuffed chairs. And you have not seen a winter sunrise unless you view the pastel shades of yellows and pinks paint the morning Gulf sky behind Los Tres Amigos on Pass Road. It is a day of hope for the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The picture isn’t so pretty for an emergency management agency that was so effectively built after the lesson of Hurricane Andrew. FEMA’s likely dissection and likely diminution after Hurricane Katrina does not bode well for building better disaster responses and recoveries for Americans.
It is so unfortunate, isn’t it, that there is no terror involved in a natural calamity. Were there terror, things might be different.